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contextually researching the airport experience

Designing a compelling mobile travel experience that helps you stand out from your competitors and drives engagement with your travellers, involves much more than slick interface design and the latest mobile technology features. Before even commencing the design process, it is crucial to first understand how travellers interact with your brand at each stage of the travel lifecycle and to find new and engaging ways to support their behaviour and needs.

During our examination of the ‘day of travel’ experience, the Travelport Digital UX team conducted extensive research into the primary frustrations and concerns experienced by travellers prior to flying and in the airport. Contextual insights taken from this research were key to informing product development around our ‘day of travel’ product, Travelport Digital Concierge Live. Concierge Live is an intelligent mobile travel assistant that guides travellers at every step in their journey with real-time, contextual mobile updates and directions via their device. It is designed to significantly improve the in-airport experience, so researching behaviour in airports and speaking directly with travellers was a vital part of the research exercise.

Below we have included details of our contextual research approach and how we used it to inform deeper understanding of the ‘day of travel’ experience.


As the name suggests, contextual research is a user research method that is conducted ‘in context’. It involves observing users in their natural environments and carrying out research when and where a particular event or interaction takes place. Below we outline how we used this approach in our ‘day of travel’ research.

  • In-airport observations: We spent a series of research days in airports monitoring traveller behaviour at different stages of their travel including airport arrival, check-in, baggage drop, at-gate and boarding.
  • Articulating the end-traveller need: We recognised that travellers may find it difficult to accurately describe what they need or what they want during travel – particularly when asked retrospectively. The only way to truly understand travellers’ needs and frustrations was to observe them in action and speak to them directly as they progressed through their journeys.
  • The Travelport Digital research method: We adopted a variety of contextual research techniques including customer service shadowing, online surveys, airline staff interviews, landside and airside observation and one-on-one interviews with different types of travellers (individuals, couples, families and business travellers). This approach gave us a more complete view of travellers’ needs and pain points in the airport.

Travelport Digital researcher conducting intercept surveys with passengers at check-in


Some of the main benefits of conducting contextual research include:

  • “Seeing is believing”. Contextual research allows you to gather first-hand accounts or insights with minimum bias. During our ‘day of travel’ research’, this approach gave us an accurate understanding of the end-to-end airport experience. It also helped us to understand how an airline or travel app is used (or not used) in real-world situations.
  • Discover commonalities across user behaviour.  We were able to observe common trends such as what time travellers arrive at the airport before their flight or when they start walking to the gate.
  • Confirm or reject any assumptions that you have about app usage or traveller behaviour. Contrary to our previous assumptions, we discovered that travellers are increasingly using data while onboard regardless of charges because they generally use a work phone. These are important insights for airlines and travel companies when planning their mobile strategies.
  • Learn how external factors can influence users’ interaction with the app. We discovered that slow airport Wi-Fi can in some cases make it appear that an app is not working. Incorporating a simple alert to inform travellers when their connection is weak alleviates any unnecessary frustration directed towards the airline or travel company.
  • Uncover pain points or frustrations that you never even realised were an issue. During our research we observed that more than 25% of travellers needlessly queued at the check-in desk when they had already checked-in online. Simple push alerts reminding travellers to use mobile check-in would eliminate traveller stress and reduce pressure on airport ground staff.


Like all research methods it is important to consider the pros and cons of your research methods. Below we have included some issues to bear in mind when planning your contextual research for travel.

  • Forward planning is key: Contextual research can be time consuming to arrange, especially when researching travel. Issues such as organising travel to the airport or getting the necessary security access can require additional forward planning.
  • Planning for the unknown: You will often find yourself at the mercy of what is happening in the airport on that day. Bad weather, delays and gate changes can all affect your research plan, so it is always important to have a back-up plan.
  • Participation is always a challenge: People in airports are often under tight time pressure and may not always want to stop and talk to you. It is important to respect this when approaching travellers for questions.
  • You will need a team of researchers: Unlike other methods, airport research typically requires a team of researchers. When there are different terminals as well as landside and airside to consider, it is beneficial to have different teams covering multiple areas.


Good planning is key to ensuring that you achieve your research objectives. Below we have included some important considerations to help you plan your contextual research and ensure that your research days run smoothly.

  • Schedule your visit to the airport and organise security passes with the airline ahead of time.
  • Agree the scope of your research with your team and plan your research questions in advance.
  • Decide on your methods and create your test scripts for your surveys or observations guides.
  • Test your surveys and questions with your team to ensure the language is clear and unbiased.
  • Agree on the type of traveller you are targeting. For example, are they business, leisure or a specific airline customer?
  • Get a list of departure gates and departure times.
  • Plan what areas of the airport you are targeting. It is important to consider locations with good footfall at landside, airside and in terminals.
  • Create a realistic timetable for the day. It is worth bearing in mind that this will probably change depending on external factors such as delays on the day.
  • Prepare a check-list of materials that you will need. For example: camera, notebook, list of gates and high visibility jacket (to ensure you are easily identifiable to participants). Tablets are great for surveys but don’t forget your chargers.
  • Maintain good contact with your different teams during the day to assess progress and change tact if you need to.

Travelport Digital researcher conducting airside traveller observations


  • Cross-reference your results: Take the time to analyse the results together with your team. It is easy to jump to conclusions based on what you heard. However, is important to consider the perspectives of all researchers to ensure results are balanced and accurate.
  • Look for trends in the data: If multiple users experienced or said the same thing, this is worth noting. A recurring frustration voiced by travellers during our ‘day of travel’ research related to the lack of information and guidance in times of disruption and when making flight connections.
  • Be mindful of external factions: One-off issues such as disruptions in Wi-Fi that can skew the results.
  • Share with the team: It is important to discuss any quick wins or further investigation needed.
  • The next step is usability testing: Once a re-design has been completed, it is important to conduct a comprehensive round of usability testing to ensure that the new solution solves the original problem.

Measuring app analytics can only go so far when trying to get a solid understanding of how travellers use and respond to your mobile travel offering. Our contextual research approach in investigating the ‘day of travel’ experience highlights the valuable insights that can be gained by getting out of the office and observing travellers in their natural setting. Only then can you be confident in creating a mobile strategy that directly meets the needs of your travellers.

To find out more about key insights from our ‘day of travel’ research, please contact us to receive a copy of our research findings.

Travelport Digital observing travellers as they transit through the airport to make connecting flights

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