Alaska Airlines

Eliminating Emotional Baggage in the Self Check-in Process 

October - March 2018

For my culminating Capstone project for my Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) Master’s degree, I worked with 2 teammates to apply what we had learned in our graduate studies to a real-world, high-impact problem. Over the course of two academic quarters, we applied the user centered design (UCD) process - from problem definition, research, and design ideation to a high fidelity, interactive prototype - in order to improve the self check-in experience for Alaska Airlines’ travelers.

Project Overview

We worked with Alaska Airlines to develop a revamped improvement to their self check-in infrastructure. Currently, Alaska’s customers have at their disposal multiple platforms (mobile app, desktop web, mobile web, and airport kiosk) with which to check in. The aim of our project was to understand goals and pain points of Alaska’s travelers to inform a re-imagined design of the self check-in process. Our solution, which we call Direct Pass, is a new experience that automates and streamlines check-in to avoid the multiple tasks and hassles of checking in. Direct Pass offers ease and quality of service that align with Alaska's reputation as the airline with the best customer service in America.

For more details about Direct Pass, please see our full concept report, poster, and video.

I am honored to report that esteemed professors in HCDE and industry leaders voted our team as Best in Show at the annual HCDE Open House.

My Role

As we were a small team, our goal in terms of team dynamics was to be flexible and accommodating with regard to each others’ strengths and weaknesses as well as individual work styles and schedules. As such, sometimes roles were shared.


Project Research Lead

  • Developed an initial research strategy that encompassed multiple secondary and primary research methods from which we could triangulate essential information on self check-in.

  • Prepared and conducted on-site observations at SeaTac, coordinated and led the group ideation session, synthesized findings, and created our report-out presentation to our stakeholders at Alaska.

  • Led research analysis, created stress-based contextual scenarios, and drafted the journey map.

  • During prototype evaluations, developed testing protocols, executed sessions, synthesized findings, and connected these to design changes.


Interaction & Visual Designer

  • Brainstormed and sketched ideas.

  • Connected findings from concept testing to design pivot.

  • Created sketches and paper prototypes for key user flows.

  • Developed the high-fidelity interactive prototype on Adobe XD

  • Crafted project video using Adobe After Effects

  • Co-developed project poster using Adobe Illustrator


Product Manager

  • Envisioned our final concept - both from a high level, all the way down to features, user stories, design requirements, and technical requirements.

  • Drove creation of final concept report, but more importantly, used storytelling to weave a coherent story of Direct Pass, contextualized in our design process, user needs, and stakeholder needs.


Project Manager

Called attention to problems in team dynamics and led efforts to improve them by setting out from the start to be flexible and sensitive to each other's needs (see research by Google on successful teams).

Research Methods

Following our research plan, we proceeded to first understand the problem space, as all 3 of us were not familiar with Alaska's check-in infrastructure, and then conducted our elicitation methods: observations and the group ideation session.

Primary Research

  • Observations at SeaTac: We used the fly-on-the-wall technique to observe how travelers navigate the airport as they checked in.

  • Group Ideation Session: Our chief elicitation method, we discussed pain points with a group of 6 frequent Alaska travelers by systematically going through the check-in process starting from 24 hours before flight takeoff. Activities included a joint journey mapping exercise and a sketching exercise of possible solutions.

  • Interviews with Alaska’s SMEs: To understand the current state of self check-in from within the company, we interviewed 3 researchers and 1 developer.


Secondary Research

  • Literature review on performance under pressure/stress: Because we saw stressed travelers in our observations at SeaTac, we researched academic papers for direction on how to facilitate tasks while under pressure. We found that self-efficacy, or the belief that one can succeed in a certain task, is a major factor in task completion.

  • Competitive Analysis: We looked at rival airlines and analogous industries (hospitality) for efficacy in current check-in technologies.

Research Findings

Analysis of research data through affinity diagraming revealed that

  • At the airport, travelers experience stress. Travelers are confused about where to go and how to accomplish certain tasks. For example, tagging bags was an issue for many travelers.

  • The self check-in process is comprised of more steps than full service, that is, the burden is on the traveler to do more work compared to when they are in full service.

  • The self check-in process is also disjointed: travelers must go to several areas in the terminal to accomplish different tasks. Checking luggage complicates the process.

  • While self check-in prior to arriving at the airport is doable, it is not painless. Participants sometimes forgot or felt burdened by having to manually input flight information.


To help ground our ideation phase, we developed a Journey Map and stress-based contextual scenarios. We opted to use stress as the primary theme in the scenarios instead of user personas because our strategy focused on addressing traveler stress during check-in.


