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Alaska Airlines

Eliminating Emotional Baggage in the Self Check-in Process

Human Centered Design & Engineering 

University of Washington

September 2017 - March 2018

For my culminating capstone project for my Master’s program, 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 medium fidelity, interactive prototype - in order to improve the self check-in experience for Alaska Airlines’ travelers.

I was mainly the research lead in the project. Other roles include participating in all aspects of ideation, prototyping, evaluation, reporting, and project management.

This page showcases the highlights of our project within the boundaries of our NDA with Alaska.

Background and Goals

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 self check-in platforms -mobile app, desktop web, mobile web, and airport kiosk. 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.

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Poster of Direct Pass


We leveraged multiple primary and secondary methods to understand the problem space and travelers.​

Methods to understand the problem space
  • ​Cognitive walkthrough of Alaska's ecosystem of platforms

  • Expert interviews with Alaska's researchers

  • Literature review

  • Comparative analysis of check-in procedures in the hospitality and transportation industries


Methods to understand the user
  • Structured observations at SeaTac airport 

  • Group ideation workshop (journey mapping activity with 6 participants

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Diagram of travelers navigating check-in at the airport

What We Learned

Stress was a huge hindrance. The self check-in process is more disjointed and takes up many more steps than the full-service option, placing the burden on the traveler to do more work and as a result, feel insecure at every step. Checking luggage complicates the process even more.

Ideation and Prototyping

To ground ideation, we developed two key artifacts from the participatory design and observation data: a journey map and stress-based contextual scenarios. We opted to highlight stress instead of user personas because stress was the most common emotion underlying the research data. 

Our prototype addressed two big concerns: check-in automation and smart luggage check-in. Using the RITE method, we iterated on our designs 3 times with a total of 3 participants. 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.


One of many sessions analyzing data and developing ideas


Impact on service offerings 
  • Data on user needs and pain points

  • Detailed concept solution

  • Roadmap of future concepts

Impact on the organization
  • 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 already existing technologies.

  • 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 enthusiastic to apply our findings.


It was an honor to receive the Best in Show award from professors and industry leaders at the annual HCDE Open House.

My Reflections

This project was filled with new and exciting learning opportunities. 

  • How much I enjoyed working on an industry project

  • 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 (We won an award!).

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