Needfinding in Airports


For my Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) course at Emory University, I was tasked with finding problems in current airport infrastructure and spaces. Let’s face it — compared to riding cars, buses, and trains, taking flights is more of a hassle than it needs to be; we track and book cheap tickets in advance, find creative ways to condense all of our belongings into cases, and endure security checkpoint lines. In exchange, planes take us distant places conveniently, but how convenient and accessible is the process in taking flights?


From my last experience at the airport, I remember waiting for the train at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to take me to my concourse and gate. Then, suddenly a panicking non-English speaker approached me asking for help and guidance to her concourse. I tried my best to point her in the right direction, but I cannot say I was successful in communicating these instructions. She quickly wandered off. I reflected on this interaction for some time. I wanted to do more, but I couldn’t. Then I thought about other people who got lost and the rush of overwhelming emotions, anxiety, and panic they may have endured to catch their flight. In general, entering a new airport space can be overwhelming. People will inevitably get lost and not know where to go. These feelings are further amplified by factors, such as time sensitivity from flight arrivals, security checkpoint delays, and high traffic of people.

Photo by hiurich granja on Unsplash


Travelers will navigate at least two airports in their trip from departure and arrival. These airports will have different structures, pathings, and infrastructure. How does one efficiently and confidently navigate the airport space? What is the fastest route between important points in an airport (e.g. for departures: drop-off, baggage check-in, security, amenities, gate check-in)?

Additional motivations for this problem include:

  • How to minimize conflicts that induce anxiety?
  • Can travelers navigate spaces independently?
  • What tools may travelers have to facilitate navigation?
  • How comfortable do travelers feel exploring the airport?
Photo by Andy Beales on Unsplash

Methodology and Interviews

To further breakdown these initial problem contexts and related motivations, I interviewed end-users about their experiences and insights with current airport infrastructures. Given limitations from Covid-19, time, and virtual settings, I interviewed people in my network, ranging from infrequent to frequent travelers and domestic (to the United States) and international livers. This was done to capture as much variation in experiences as possible. Frequent travelers may feel less overwhelmed than infrequent travelers. Airports open up the world to travelers, thus infrastructure may differ outside of the United States. Although this presents some researcher bias, I tried my best to interview people with who I was socially connected but not well-acquainted. Notes were taken using Google Docs.

Sample size (n=3):

P1: he/him, 24 years old, based in Singapore, works as a university research assistant.

P2: she/her, 26 years old, based in New York, works in customer service.

P3: she/her, 21 years old, based in Atlanta, is a full-time undergraduate student.

P1 and P2 were recruited from a Discord server of mutual acquaintances. P3 was recruited in-person at Emory University.

Both P1 and P2 were interviewed virtually on the Discord platform. Audio was recorded using Craig, a voice channel recording bot.

Only P3 was interviewed in-person at Emory University — Clairmont. Audio was recorded using Voice Memos on iPhone.

The Discord desktop app, showcasing the server in which people were interviewed and Craig bot.
The Voice Memos app on iPhone used to record interviews

My interview questions were focused around user navigation, activity in unfamiliar settings, and interpersonal dependence but also encompassed the entire flight experience. Some set questions include:

  • How often do you travel? Why?
  • Which airports do you go to? Why?
  • What do you do at the airport?
  • Walk me through how you would navigate the airport.
  • How do you know where to go?
  • Tell me about the last time you flew somewhere.
  • Do you interact with people at the airport?
  • How do you feel about flying (compared to other modes of transportation)?
  • How do you feel when going to unfamiliar places? What’s the first thing you do?
  • Have you ever gotten lost? Tell me a time when you got lost.

Some interviews had unique insights that veered and introduced interviewee-specific questions. Some questions include:

  • How were your experiences navigating the different airports?
  • How did you feel about your delayed flight?
  • How do you feel about people interacting with you?
  • Why did you almost miss your flight?
  • What did you do while you waited for your flight?


Interviews typically lasted around 30-40 minutes and were pleasant experiences for both the interviewer and interviewee, albeit somewhat formal. Time permitted, more participants would have been interviewed.

Below are some interview responses that were particularly notable.


  • Travels infrequently; “once every two-three years”
  • Thought airports were only “okay” because “a lot needs to be done to get on the plane”
  • “Economy seats aren’t comfortable”; comfort is important to this participant
  • Only has access to one airport in Singapore (Changi Airport)
  • Changi Airport has an integrated and expanding mall, nice architecture, so he often goes there recreationally
  • “[Changi Airport] is rated highly, so I don’t mind going there to travel”
  • Likes to explore the gate areas past security because there’s a lot and doesn’t get many opportunities to
  • Self-sufficient; doesn’t ask people for help; going to places around the airport is “manageable”; explorer
  • Doesn’t explore as much in layovers; tries not to move too far from gate
  • Experiences with Lisbon airport were “more confusing… because it was an older airport”; prefers going to newer airports
  • Feels annoyed when flights are delayed but is understanding of the situations
  • Going to unfamiliar places is a bit scary, but after he adjusts he will explore “until legs give up”
  • “Airports have navigation systems to look around easily”
  • Knows/acquires information from experience