We used multiple ideation methods that enabled us to focus which pain points and solutions to concentrate on for our design solution. By using ideation techniques (drawing the problem space, brainwriting, and concept validation), we developed feature definitions that led to the creation of an information architecture and sketches of a fleshed-out prototype.


Our solution includes

  • Check-in Automation: We designed for a text based check-in process where Alaska proactively checks the user in 24 hours before takeoff. Having the information proactively go to the user, in a method that is familiar such as text messaging or app alerts, streamlines the process and provides a less burdensome task flow to the user.

  • Smart Luggage Check-in: Checking bags complicates the check-in process as seen above in the check-in flow diagram. Our solution involves using RFID/NFC/QR based reusable smart tags that can be synced to hold the user’s travel information before the flight using an app. Once users have synced the Direct Pass tag with their current trip, they will be able to drop off checked bags and go straight to TSA. This allows them to bypass some of the checkpoints of the current system for a more streamlined navigation of the airport.

Prototyping & Evaluation

Using the RITE Method, we iterated on our designs 3 times with a total of 6 participants. We began with paper prototypes (2 versions) and then progressed to a final interactive high-fidelity prototype using Adobe XD. At a high level, we found insights through our evaluations that confirmed self-efficacy is the key to task success. In particular, we applied the concept of self-efficacy by peppering the interface with confirmation notifications and instructions. This helped our participants understand whether they were on the right track and to dispel any insecurities that they may have.


Text Based Check-in Experience

Alaska automatically and proactively checks travelers in 24 hours before flight takeoff. After the user views Prohibited Items, which is federally mandated, a boarding pass is sent. Further interactions are done within the text application, a method familiar to most users. Because the work is coming to the user, there is less effort for the user to check in or be reminded of it. Throughout this text-based flow, confirmation on previous steps and instructions on next steps are given.

App Based Check-in Experience

For users with the Alaska app, they have the option of checking in either through text or app. The process is similar, but here, they have the ability to choose a seat or check bags using our Direct Pass smart tag system. We added the capability for choosing or changing seats to our design in consideration of Alaska's business model. 

Paying for Checked Luggage

Checking luggage with the smart tag feature only works within the Alaska app. Here, users can pay for the bag(s) using multiple payment methods. Once successful, they encounter instructions on what to do next. New users will need to acquire the reusable tag at the airport while return users can continue on to link the tag to their itinerary. As the smart tag feature may be a new concept to Alaska's travelers, information and instructions are given to dispel any confusion

Linking Checked Luggage to Itinerary

Peppered with instructions, we aimed for this process to be as painless as possible. Linking is as simple as a scan using the smart phone’s camera. The purpose of using self-scanned reusable tags is to bypass the lines at the kiosk and bag drop off area, thereby limiting the amount of time spent checking in and the number of checkpoints she needs to visit. When the traveler arrives at the airport, she gets a message to drop off bags and head straight to TSA. 


Impact on service offerings

  • Data on user needs and pain points: participants were particularly engaged with this new way of checking in. They saw the value of having the work come to them instead of having to remind themselves to check in and of not having to stand in line at the airport. Stakeholders at Alaska were impressed with our research, as we found insights into their customer base that were previously unknown to them.

  • Detailed concept solution: we provided journey maps and detailed feature breakdowns to maximize our value-add.

  • Roadmap of future concepts: our stakeholders were especially engaged in the broad range of additional concepts we generated in our brainstorm.

Impact on the organizations:

  • Stretched thinking: by choosing design solutions that complemented and enhanced what Alaska already offers, we showed that we did have in mind their business goals and reputation as the airline with the best customer service.

  • Easy to Implement: we considered solutions that would be easy to implement based on available technologies already existing. 

  • Built enthusiasm for user centered design process: at our report-outs, attendees were so engaged in follow-up discussions that our meetings routinely ran overtime. Alaska Airlines asked us to come back to talk about our project and shared that they are seriously considering adopting our ideas for their revamped check-in process.

For check-ins they always show you all the options even if you don’t want to see it, so it makes it faster to just be automatically checked in. (P1)

Very excited to not have to deal with people at the airport. Going to the kiosk and then waiting in line to drop off a bag is a crazy waste of time…. It increases the amount of things you must do at the airport. (P2)


This project was filled with new and exciting learning opportunities. 

  • How much I enjoyed working in the air travel industry, especially as this design space was previously unknown to me.

  • How to effectively manage and influence team dynamics through shared ideas of collaboration and empathy

  • How to design and test a concept based on real world business constraints


On a personal note, struggles in our personal lives hampered our progress. Overcoming loss of loved ones and serious injury, my team nevertheless was able to pull through and succeed in our endeavors to complete this project. I am immensely proud of our team and our achievement.