In-flight design research: Being a KLM cabin attendant for a day

What flying to Rio taught me about crew life and design research

There are many ways of doing design research, but doing the work of your target group yourself is one of the best ways to learn what it’s really like. So a few weeks ago I literally put on a blue KLM uniform and got to work as a cabin attendant for a few days. In this blog you’ll read about some of my findings and learnings about doing this kind of design research.

The work

I’m currently working on a project in KLM’s Digital Studio to improve the feedback tools and mechanisms for both our cabin crew and ground organization. And just like any good design project we started by collecting insights about our users. I had already collected some insights about crew life from earlier projects, but this time I wanted to experience things myself.

The complete package: when you want to blend in, you have to look the part! (Photo: KLM)

So I got myself an official uniform (made to measure, but no stripes of course) and made sure I was on the crew list for the flight to Rio de Janeiro. Here’s what I found out:


Did you know that crew members often meet for the first time just before their flight? One of the key things I discovered is that turning a group of people that has never worked together into a blue family in a very short amount of time takes quite some effort together with a curious and an open mind. Cabin crew is well-trained and prepared, so everyone knows what to do. Once they arrive in their hotel each crew member may do something different, but for the return flight everyone comes back together as one team again.,

Busy bees

There are a lot of things that have to happen on board in order to get you your drink or meal shortly after takeoff. Flying to Rio de Janeiro takes around 11 hours, so you may think there’s enough time. But now imagine doing this for more than 300 people, all in the small space that’s available. By observing the work up close I got to see what the work is really about, and how a crew often resembles a bunch of busy bees.

Design challenge: how do you give crew the supplies they need, but also the information to make the right decision?

This also means there’s not much time left on board for other things, such as (in the case of my current project) filing reports about issues. So in the form of a design challenge: how do you give crew the supplies they need, but also the information to make the right decision?

Rio life

Ok, and must I admit: flying to Rio de Janeiro is actually kind of cool ;-). The city is vibrant and the weather of course is amazing. I spent 49,5 hours in Rio, which apparently is just enough to cycle across the Copacabana, take the bus up to the Christ the Redeemer statue for a selfie, see the famous Escadaria Selarón stairs and still leave time to check out the hotel pool.

Cliché or classic: high-fiving this guy was part of the trip ;-) (Photo by ckturistando on Unsplash)

Visiting cities sounds cool, but one of my main learnings is also that crew also needs the time just to rest to make sure they can bring their A-game for the return flight. They often arrive late and leave early, so it’s essential to make sure to catch enough sleep. Each crew member has different tactics for this, from afternoon power naps to adjusting their schedule.

Hands-on design research

Doing the work of a cabin attendant taught me many things about our users, but also some things about doing design research itself. In the next part of this blog I would like to cover what I learned about doing this kind of immersive design research.

No flies on the wall

Many designers will be used to doing user observations without intervening too much in what people do. In this case being a ‘fly’ (yes, pun completely intended) on the wall didn’t really work. Without the real experience and training you’ll always stand out (or in the way in many cases :P) somehow. Ideally you go full Undercover Boss on this, but of course that doesn’t work here. My temporary colleagues were eager to let me do things myself or kindly explain how things worked. Great for experiencing the job, but this might also introduce some bias in your results as you won’t always get natural responses.

Triangulate findings

The good old rule of research also applies here: triangulation. It is paramount to combine multiple sources to form a complete picture. In this case, I combined my findings from the flight with in-depth interviews, desk research, and user test results to form a complete picture. This requires designers to reflect on what individual findings mean, how they fit with the rest of the data and finally draw conclusions about the data in general. Triangulation partially fixes the fact findings will be less neutrals when you can’t be a fly on the wall. By looking at things from multiple angles you’re more likely to spot recurring patterns across sources.

Taking notes

Normally our design team at KLM aims to be journalists during user research. We investigate, ask until we find the deeper reasons for things and dig to the core of the issue. But have you ever seen a journalist not take notes or record something? No right?

Grabbing your notebook is unpractical for yourself and kind of annoying for the person you’re talking to.

Well, in this case I was standing in a steel tube at 30.000 feet with little time or room to sit down and take notes. I experienced this before in other projects where I got to ride along with other KLM colleagues, such as our towing or fueling department. In all those cases, grabbing your notebook is unpractical for yourself and kind of annoying for the person you’re talking to. Sticking a notebook in someone’s face all the time will likely not invite them to open up to you (which is what you want actually). So when shadowing users, you need to find a way for yourself to hold a lot of answers and observations in your mind for a while until you can find time to write them down and process them. Find a good mix of observing or questioning, and taking notes for yourself in between.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

This final learning is not meant to put myself on the list for another flight to a tropical destination, but just to show that good research has to be repeated in order to spot patterns. During the flight from Amsterdam to Rio I could get to know things and just get comfortable with the work. On the return flight, I noticed that I kind of got the hang of the job and could focus on researching more specific things. But two observations are not enough for a complete picture, so always keep observing until you reach a certain saturation: when no really new findings come up.

Always keep observing until you reach a certain saturation: when no really new findings come up.

Although I enjoyed the work very much, I’m not (yet) switching jobs (but you can apply yourself here by the way). I had a great time on board, and it taught me so many things that you don’t get from interviews or other forms of research. Observing in context of your users will allow you as designer (and hopefully your entire team) to in the end make better decisions. It is more difficult to obtain lots of in-depth results from only observations, but doing it is totally worth the effort. Combining it with other sources and keep looking until you spot enough patterns.

And the final lesson: are you in doubt about jumping into the life of your users? Don’t be afraid, just do it!

Service Designer @ KLM Royal Dutch Airlines | Thoughts on (service) design, design books and other random things.