Our Thoughts

The hidden world of "ownership design"

13th September 2021

If there's one thing we don't need it's another controversial issue to split us down the middle, but here goes...

Do you recline your seat on a plane during short-haul flights?

What do you think of people that do?

What's really interesting about this question is that there are two very firm camps on it, it splits the population about 50/50, and they both find it astonishing that so many people disagree with them.

Yes, I am still talking about airline seats.

I first came across this idea in the fascinating book Mine, and I decided to put the question to our consumer panel to see what the UK public made of it. Here are the results:


As the authors of Mine reveal, the problem is different perspectives on ownership. The airline has effectively sold the space in front of your face twice: once to you, so that you can work on your laptop comfortably; and once to the person in front of you who might want to recline into it.

This leads to a conflict between customers with different perspectives, as some of the comments from our survey reveal:

"Yes, you have the right to be comfortable in your seat."

"Yes, they wouldn't have the feature if it wasn't meant to be used."

"No, it intrudes on the space of the person behind you."

"No, you have to consider other passengers, and whether they would be made to feel uncomfortable."

One of the reasons that customer research is so important is that it's very difficult for us to think outside our own preconceptions. If we don't use research to understand how other people see the world, we make the mistake of assuming they think the same as us.

The chances are that half of them have a completely different perspective.

Once we understand the full range of perspectives, we can use that to design experiences which work for everyone. Airlines, for instance, could resolve the ambiguity of whether the right to knee space trumps the right to recline by fixing seat backs (as many budget airlines do), or by communicating clearly when reclining is acceptable (perhaps at night).

Understanding how customers think is the only way to design experiences that will make them feel the way you want them to.

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