What Mobile Applications can Learn from Montréal’s Mirabel Airport

Posted on July 31, 2012

I find Montréal’s Mirabel airport absolutely fascinating. Imagine building the world’s second largest airport only to close it down a few years later. But, to my eyes, Mirabel was not only an airport, it was also a dream to make things better for the traveler, with a lot of interesting concepts.

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to use Mirabel, arriving in Montréal after all flights had been returned to Trudeau airport in Dorval; so much of what I’m writing has been gleamed from secondary sources across the Internet.

Mirabel was envisioned when Montréal was imagining itself on the cusp of great growth, and seeing new technologies just over the horizon. Imagine Concordes linking Québec with Europe; making the distance between old and new continents seem small. Mirabel was designed to make the distance between the aeroplane and the car-park as short as possible.

If you consider what we try to do with mobile design, it’s to try and make the user experience as good as possible. And that’s what the terminal designers at Mirabel tried to do. Good airports today ensure a great experience, bad airports make it terrible for the user.

Think about some of the worst airports in North America. Where are you thinking of? JFK? La Guardia? Newark? Yes, ageing infrastructure, complexity, lack of service and overall a lack of welcome. This is what Mirabel’s designers were trying to avoid. Moving through the worst airports is a grim sole-destroying experience, while moving through the best is an uplifting, almost pleasant and welcoming experience. If you look at some of the earlier drawings of Mirabel, with its large airy atrium, it’s almost like a temple to travel.

Shouldn’t your mobile application be like a temple to your use-cases? Shouldn’t it delight and entertain your users every step of the way? This is what the designers at Mirabel tried to do, and this is what designers of your application should try to do. So when thinking about the application, think about how to minimize inconveniences and maximize the fun factor.

One of the worst possible experiences at the airport is going though the security check; but here again there are ways of making that process better. Again, American airports seem to be the worst with aggressive TSA agents and often small cramped spaces. At Brussels airport in Belgium, they hang big video screens over the area to show people how to prepare their luggage to so through screening. It makes the process smoother, taking a fundamentally disagreeable activity into one that just becomes a nuisance. How can you adapt your mobile application flow to transform something disagreeable into something that could actually become enjoyable? Can your mobile application actually change a real-world process from disagreeable to enjoyable?

Wasn’t Mirabel a White Elephant?

No discussion of Mirabel is complete without wondering why it failed. There has been a lot of ink in the Canadian press about this, but it seems to boil down to a few things: too far away from Montreal, transport links not being built, technology allowing planes to fly further, no Concorde, and Montréal’s political issues.

There are of course parallels to think about when designing applications. A thorough understanding of the constraints of the environment are certainly one thing. Mirabel’s distance from Montréal made it deeply unpopular. If your mobile application requires the user to step through too many hoops to get the job done, then it will fail to meet their needs. Understanding what are users’ fundamental needs is hence essential.

Understanding too, what potential competitive changes can occur in your business that can impact your application is important. However, it’s not always possible to predict, especially in the technology area where things are changing so quickly. At Digital Possibilities, we suggest developing small changes to the application over time, using Agile development methods, to release more quickly and be able to adapt to changes. Don’t build upfront for a Concorde that will never arrive!

Mirabel was a marvel of design for an use-case scenario that never came to pass. Make your mobile application a delight for your users for their key use-cases.

Here are some more images from Montréal’s Mirabel Aiport: