If you’re building a digital service then onboarding is a big deal - it's the process used to introduce new users to sign up for, or join, a service. UserOnboard looks at how various services do this and describes it as 'the process of increasing the likelihood that new users become successful when adopting your product'.

You know that really nice online experience - it feels easy, safe, clearly explained, no surprises. You'll also probably know other, less-than-happy experiences - clunky, not feeling secure, not sure what's happening next or where you are in the process.

It’s important to help your customers to get know to your service, to orient them and help them to know what to expect. The language used and the context created helps us through a process and, if it doesn’t go well, we might give up or, even worse, tell others about the poor experience. 

I've been wondering about the experience of boarding a plane, thinking about it as joining a service. Boarding as Onboarding. After all, it's the point at which you move from the airport to the airline - it might even be your first offline interaction with the airline. 

Here are three recent, different experiences I've had - we'll call them Gate 1, Gate 2 and Gate 3:

Gate 1

We actually boarded a bus because the plane was parked miles away. It was 6:45am, cold, wet and windy. After a slightly uncomfortable ride to the other side of the airport, we were delivered to the plane, exposed to the elements as the bus drove away. 80 people, one staircase. It was a long, cold and damp wait for those of us near the back of the queue.

I guess if anyone had booked assistance they would have taken a separate journey to the plane? I hope so. 

Gate 2

For a start, the signage about where to queue at the gate was confusing and, as the crowds gathered, the level of confusion seemed to increase.  Since it was a full flight, passengers were invited to volunteer to put their hand-luggage in the hold and in return they would be given priority boarding.

A few minutes later three recorded announcements invited different groups to board:

  • Those who had paid for priority boarding,
  • those with children
  • people 'requiring assistance'

A fourth announcement invited passengers who had volunteered their hand luggage for the hold but, since there was nothing recorded for this, it was shouted.

In the meantime staff walked along the line telling people to put small bags inside bigger bags… but nobody was really sure why. 

All of these announcements competed with others from a nearby gate, along with the general hum of the airport. I could barely hear a thing and, from the confused looks around me, I wasn’t the only one. 

I hope I don't have to board through Gate 2 again.

Gate 3

A better experience. My boarding pass simply had the words Group 4 on it.

Groups 1 to 3 boarded first and I had no idea why - maybe they'd paid extra or requested earlier boarding. Maybe they'd won a raffle. I didn’t know or need to know. The process was easy to understand, clearly explained and had no surprises.


It can't be easy moving hundreds of people through a door and onto a plane against the clock, answering questions and checking passports, but there must be ways to make these stressful situations less intimidating, less uncomfortable. 

Having made it through security, anxiety levels already high, it can be yet another set of decisions to make with more queuing, more instructions to follow, all based on announcements that can be less than clear.

If boarding was treated as onboarding, a vital part of designing the travel experience, perhaps it could add to a journey rather than turning it into a bad story that we tell for years to come.