What do VOD specialists think about designing for In-Flight Entertainment?

The far-reaching factors and considerations of an in-flight experience
Kat Christou
February 12, 2019

Our work often involves designing experiences based on video content and so we are being asked to look at In-flight Entertainment (IFE) much more. We wanted to identify how unique qualities of flying could be used to create a valuable in-flight experience for users.

Our Knowledge

As video experience specialists, there are a number of issues we face regularly. For example, how to expose users to a deep and varied content archive, or provide suitable onward journeys so that users can keep watching. We also understand that video experiences cannot ever be developed in isolation, as there are many factors that influence how products are designed and then built; no two video-on-demand (VOD) services will ever be exactly the same.

All entertainment experiences are part of a wider journey and for IFE, this is no exception.

Bigger Picture

After a recent exploration of what is unique and important about IFE, a few key factors that have an impact on the experience of flying emerged:

  • Users have a range of devices at their fingertips, some of which they own
  • Different types of passenger have different requirements and expectations. Also, these requirements are different for each individual passenger at different points in the journey
  • The in-flight ‘timetable’ adds a natural ebb and flow to passengers’ experiences
  • Watching, or listening to, content has to fit within very defined time constraints
  • The fact that users are flying through the air!

By combining our knowledge of entertainment services with the uniqueness of flying, we can begin to explore what a truly exceptional IFE experience that works well for users may look like.

Connected Experiences

What we know about devices and IFE hardware…

Different devices excel at different tasks, but are most effective when they work together

There has been a notable progression of IFE hardware over the past 20 years, from communal screens with fixed channels shared by all passengers, to individual entertainment systems with ever expanding content catalogues. The proliferation of personal devices has caused airlines to think differently about their entertainment service, as they learn from ever evolving user behaviour, in the race to have better systems and better content.

As a result, some airlines are acting boldly by removing IFE hardware altogether, in favour of downloadable content apps which passengers can install on their own devices. Others are simply shortening the release cycle for new seatback hardware, to keep more in line with advances in mobile device technology.

What is lost by removing seatback hardware, however, is the ‘lean back’ feeling of TV viewing, which a device in your hand never fully satisfies.

Distinct roles and relationships

Devices are good at different things. With a suite of devices, there is a great opportunity to capitalise on these differences.

Tablet – Good for multitasking and keeping up with the gossip.
– Good for lean back viewing.
Interaction with lean back devices is bold and uncomplicated

If devices are given distinct roles and work collaboratively (rather than compete with each other), the overall experience can be dramatically improved. For example, the service could connect devices easily to enable them to excel at what they do best, while also helping them to draw on each other where they fall short.

Mobile has a familiar input mechanism that’s easy to control
Seat back is great for watching with minimal interruptions while mobile is perfect for extended browsing and independent alerts

Establishing UI patterns which are consistent across devices is very important in supporting the frequent transition between platforms and in making the experience feel connected.


While the removal of communal screens demonstrates progress in many respects, it has undermined shared entertainment, which brings people together.

What if a connected experience were not just about one person and their devices, but an experience shared by users in the same environment, enabling them to enjoy content together?

Enabling users to start watching a movie at exactly the same time, or playing the same game at the same time

Seat back hardware serves as a more convenient communal screen, as it is in front of every user, making it the perfect platform to establish a shared experience.

For parents, this could also mean the ability to manage devices from afar…

Not everyone, of course, wants to be a part of a shared experience so allowing people to opt out of this is essential.


Whilst we encourage connectivity in a device ecosystem it is also important to consider where the boundaries lie. Is seatback hardware just a convenient big screen? How much control do we want to have over content? Would we encourage users also to plug in their Roku or Amazon Firestick to watch their own content on-board? Or not?

These are the sorts of parameters we would establish early in our design process, in response to product objectives and business goals, which guide the overall experience.

Adaptable and Evolutionary Experience

Here is how we combined our experience in content curation and user-centred design with the demands of a flight schedule.

IFE is enjoyed in a very unique situation — albeit a now common one, which many people are accustomed to — where a user’s movements are limited for a designated period of time. On-board, there is a familiar schedule of events — drinks, meal, duty free — and various states of mind or activity — watching a film, snoozing, preparing for landing.

The purpose of IFE is to engage users along this journey, delivering pertinent content in accordance with what users may need at any given moment. This purpose has also started to extend beyond the flight, filtering into a user’s personal devices and allowing them to peek ahead at available content days or weeks before their flight.

How might we make IFE more intuitive and forward-looking, enabling it to become more responsive to user needs, and to adapt to how these needs change through the flight?


At a basic level, there are some simple design decisions we can make to support different types of user activities.

Entertain users who just want to watch and help them binge with good content discovery.

Offer time-based recommendations that fit around their schedule…

…and time of day.

Let them switch off or give them something completely different.


If we extend the idea of content adaptability to individuals, personalisation can also play a powerful role in IFE. Rather than asking users to create their own playlists, the service could just know who they are.

Promote content it knows the user has not seen yet.

Tailor the experience from the outset based on certain innate needs, such as if they are children.

Editorial voice

Where automated content experiences is extremely powerful, clear editorial input is usually the lynchpin to the system. As content providers, it is important to be able to adapt, curate and promote content in a targeted way that reflects the varying needs and aspirations of different audiences.

Having a system that allows for editorial flexibility on top of a personalised service is the sweet spot we always aim for.

End note

When designing entertainment experiences it is essential to work within the constraints of the setting. Embracing the unique qualities of flying and fully appreciating the impact these have on users, are the start to creating a harmonious in-flight experience.

Designing the right IFE service also means considering what makes each service unique, for example, how to cater to the tastes of different audiences, the route or journey itself, the available content catalogue, and editorial capacity. All of these will inform the overarching product strategies that guide the execution of both content and UI.

Through this approach, it is possible to begin to develop a truly unique and world class in-flight experience, which will deliver exceptional value for passengers, together with a strong business return for the airline.