With an air of authority and accuracy, the departure board said that the gate to for my flight would be shown at 19:27. Not 19:15, not soon, but nineteen twenty seven. "Relax" it said on the screen. "We've got this covered" the screen reassuringly implied.
It also said the flight was estimated to depart at 20:17. 12 minutes late. Confident accuracy once again.
At 19:26 I decided to walk up to the screens showing the departure information. If I'd been promised new information with such accuracy as 19:27, then I wasn't going to miss this event.
I checked my watch and waited for the final seconds to pass.
I stood firm. I waited.
Then, at 19:28 the screen updated: "A7. GO TO GATE".
By this point I'd already received a push notification to my phone and a text message saying that the flight was delayed until 20:20. Not 20:17. Ah well, that's only 3 minutes later - I guess that Norwegian do a bit of rounding in their systems that Manchester don't in theirs.
Shortly later another apologetic notification appeared. The news this time was that the flight was delayed until 20:12. It took a moment for me to register that this new update actually had a time that was better than the previous one. My flight had heaved its way 8 minutes back towards the scheduled departure time!
This joyful news wasn't immediately obvious as the wording of the notification followed the same "We're really sorry to say your flight is delayed" template as previous messages. This worked okey for the first notification, but with the updated improved delayed time, it felt a little.. off.
An improvement would be to have separate notification templates for "initial delay", "more delay" and "less delay" plus some reasonably straight-forward logic to help pass on the correct information, relatively adjusted for the context the traveller finds themselves in.
I made my way to the gate not long after the information came up on the departure board, so I was there well ahead of most other passengers on my flight. There was a steady stream of people arriving after me, and the gate filled up. As they do ahead of flights.
Then, across the speaker system for the terminal came the announcement that it was Final Call for flight D84470 to Stockholm.
Final call for all passengers.
Once upon a time, the final call announcement really was the final call. You really needed to be at the gate. If you were lucky (and probably because you had some checked-in baggage) then you'd get the extra announcement shaming you by name to everyone.
At Manchester airport Terminal 2, these final call messages are automated. They appear to be automated based on the scheduled times. My flight was about ten minutes late (oh, alright, 8 minutes late according to the second text message). We were all here at gate A7 waiting for boarding to start.
Yet the announcement just said final call.
Moments after the automated announcement, the gate staff made a corrective announcement saying roughly "Don't worry". Or more specifically, they told explicitly to ignore the announcement. They explained that the announcement was automated, and that boarding would start shortly.
Easy for us to do. We were all by the gate. We could see that boarding hadn't started and we could hear the announcement by the gate staff.
The thing is, the announcement by the gate staff was local to the gate. It could only be heard on the speakers in the immediate vicinity of gate A7, and a few nearby gates.
Not long after the automated announcement (and the gate staff's corrective announcement), people started appearing in the distance, further down the pier, running towards our gate.
They arrived, one at a time, red-faced and panting. Hardly able to hold a conversation, stressed, and thinking they are about to miss their flight.
They each came to a halt at the gate only to be met by the gate staff who say, "We haven't started boarding yet".
Such a frustrating mix of authority, accuracy and nonsense.
The impact of poor service design
The initial departure board information, with it's minute-level accuracy, creates the perception of control and reliable information.
The automated announcements, relentlessly bound to the original timetable, create a perception of incompetence and unreliable information.
The corrective announcement then doubles down on building the perception that the automated announcements are useless, but also creates some level of reassurance that the gate staff (who are ultimately the people who need to be on top of things) are generally on top of things (but unable, it would seem, to prevent the automated announcements).
The passengers who, after hearing the final call and sprinted down the pier in order to arrive in time, have had a stressful and sweaty experience that has likely resulted in the erosion of trust in the airport and airline.
This kind of experience re-enforces an expectation that systems don't work and of services that don't live up to what they pretend to be. This kind of let-down is something we face daily.
We are priming people to expect that digital services aren't very good. This is the absolute opposite of what we hope to achieve.
In the end we arrived in Stockholm 10 minutes ahead of schedule, and not 8 minutes late.
Relax, said the screen.