Forum: the way i see it

XIII.2 March + April 2006
Page: 41
Digital Citation

Trapped in a Lufthansa airline seat

Donald Norman

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I consider it one of my self-imposed job requirements to purchase and try out every new technology. How else am I to know the pleasure—and trauma—associated with their potential and their realization? My experiences demonstrate the need for the field of HCI to expand its horizons far beyond that of the traditional computer. This essay gives one example.

I flew from Munich to Chicago in a brand-new Lufthansa Airbus 340. I travel a lot—more than 100,000 miles a year—so I often get upgraded to business class. Lufthansa has gone to great lengths to improve their business-class fittings. Each seat comes with a 14-page manual: "As you can see," it confidently explains, "we have thought of some new ways of making you feel at home." Hah! Not my home, thank you. Please, not my home.

Let me catalog some of the ailments. Let's start with the nice, large, 11-inch color display in front of each seat. Wow! Not those tiny, grainy LCDs that most airlines provide. But, oops, consider how one controls it: Lufthansa's remote control moves the on-screen cursor. But this is a monster of a remote, for it also controls the seat and everything else. Twenty-one buttons on the front, two on the left side, a slot for a credit card on the right, and six buttons on the rear. Most are multipurpose and can be moved in several directions, usually four, so the 21 front buttons actually have 38 possible ways of being pushed, with one button sometimes requiring one push, sometimes a double-push. No wonder it has a 14-page manual, plus a help screen on the seatback display.

The display takes 15 seconds to turn on, then roughly ten seconds to paint each screen. The cursor control is so clumsy as to be reasonably unusable, moving slowly across the screen in an erratic direction, but then speeding up so fast that it overshoots the target. It takes about ten to 15 seconds for any button press to have an effect—even the simple feedback that indicates receipt of the "select" button takes a second.

Then there is the sound system. It's remarkably good for an airline, but my wife and I travel with our own earphones, the Bose sound-canceling ones that not only mask much of the noise of the airplane, but provide far higher fidelity and clarity than even the best of the airline earphones. All the other airlines I have ever flown provide nice little plugs that work for both the earphones they provide and for ones passengers bring on board. Not Lufthansa. Their earphone wires disappear into a deep, dark cavern. It wasn't until we were several hours into our flight that we discovered how to unplug their earphones and plug in our own. (You have to reach deep down into the narrow slot where the earphones are stored, unplug their triangular-shaped plug and blindly grope about to plug in the new phones—"blindly" because the slot is deep and narrow and your hand blocks all vision of the bottom, where the plug is located.)

Now for that seat. "Hey," I exclaimed, "almost as good as those fully reclining seats in international first class, the ones pioneered by British Air so many years ago and now copied by most airlines." Each seat has a fixed wall behind it so that when the back is reclined, it does not have any impact on the passenger to the rear. So far, so good.

I experimented. I moved the seat controls this way and that. Sometimes the seat responded, sometimes it didn't. In theory, the control was properly designed—organized in the shape of the seat itself (just as I have long been preaching), but the correspondence between the movement of each button and the movement of the seat seemed arbitrary and capricious.

The seat is indeed comfortable: 12 degrees of adjustment, a footrest that flips open, and a button that controls how your back is massaged, with yet another six degrees of adjustment. It has both the standard overhead light and a side light on a flexible arm, and a headrest that moves up and down, with wings that bend out to hold up the head.

The audio selection is generous, although it took me five minutes to figure out how to get to the menu. There is a remarkable variety of video available, and each one seems to be playable on demand. That is, every passenger can start any movie at any time. As far as I can tell, once started, it cannot be paused, fast—forwarded or backed up, but maybe I just didn't find those controls.

There is even a hidden panel for computer support: regular AC power with a plug that accepts "two-pin Euro flat plugs" or "two- or three-pin U.S. plugs." It even has jacks labeled "Internet" and "USB." Moreover, there is storage space for eyeglasses and for shoes.

It's wonderful. Except it doesn't work.

Take that shoe-storage space. We were on a ten-hour flight, so my wife and I took off our shoes and put on the little cloth slippers Lufthansa provided. But only one shoe would fit into a storage space, and there was only one space per passenger. Maybe Germans wear smaller shoes than Americans? More likely, that's all the spare room they had.

And you know that nice, reclining bed? It may not disturb the neighbors, but it certainly uses every inch of space in the compartment. Leave a pillow, blanket, or heaven forbid, your briefcase with your laptop in it on the floor, and crush, grind, scrunch. No more pillow, no more blanket, no more laptop. "Please do not leave hand luggage on the floor when using this position," says the manual under the heading of "Sleep." But where does the hand luggage go? Up into the overhead compartment? But these are often completely filled. Between the two seats? Maybe, but the space is only about six inches wide, occupied by the shoes we couldn't fit into the platform. While the briefcase can fit on top of the shoes, if it leans even slightly to one side, it gets crunched.

Am I being unfair? The seat appeared to think so, so it took revenge. After I was comfortably settled into a sleeping position, I couldn't get out. I summoned the flight attendant, who pushed and pulled and then went away. Ah, now the seat worked. She came back and I thanked her. "But I didn't do anything," she said. This happened three more times during the flight. The problem got written up. "These new seats are still filled with problems," one attendant confided in me. Four times in all I was trapped—trapped!—inside my airline seat. Ah, the joys of a technology whose time has not yet come.

Kudos to Lufthansa for wonderful flight attendants, a marvelous meal, and for trying so hard to make seats that truly deliver. If it is the thought that counts, Lufthansa wins. If execution also matters, well, they need to call in the human-centered design experts.

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Don Norman

About the author

Don Norman wears many hats, including cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group, professor at Northwestern University, and author. His latest book is Emotional Design. He lives at

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©2006 ACM  1072-5220/06/0300  $5.00

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