Low iQ: In-Flight Interaction Design

As I write (although not as I post), I am flying back from Australia (where I was attending linux.conf.au) on an Airbus A380, which QANTAS have just started using on their London to Sydney route. These new planes, as well as being really big, have high-res widescreen video-on-demand seatback entertainment. This client software, “iQ”, has terrible usability and so rather than sit here and try and use it, I’m going to inflict an analysis on you all :-) Warning: long and occasionally ranty screed ahead.

Chapter 9 in Alan Cooper’s book “The Inmates Are Running The Asylum” explains a seatback entertainment system that they designed. But clearly the designers of the A380 system didn’t read the book, because it commits many of the possible blunders listed there, with exactly the consequences that Alan Cooper says that they would have if implemented. If you haven’t read this book, do.

Hardware: self-contained seatback computer with hard disk and 512MB RAM, widescreen (guess: 1024×800) high-resolution LCD touchscreen. At one point, they had to reboot it, and showed that it was running a version of Red Hat Linux, dated November 2006 (anyone know any good recent kernel exploits? :-). There was an optional retractable controller in the armrest with the usual controls on one side and a full mini keyboard/game controller on the other. I didn’t use that much at all. In short experiments, it didn’t make much difference which you used.

Object Browser Type 1 – General, Film and TV

The menu system is basically a giant tree structure – a big Alan no-no. This maximises the amount of navigation you need to do in order to get a full overview of what is available, because you have to go into and out of every category and sub-category. The top level has seven categories – Entertainment, News, Business, In Sky Shopping, Information, Communications and Settings. Pick Entertainment and you then have six choices: Movies, TV, Music, Radio, Games and Audio Books. Pick Movies and you then have a choice of ten categories – Premiere, Encore, Oscar Classics, Family, etc. etc. Below that, you have the actual movies themselves – albeit just a picture, the title and a genre description. To actually find out what each one is about, you have to select it. (I think some movies appear in more than one category. Some music certainly did.) Sometimes, in TV, there’s at least one more level because you need to pick a series and then an episode.

Object Browser Type 2 – Music

They seem to have implemented three types of object browser, with different interaction patterns for each. The first one – for the upper levels, movies and TV – has five items per screen, scrolls horizontally with no scrollbar, and requires a tap to select and a tap to activate (i.e. move down the tree). The second one – for music – selects and activates with a single tap, scrolls vertically with a scrollbar you can’t drag, and has ten smaller (too small) items per screen. The third one – for A-Z listings – has five items per screen, scrolls vertically with a scrollbar you can’t drag, and requires two taps to activate.

This need for incessant navigation is made even more painful by poor response time. Horizontally scrolling using an Object Browser Type 1 from one end to the other of a 21-item list, tapping the button frantically, took 13 seconds. (Compare choosing one of 21 items using any current GUI toolkit or in HTML.) There’s no draggable scrollbar, only a button, so no way of jumping or increasing speed. It stores up taps so there’s a big lag after you stop tapping frantically before it stops moving, so you tend to overshoot your target. Selections take half a second to work. I don’t know whether this is because the computer is underpowered for the flashy scale-in-and-out style interface they’ve chosen, or it’s a design misfeature.

Perhaps the tree structure was added because it was the only way to inflict a small enough amount of scrolling on the user that there would not be in-flight mass suicides. Imagine a 200-item list of movies with this interface.

Object Browser Type 3 – A to Z

They have a Movies A-Z (but no TV A-Z), which I thought would be a good way of bypassing the endless navigating. But they manage to shoot themselves in the foot here as well because instead of just being a long list you scroll through, it was divided into categories by letter, and you had to select each letter in turn before scrolling through a much shorter list. There are five items on the screen and the scrollbars are not sized so the only way of telling if there was a sixth or subsequent hidden item was clicking the down arrow six times and seeing if the list moved. Additionally, you get much less info (just the title, rating and year) in the A-Z than in the more painfully scrolly bit of the interface, so it’s hard to know even if you’ve seen the film in question.

If you click a letter for which there are no items, e.g. Q, it tells you There are no items in this list beginning with Q”. Then why didn’t you grey it out and stop me picking it? At one point, I clicked “#”, which was at the end of the A-Z, and got the same error “no items beginning with #”. It makes you wonder whether they did any testing at all, because that list was for items beginning with a number, not a #. Shows clear lack of attention to polish.

