In-flight entertainment systems – Part 2b (User interface paradigms)


In part 1 of user interfaces, I described the Air New Zealand in flight system using a browser based concept using cursor keys to move an on screen selector; a yellow rectangle.  In part 2 we move on to the Virgin Atlantic system, which is more similar to DVD menu navigation or Flash based applications.

Virgin Atlantic (v:port)

To be fair to Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic also made an announcement to passengers at the start of the flight regarding the entertainment system.  However, rather than a general ‘you might crash the system’ this was a more specific request to be patient when waiting for the video on demand (VOD) to respond as everyone started up their system.

I guess the VOD server has an overhead of setting up a video stream and with 300 or so passengers all trying to initiate session it could get quite busy.  My experience was that within a couple of minutes I was happily watching movies from the VOD library, with only a couple of retries needed on one of the two flights. During this start up period the rest of the system remained unaffected and the user interface responded quite quickly.

The user interface itself had a more polished feel than that of Air New Zealand, with a more modern design reflecting the Virgin ‘youth’ branding. Gone was the all too visible on screen selector such as a yellow rectangle, instead items were highlighted in different colours as they were selected. 

Also, every element appeared to logically move to the next item when using the cursor keys.  The system may well use DVD style menu navigation where the DVD authoring tool actually specifies precisely what action occurs depending when a key is pressed, allowing locking down of navigation between items.  However, it may be that the system does use intelligent navigation, but that the graphic designers creating the system spent more time designing an interface where the next location was unambiguous.

In addition, the coloured buttons on the handset (Part 1, hardware) allowed the designers to include navigation quick keys on screen. For television viewers in Europe these are the familiar teletext key colours; yellow, green, red and blue.  These have also been adopted very successfully within interactive television applications to provide the identical concept of quick navigation options.

Virgin Atlantic v:port User Interface

It’s hard to understate how useful the quick navigation options are in using the interface. With Air New Zealand it might take five or six button presses to achieve the same result as using a single button on v:port; and that is assuming the intelligent navigation system used by Air New Zealand selected the items you expected.

The other advantage of the quick navigation options is that it allowed the designers to provide multiple routes to the same features.  Multiple routes support different categories of users; novices can scroll down menus, whereas more confident users can use the quick navigation options.  In time the novice, if they fly often enough, will pick up on the cues to use quick navigation options instead of scrolling through menus.

[For those who are not convinced about multiple routes to functionality here’s a quick example.  In Microsoft Word there are a number of ways you can print the current document; the printer icon on the tool bar, pressing Ctrl+P, pressing Alt+F then P, or use the mouse to open the File menu and select Print.  Which do you use and why?]

What still leaves me somewhat perplexed is that the Air New Zealand handset did have four coloured buttons, and apart from the undocumented use of the yellow B button for brightness they do not seem to be used outside of the gaming area.  They could so easily have implemented a quick navigation system, given that the browser technology could support it, and life the user would have been much easier.

This system didn’t need a user interface element for controlling the screen buttons, they put the brightness controls as two buttons on the screen.  I found this much more familiar with my previous experience of entertainment systems.  With such an obvious location for the brightness controls, there was no need for in flight magazine guidance to use this feature.


So having analysed the two user interface designs for it’s a clear win for Virgin Atlantic v:port over Air New Zealand. There seems to have been a definite lack of usability studies with the Air New Zealand system.  The web (and interactive television) mantra of reducing the number of clicks required has been ignored, and the system regularly makes the user feel stupid. All this in a system which doesn’t like having lots of buttons being pressed quickly!

All very well, but how did these user interface decisions affect the actual main uses; video on demand, audio on demand and games?  We’ll look at those next.

Coming up

Video on demand (VOD), Music playback and Games, Conclusion.

Print | posted on Tuesday, March 21, 2006 11:58 AM

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