The kaleidoscopic corridor of the Madrid — Barajas 

Airports are unique spaces that host thousands of people daily. Some of these are travelling, others are meeting friends or relatives, and some are working to make this ecosystem run smoothly. They are also spaces where service design meshes with design, as airports strive to increase efficiency and reduce time spent on checks through automated solutions. If you’re like me, you have probably tried the automated passport control kiosks that check your biometrics, with varying levels of success (apparently sometimes my face breaks the machine).

This is a about one of these machines that is at proof of concept stage at the Madrid-Barajas airport. It’s actually pretty awe-inspiring technologically (and a tad scary because biometric checks are inevitably a bit scary), but it made me think of Don Norman’s wonderful book: The Design of Everyday Things. In his book, which is a must-read for any product designer and/or human, he describes the feelings of frustration and stupidity that can overcome us as we try and pull on a door that we were supposed to push, and why this is actually a fault in the design itself, and not us.

Let me paint the scene: I have landed in Madrid, and I’m carrying my little bag towards passport control, that stressful barrier before being released onto the world of luggage conveyor belts. There is an option for a manual check, or, if you have a chipped passport, you can try the new automated kiosks, sitting in a little cluster and manned by a couple of airport staff. I tend to shy away from human interaction if I can avoid it (textbook introvert) so I head to the new proof of concept machines.

a technical drawing

Your kiosk comprises of a screen that provides you with instructions and the usual camera and screen doing your face check above it. Below the screen, there is a dashboard with a reader to place your passport inside on the right, and a space to scan your fingerprint on the left. Please check out my beautiful illustration on the left to help visualize the setup.

I start by slipping my passport in using my right hand getting my face checked out to confirm it was indeed my face. Once that was done, I was prompted to scan the fingerprint of my right-hand index finger. And…this is where I started screwing up. As my right hand was occupied, I assumed my passport no longer needed to be held in place in the reader, so I took it out and tried to free my precious right hand to provide a fingerprint. But no. The machine still wanted the passport in, as it informed me on the screen, and as the airport staff pointed out promptly(now I felt silly).

So I do an awkward hand switcheroo (eeehhh Macarena!), holding the passport with my left hand and putting it in the reader on the right, and placing my right hand on the left side to get my fingerprint scanned. Kinda reminded me of the game Twister. This marked the end of my fun interaction with the kiosk, and then I moved on to some gates that I could open with my fingerprint, as if by magic.

So, no big deal, right? A few extra seconds lost, I felt a bit confused, but surely not enough to write a bloody Medium article about? Well, hear me out. With efficiency and time-saving being of utmost importance at airports, and with the solution being so simple, it seemed weird to ignore the positioning and movement of the human body when designing a product that we need to interact with in multiple ways. A few extra seconds each time, plus a few extra seconds from the airport staff, can really amount to a lot of time in an airport with thousands of visitors daily.

I then thought about this from the perspective of a left-handed person. They may have placed the passport in the reader using their dominant hand. All fine. But they would have still had to provide the fingerprint of their right index finger, so…it would be twister time!

The simplest solution for everyone? place the reader on the left, which would encourage the user to use their left hand, freeing up the right hand to provide a fingerprint. There would still be a margin of error, but it would be greatly reduced from the current setup.

So that’s it, the pettiest story ever. I must say, my airport glitch was so memorable, that last time I encountered these kiosks I opted to use my left hand in the passport reader. I had learned my lesson. Do you have any airport fails? I feel like everyone has stories, and I imagine this probably conjures up something much worse in your memory!

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