Examining the User Experience of Sky Harbor’s Visual Paging System

Things are looking up in Phoenix, and if you’re our enthusiastic traveler pictured below, they’re looking up and squinting.

As part of Sky Harbor’s not-so-recent facility facelift, the Paging Assistance Location (PAL) is intended to supplement audio paging and better service both hearing impaired travelers and, well, iPod users. Says PHX Assistant Aviation Director Carl Newman: “I believe we are the only airport in the country that has a visual paging system at the airport … in most terminals, you can’t go more than 1,600 feet and you are running into one of the paging screens.”

While Sky Harbor deserves fair credit for introducing a means to reach the increasingly headphoned masses, their execution seems to stumble in the tiny shoes of the system’s infancy. And since its intent is to capture the attention of a specific traveler, our PAL might be considered downright ineffective. Fortunately, it’s not beyond the loving reach of a few usability considerations and simple attention to the interface.

The existing PAL display uses a static 2×10 grid to page travelers. And whether displaying 2 names or 20, the PAL confines these folks to the same static grid, at the same font size (just like the papyrus on which passenger paging queues were originally written):

By dynamically generating a grid based on the number of travelers in the paging queue, we’re immediately able to reclaim any real estate occupied by the empty grid …

… and fill it with big, bold text:

This method really pays off when negotiating shorter lists, but always gives as much real estate as possible to each individual name. We can reclaim even more space by dumping extraneous branding and messaging or moving it to the hardware surface. Since the days of the courtesy phone were the days before the ubiquitous cell phone — and I want to keep walking to Sbarro while retrieving my message — perhaps just “Please call XXX-XXXX” will act as a sufficient replacement (which maintains effect even when the screen stands without the bulky console):

If we have evidence that it’s easier to recognize our name displayed briefly but at full-screen — rather than “permanently” amidst the clutter of other names — sequential queues provide some interesting possibilities. The challenge becomes selecting a display duration that is just long enough for recognition, but not so long that the entire cycle becomes tedious. We might increase this duration without disrupting the overall usability by introducing a gentle decay to a cascading, sequential queue. For fluidity and aesthetic appeal, the names in the instance below float in from back right to front left:

Naturally, the shorter list has the best results, but we can accommodate view time issues by placing screens for the benefit of temporarily captive audiences, such as near conveyors, next to arrival & departure information, or even in restrooms. Additionally, this cascading sequence could cater to our ad-mad, this-thing-had-better-pay-for-itself world, potentially interjecting brand logos within the alphabetical paging queue:

With thoughtful use of color / weight (to indicate priority, categories, etc.), queue labels (to better indicate the position of the queue sequence, as well as the total number of travelers in the queue), and other improvements that might emerge during testing, we’ve finally given our PAL a fighting chance for travelers’ attention.