  • Travels a few times a year pre-pandemic, during pandemic only travels once a year
  • Likes planes for traveling long distances
  • Likes to travel independently; “tired of waiting for other people”
  • JFK airport is “bigger, cleaner, more crowded because it’s a bigger airport, smoother”
  • LaGuardia airport “smaller,” “more delays flying there,” “a lot smaller, made check-in and security easier,” “feels dingy, less organized”
  • Used to getting to airport at most 4 hours before flight; “deathly afraid of being left by the plane”
  • Navigating the airports in NY are “self-explanatory” and “not confusing”; “not too complicated” going to gate at certain time, checking in, going through security
  • She reads airport navigation signs to get to her destination
  • “Once you get to a certain point, you can only move on to the next point.”
  • LG had less food options, wanted to just get out of there and get on plane and to florida
  • “LaGuardia had less food options. I wanted to just get out of there and get on the plane to Florida.”
  • Orlando MCO airport: “pretty big and sprawled airport,” “a bit confusing”; followed crowd to exit
  • Prefers huge airports with a lot to do
  • Doesn’t interact with people much because “people are in their own bubble”
  • Both exciting and nerve-wracking to be in unfamiliar places alone
  • Uses GPS, Maps app, phone for navigation


  • Travels frequently for school, home, volleyball, and personal reasons; 3–8 times a year.
  • Likes planes for traveling long distances if time ≥ 8 hours; otherwise, prefers driving car
  • Goes to the biggest or most convenient airports because “they have the most options to fly between cities”; options are important because of strict timelines
  • Familiar with DFW and Hartsfield-Jackson airport; “I typically autopilot through”
  • When situations are unfamiliar, will read and follow signs or get information from her phone
  • Uses airport maps, Internet to search flight information, Google Maps for navigation
  • Dallas airport is a lot bigger and more difficult to navigate due to size
  • Atlanta airport is easier to navigate because it is “a bit more organized and smaller… divided between north and south”
  • JFK airport in NY is “super super busy”
  • Doesn’t interact with people; doesn’t like to rely on someone else for navigation; sometimes asks for help moving baggage to overhead bin
  • “I wish flying was more convenient”; concerns: can’t bring as much luggage, can’t leave whenever (i.e. car), have to worry about airport security
  • Feels frustrated when security lines are long; questions how thoroughly security checks everyone as safety measures; when flights are delayed
  • Navigating unfamiliar situations feels exciting and “can be stressful” for keeping track of belongings
  • Explores airport during spare time
  • Flying experiences are “neutral”; “There is a lot of room for improvement in terms of time investment even getting to the flight and then the flight itself”; “good enough,” “it works”

From the previous interview responses, some main takeaways include:

  • Participants prefer having a lot of options and variety in airport amenities to keep themselves occupied
  • Participants think bigger airports are typically newer and more modern, are cleaner and nicer.
  • Participants think bigger airports can be confusing and very busy
  • Participants typically prefer to keep to themselves and find things on their own
  • Participants are spatially aware and can read airport signs
  • Participants use their previous experiences in airports to aid their navigation
  • Participants have access to phones and personal devices


The following images are the empathy maps I created for each participant, highlighting the most interesting or important components.

Empathy map for P1.
Empathy map for P2
Empathy map for P3

Tensions, contradictions, surprises.

I previously inferred that navigation would be a huge issue; however, from these interviews, I learned that many are able to navigate the airport using the airport signs or finding information on their own. They do not like relying on others for help. Notably, the participants referred to previous exposure in facilitating their navigation experiences. Interestingly, the participants had confusing experiences with new or unfamiliar airports. This is expected as it takes people some time to adjust to an environment, especially if the environment is different e.g. an airport in another country. Many responses connected big airports with cleaner infrastructure, more amenities, and better experiences, but they also connected them with more confusing navigability, thus there is some conflict on airport size and navigability. Common emotions include confusion, frustration, and concern during times of delay or high traffic. The participants strive to catch their flights on time. It is fascinating how people like to be self-sufficient when they can.

Drawing insights and needs from the empathy maps:

I met P1, a university research assistant from Singapore who does not travel frequently but wants to do more. I was amazed to realize that he likes to explore but does not explore too far from his gate, especially in layovers. It would be game-changing to help him comfortably explore more of the airport with respect to the time and distance.

I met P2, a customer service worker from New York who travels frequently with family and likes to have fun. I was amazed to realize that she wants to travel more independently without company. It would be game-changing to minimize her reliance on others when navigating the airport.

I met P3, an undergraduate student from Texas who travels as often as possible. I was amazed to realize that there is a huge time commitment in preparing for a flight and then the flight itself. It would be game-changing to condense the experience so she can focus more on the fun than the stress.


Overall, the needfinding process went well. I interviewed three people of varying backgrounds, travel frequencies, and locations. My participants enjoyed the interviews and shared a lot of meaningful insights and details about their experiences navigating the airport. Notably, I discovered a lot of shared traits, such as people wanting to be self-sufficient, people like to explore, and people go through a range of emotions from excitement to frustration based on situations at the airport. A good airport attracts a happy traveler.

This is concludes my needfinding process. Check out my next post where I further unravel my data and start exploring prototyping!



A human at the intersection of visual arts, computer science, and data science.

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