I had seven flights last week: San Francisco-Tokyo-Shanghai-Hong Kong-Beijing-Shanghai-Tokyo-San Francisco. On Tuesday I’m headed to Austin, Texas. And then to Hamburg on Sunday. When you travel so much, the design of the airport experience becomes an integral part of the quality of your life, maybe even more so than the design of your own home. You come to appreciate the little details that distinguish one airport from another in making the moments in transition more enjoyable.
For example, when you go through immigration at the Hong Kong International Airport, there is a little surprise for you: a bowl of mints at the counter. After you’ve gone through the hassles of getting to the airport and you have endured the security check, encountering the mints at the last checkpoint before the gate area is a truly marvelous, gratifying moment. As many surveys have shown, the immigration process often is a main cause of discontent with the overall airport experience, and the Hong Kong airport has taken full advantage of this defining moment by making a small but effective modification. The box of mints comes “with compliments from the Hong Kong International Airport Authority,” and it does what it’s intended to do: it makes you smile (besides refreshing your breath, thus improving your fellow travelers’ experiences). And it makes you wonder why other airports haven’t done something similar yet. The mint-powered "moment of joy" shows that enhancing the customer experience can be quite simple and inexpensive.
The ‘mint moment’ exhibits all the qualities of meaningful design. First of all, it reshapes the social context of the encounter at the counter. The mere presence of the mints may trigger a conversation between the two parties involved in the forced interaction, even if it’s just a brief, casual exchange between the immigration officer and you. Almost mocking the serious matter of the setting, the box of mints alters the tone of the conversation and reduces the stiffness of the situation. Moreover, it is disruptive and introduces an element of surprise. This is crucial because if you do something unexpected--communication theorists call it “expectancy breach”--you will earn attention and even sympathy. Customers are curious and often simply grateful for the disruption of their routine.
In addition to being social and disruptive, the mint moment is personal. In this very public situation, the mint signals a micro effort: just for you, "just for that one moment." Sometimes, it seems, the best service design is the absence of design, at least of that type of design that strives to make an impression through expression. Instead of a high-tech touch-screen info terminal or a similarly ambitious device meant to ease the interaction, the mints are nothing but mints, placed at the right place at the right time. Through its naiveté, the mint moment humanizes the travel experience. A child could have come up with it, and this is exactly why it works. The boldness lies in the unassuming smallness. The mints have a big impact on customer satisfaction and loyalty because of their "meaning surplus": meaning exceeds functionality.