Whenever I fly, I’m an inveterate gawker — geographically speaking.  

Getting a window seat on a cloudless day is like getting a ticket to a great performance. At 35,000 feet you’re witness to a world playing out in miniature — cities and villages, mountains and deserts, even the occasional crop circle.

The mind wanders: What exactly am I looking at? I see the interstate highway built to bypass that little farm town in Kansas, or is it Oklahoma? I know I’m flying from Point A to B, but what I really want to know is: what’s down there? (And, how much longer will it take to get to my destination?)

Last week I flew Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS) to Boston from Zurich returning from a client workshop. The experience was a vivid lesson in how an airline (core mission: get me home safely) is using content, creatively and in context, to provide a relevant and engaging customer experience in flight.

SWISS’s secret? The seat-back video screens don’t just play on-demand movies and TV shows (itself a big plus on an 8.5-hour flight). They deliver real-time mapping showing what we’re flying over; arrows mark the flight path like a “heads-up display” in some autos, along with content and photos of tourist hot spots on the ground.

At the same time, it shows the speed the plane is traveling, the altitude, and the distance and time remaining in the flight.

This isn’t brand-new technology. However, the marriage of technology, data and interface into a meaningful user experience by SWISS pushes this into bonus territory for me.

Here’s what I like about it:

  • This is one small example of content presented in context: Where am I and what information makes me smarter/happier/more engaged?
  • The experience is personalized, in this case to a single user persona: everyone on SWISS flight 052 (a captive audience, you might say).
  • The content is engaging (well, it was to me).
  • And it’s oddly humanizing, flying seven miles high and getting a glimpse of what’s going on down there.

It all got me thinking about how organizations work hard to find ways to differentiate using digital strategies and tools. One lesson here: it need not be overly complex or profound. In many cases, it just needs to answer a need, or deliver unexpected delight and usefulness. In this case, it’s one digital touchpoint among many. (For more information on this topic, read Forrester’s report "Unify The Digital Experience Across Touchpoints".)

Passengers on SWISS get content in context, such as this real time map with travel information.SWISS presents what it has for information in a meaningful way — and there’s the lesson for application development pros and their counterparts in content and communications roles. The simple solution blends real-time data and consumer-centric travel content (flying over Paris, a photo and description: “The Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe at night”) in a way that satisfies my curiosity.

And, it helps pass the time on a long flight just a bit more quickly.

To application developers out there, have you found similar yet simple ways of combining technology and content to create a great experience in new and surprising ways? Let us know in the comments.