The plight of the KC airport teaches us about UX design

At a recent business lunch, someone was complaining about the Kansas City airport (MCI). I’ve heard this many times before. Fortunately, Kansas City knows that the airport is a problem which is why they are nearly finished building a brand new one. What happened is great food for thought with respect to user experience design.

Back in 1972 when it was built, MCI was, according to buildkci.com, “an early example of ‘drive to your gate’ design, the ultimate in airport convenience.” Having often flown in and out of MCI in the 1990s, I can attest to that fact. From a user experience standpoint, it was human-centered design at its best. With three horseshoe-shaped terminals, you could park, walk right into your gate and be on your plane much more directly than at most major airports, which are often a labyrinth of long corridors.

MCI circa 1972
MCI circa 1972 - park and fly

If you never flew before September 11, 2001, it’s probably hard to imagine what it was like. Prior to that infamous day, if you had a ticket and didn’t need to check luggage, you could arrive at the airport few minutes before takeoff, park your car and walk right onto the plane. No boarding pass, no I.D. inspection at the security check, no taking off your shoes and putting all your stuff on an X-ray conveyor. It was a lot more like getting on a bus than our current air travel experience. MCI was designed to make that pre-911 experience as simple and pleasant as possible. It was a good example of human-centered design.

then 911 happened

The impact on air travel certainly ranks near the top of things that permanently changed after 911. The TSA was established in November 2001 and the screening of passengers changed airport experiences significantly. Overnight, MCI’s human-centered design concept was broken. 

MCI before 911
MCI after 911

The MCI terminals had inadequate space to easily accommodate the new TSA requirements. The new barriers between non-secure and secure areas awkwardly cut the terminals in half along their narrow curved lengths. That created tight spaces for lines and waiting areas. It’s definitely not the innovative, human-centered design it once was. Kansas City’s solution? Build an entirely new airport and tear down the old.

What are the UX design lessons?

Those of us who design and build digital or physical products for the modern world can learn some valuable lessons from the original MCI design and the current need for its redesign.

First, human-centered design is good. It can produce wonderful innovations that delight users and contribute to society. That’s the lesson from the 1972 design of MCI. Before 911 it was efficient and pleasurable to fly in and out of MCI compared with a lot of other major airports.

Second, things change—often without our control. When things happen that affect how people use our products or services, we need to reevaluate and adjust. MCI is an example. But there are many other examples that are directly relevant to web design:

  • The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) forced us to make things accessible in both physical and online environments. It’s too bad we needed a law—we should want to make things accessible for everyone. Many websites are still way behind where they should be. The ADA as well as the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide guidance for making websites and apps accessible. (WCAG 2.2 is expected later this year, are you ready?)
  • The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) require us to better inform people about privacy and give them more control over their personal data (among other things). Many companies and websites are also behind in these areas.
  • The pandemic—who saw that coming? It changed so many things it’s hard to list them. The pandemic prompted many businesses and individuals to figure out how to move from physical to virtual (think Zoom, online grocery shopping, cloud-based business collaboration tools, etc.).

Third, things change—sometimes without us noticing. I distinctly remember back in the early 2000s when an otherwise very smart colleague of mine said, “People will never buy shoes online.” Zappos was founded in 1999. In 2023, the online shoe market will be $23 billion in U.S. alone. Are today’s blockchain and metaverse like yesterday’s online shoe sales? From the inception of the World Wide Web, our understanding of what’s possible has been upended again and again. The rate of change keeps accelerating. The ongoing evolution in consumer habits creates change that will sneak up on us and pass us by if we’re not watching carefully.

What to do

How should businesses deal with changes—in the world, technology, culture, government, and people’s behavior—in order to provide the best possible user and customer experiences? Here are two simple suggestions when it comes to your website or app:

  • Ask users
  • Ask experts

User testing is one of the best ways to ensure that you are keeping pace with people’s evolving expectations. And asking an expert to do a UX audit (a.k.a. heuristic analysis) or an accessibility review can be very fruitful in uncovering improvements needed to meet user expectations, or legal and regulatory requirements.

I’d be happy to provide an estimate for user testing or a UX audit—let me know how I can help.



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