There are some neat features in the system. You can dim the screen when listening to music so it goes to a grey-on-black progress and info indicator. The music you choose plays while you are painfully navigating the rest of the system, and there’s one touch icon access to a simple set of controls. You can create a playlist. And of course when you finally choose and watch some video, it’s in nice high-res widescreen.

The route display application has somewhat higher-res satellite maps and more options (nighttime, globe etc.) and you can switch to “interactive map” if you want to get nostalgic for the days of tile-based click-to-reload-page-and-scroll-one-square Mapquest maps from the late 1990s as experienced over a 28.8k modem. There’s a forward-facing “SkyCam” mounted in the tail which gives you stunning views – or would if they hadn’t used something with the image quality of a £15 webcam. Still, watching take-off and landing like this was very cool. Putting one in the belly as well would have been even better, because you could then have viewed the landscape without 30% of your viewing space being taken up by plane.

The armrest has a USB port for charging gadgets (which I didn’t use) and an ethernet port. There is supposed to be limited external connectivity (POP3 mail and selected IM clients) but the wireless the on-screen help talked about didn’t seem to be there. I could have tried using the ethernet port but I don’t use POP3 anyway so I didn’t bother.

There is supposedly at-seat power but the socket is located low down at the base of the armrest of the seat in front of you so you can’t actually see its orientation or what plugs it takes. I had a steward on the floor for at least a minute trying to work it out for me. At one point, the two other people in my row left and I got a chance to look – US, EU and possible Australian, no earth connector. And then, when I plugged in, to either of the two in my row, I didn’t get any juice. The flight attendant said he would “reset the seat” but this also seemed to involve resetting the seat of the guy in front of me! So he gets inconvenienced by my need for power! It’s easy to forget on a plane that each entertainment system (except at the front of a block) is made up of hardware from two different physical seats. Even after that, it didn’t work. I was glad I brought three batteries. At-seat power is a really simple way to make long plane journeys more pleasant for many passengers, and yet they still seem to have managed to mess it up.

Even with all that, it’s much better than the flight the other way, which was in a 747 with broken VOD so all you got was four unlabelled cycling channels of video where you just had to pick something that looked interesting and watch to see what it was. And you can’t complain too hard about something which allows one to watch the entire first series of Fawlty Towers. But still, the UI is timelessly terrible. Having spend billions developing the thing, was there really no budget for an interaction designer?

5 thoughts on “Low iQ: In-Flight Interaction Design

  1. If you’re flying BA and the VOD just shows four channels, that’s the in-flight entertainment having crashed. Ask the crew for a reboot. I haven’t had a BA flight in a long time where I didn’t ask the crew for a reboot. They have to reboot the in-flight for everybody, but that’s fine, as it’s usually at least a third or so of the seats that are down.

    And then the navigation is as bad as what you describe for the 380. And you learn that they using an ancient version of Windows ;-)

  2. Actually, while I won’t dispute that that’s bad design, it sounds like a huge improvement. Last time I flew, the backs of the seats just had a pocket containing a couple of completely uninteresting magazines, a safety tip sheet, a brochure for the airline’s services, and a bag in case you got airsick. Fortunately I had a window seat, am interested in geography, and wasn’t flying across an ocean.

  3. And I’ll add that running an old version of a Linux kernel is itself not a problem. At least, not the biggest problem possible — for hard-to-access hardware like a seatback rig, the basic idea is: 1) get OS stable 2) never, ever even consider upgrading again. It’s simply not worth anybody’s time to make sure that the “one line” security patch doesn’t break everything and introduce a bunch of dependencies. Yes, they could devote IT resources to it, but it’s probably very low on their priority list, well after making sure the call to rand() when it figures your ticket price works.

  4. Was this in economy or business class? I’ve yet to see a decent widescreen monitor in economy before so if that’s the case that’s something of an improvement.

    It’s a shame that they didn’t at least try to make the system consistent and usable, seems to be often overlooked these days.

  5. Jason: Well possibly. It depends how isolated the user network is from the seatbacks. Given that they take CC numbers for shopping etc., if you could trojan them, it might be a nice little earner and very hard to detect. And the network has the ability to IM out, which would be a good exit route for the stolen data.

    No More NXEC: It would be wonderful if the Foundation were able to send me places business class, but sadly it’s not so :-( This was economy.

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