Blog Airline Seats and complexity

How to make the insanely simple overly complicated

I recently flew in business class on quite a few different airlines. Nearly all the seats were “lie flat,” meaning that the seat can, in some way, recline and fold out into a bed of sorts. Generally, these seats have three main jobs:

1) Sit upright (for landing and takeoff)

2) Recline, with a foot rest that slides/folds/Transformers out

3) Slide into a “flat” position

That’s it, pretty simple really.

However, there seems to be an overwhelming design urge that because these seats are for customers who are paying a premium for their ticket, these seats should really be capable of anything. Yes, in addition to fantastic 18yr old scotch, one of the unknown perks to business-class flying is that you can customize your seating to your heart’s content. Unfortunately, that overwhelming urge to show off the yoga-like flexibility of their seats means airlines often have overly complicated controls.

Here’s some examples of seat controls from I used over the past month:

The Toggle-tastic Seat:


Really, who doesn’t love a good toggle switch?


The Secret Garden Seat

Plenty of controls to move your leg rest...  But took a while to figure out that the blue toggle at the bottom was what reclined the seat...

The buttons have different colors, which sort of match what part of the seat they correspond to. You may have noticed there’s no obvious way to recline the seat (probably the most important function!) That’s done by the  blue toggle switch at the bottom, which had no affordance… For several minutes I thought it was a “your-seat-is-working” light.

The Literal Seat

A little better... each part of the seat is a toggle that can be moved in the direction you want. (photo by jasonEscapist)

For these controls, each part of the “seat” is actually its own switch. While somewhat clever (you just move the seat in whatever direction you want), the utility is defeated by trying to elegantly manipulate tiny, oddly shaped toggle switches. It’s also easy to inadvertently bump another part of the seat controls, leading to this feeling of trying to tune an old radio.

The Sane Seat

At last! Simple, large buttons for moving the chair to each position automatically. (photo by thezipper)

Probably the best seat controls I encountered. Each button has a clear mapping, and the most important functions (upright, recline, lie-flat) are large buttons that you can’t miss.

Airline Seat controls others have used

While looking into this, I came across a few other examples of insanely complicated controls:

The Engineering-Comes-First Seat

by FlickrJunkie

Possibly the most ambiguous controls ever. Likely driven by an engineering decision that the 4-way button pad were cheap and readily available. I also like the ambiguous wavy-lines button. Does it make coffee? Massage? Heat?

The Everything’s Important! Seat

by matt1125

The physical locations and yellow lines linking the buttons is good. However, it’s a great example of how no visual design can make an interface feel immediately overwhelming and un-usuable. Especially tasteful was how the designer just reused the same yellow button for Landing and Lie-Flat mode.

The Kitchen Sink Seat

Far too many options, especially along the right side of the panel. What do the two inclined positions really mean?… Why are the position controls labeled with a * ? Are the buttons around the black box for controlling height of the seat, or the angle?

The Let’s-slap-a-label-on-it-and-everything-will-be-better Seat

by s.yume

Hopefully you brought your reading glasses, or you might miss that the < -> on the left side controls the head rest, while the <-> on the right controls the foot rest.

The “My manager’s manager was confused, so we added labels to appease him” Seat

by Gotham Nurse

Not too bad, but the labels are redundant (and too small to read)

The Customization is GREAT Seat

by eliduke

Simple, but clear. Except for the “M” button… which may be some sort of way to save your seat configuration.

In Summary: Don’t Overdesign It

As you looked at these controls, you have thought “but it’s a seat, so just try it out and see what happens! You’ll learn!” If only it was that easy. Due to some sort of safety engineering, most of the seats I encountered were clearly running off some set of hidden rules which limited the seat’s range of motion (presumably so you wouldn’t break the seat, or trap your feet, or something…) As a result, you had to “learn” what each seat would let you do, and when.

Customization is nice, but in the end, all I wanted was a simple set of controls to recline my seat, not the launch panel for a spaceship.