Carpet love: Airports, micro-transitions and the fabric of complexity

Micro-transitions give context and meaning to complex ecosystems. We just need to start looking at the invisible.

Did you ever notice the old carpet at Portland International Airport? Its geometric pattern and cheery colors have garnered a cult following, with socks, beer, sneakers and tattoos dedicated to the beloved floor covering. But what’s interesting here is not just the fantastic foot-selfie décor or hipster dreams of the nineties, but an emotional connection between the people of Portland and their beloved PDX. This carpet infatuation makes the invisible visible and, in a system as complex as the airport, invisible elements are one of the keys to making your journey from the curb to the plane a seamless one.

Airports are complex systems

The tangled web of emotions felt by passengers is a telltale sign: the frustration at security, the impatience at customs, the sticker shock at restaurants. These emotions hint at the existence of a complex environment of hidden systems, processes and actors that continuously affect visible services, activities and the overall passenger experience.

The chain of events from curb to plane is anything but linear. Complexity emerges from the processes, systems, artifacts and stakeholders involved in every passenger activity. While mandatory processing activities (check-in, security, customs, boarding) are arranged in a logical sequence, their discretionary counterparts (retail, food, entertainment) are distributed randomly in the passenger’s journey. Behind these visible activities is a parallel stream of services running in the shadows, landside and airside: the operational activities. These ensure that mandatory and discretionary activities effectively happen (from keeping the lights on to making sure your plane is at the right gate and fuelled up).

Each of these activities is managed, controlled and delivered by multiple actors including private companies (airlines, airport owners, security companies), federal government bodies (customs and immigration officials, national public safety, infrastructure, transport), local government bodies (regional and local development), industry trade groups (the International Air Transport Association), and other airport suppliers (baggage handling, fuelling and catering companies). Complexity here is multiplied by the different requirements and goals of each of these actors (such as safety or efficiency), sometimes conflicting with the quality of the passenger’s experience. By the time passengers board their plane, they have encountered at least ten visible service providers and have unknowingly been served by hundreds more. Yet, despite the complexity of this web of activities, actors, and goals, passengers tend to move seamlessly through the airport experience. Something must give context and meaning to this patchwork.

Micro-transitions and the fabric of the ecosystem

By understanding the complex environment of the airport as an ecosystem of services and actors who share an institutional logic and co-create meaning, we can start to tease apart the interactions and relationships between the different entities. In fact, the “gaps” between the different activities and the various actors are more than they seem. Passengers do not move abruptly from activity to activity or from one state to another: between the end of a service and the beginning of another, one isn’t simply in a large empty space. What facilitates the shift between different states and eases the alignment of various actors are “micro-transitions”: the moments and spaces that bridge the gaps and give context to the experience.

Micro-transitions tend to expose deeper services that host the mandatory, discretionary or operational activities. When passengers move from check-in to security, for example, they are using the service of the airport itself, the physical services of the hallways (mythical carpet included), the visual services of the wayfinding system, the information services of the flight information displays or boarding passes, and the customer service of the airport personnel. Micro-transitions reveal the fabric of the overall experience and help passengers make sense of the context. Therefore, paying attention to the shifts between activities and actors reveals way more about the service ecosystem than only paying attention to its smaller, more discrete parts and activities.

Micro-transitions provide context

In spatially contained service environments, micro-transitions provide physical cues to help situate the user. Combined with the internalized goal of the user (I need to get on my plane!), they create spatial awareness and clarify the relationships between activities. Persistent elements, often architectural features or decor elements (such as the Portland Airport carpet), provide a canvas for the experience. Making sure these elements are consistent allows for the user to build a mental model of the environment. A change in these elements would indicate a change in the service environment and disorient the user not only in the space, but also in their journey towards their final goal.

Micro-transitions are neutral

Micro-transitions act as buffer zones not only between activities, but also between service providers in charge of managing and delivering the different services. While multiple actors are still at play (e.g. airport operations, custodial services, etc.), they tend to be more focused on the quality of the passenger’s experience than their activity-centric counterparts (e.g. customs and immigration, security and border services) whose goals, such as efficiency and safety, can hinder the passenger experience. This micro-transitional space acts as a neutral relief zone between goal-oriented activities and actors, giving the passenger more agency and flexibility, and bringing them back to the wider context: getting them on that plane.

Micro-transitions provide directionality

Micro-transitions contain transitional elements, such as signage, that help users shift from one state to another by easing them out of an activity and re-focusing their attention on the right element at the right time, gradually onboarding them onto the next activity. Providing hints to guide the user through the right logical sequence and hinting at the possibilities of the environment are essential when transitioning between discretionary activities where passengers have more agency, yet still need to be oriented towards their end goal. This can be achieved not only via signage, but also using architectural features. The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport uses curved lights and shifts ceiling heights in order to push passengers from one space to another.

Micro-transitions are part of infrastructure

The walls, the floors, the signage, the flight information displays, the screens, the queues, the airport personnel all play an important role in airport micro-transitions. Together, they create part of the infrastructure of the airport, the physical and organizational resources that allow for operations to run seamlessly. As with other types of infrastructures, these elements are normally invisible to passengers, except when they break down or are unavailable, disrupting the normal passenger flow.

Micro-transitions are critical to the overall user experience. They bring context and cohesion to what might otherwise be a series of activities roughly glued together. Designing for such a complex service environment should then move away from focusing solely on these activities and take into account the larger context. Focusing on transitional elements, even the more trivial ones like a carpet, is key to creating a seamless and meaningful experience for the passenger and any other service environment users — AR

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