Sunday, August 3, 2008

Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and the brain’s reward system

Those studying reward and punishment in animals and humans often use very simple methods, which turn out to be remarkably effective. In studies of reward and punishment, the subject is instructed to take some action. If the “correct” action (as determined by the experimenter) is taken, there is a small reward – in the form of a peanut or a sugar pellet or a reinforcing sound. If the “wrong” action is taken, a mild electric shock or a disturbing noise is applied. Perhaps as important is this: that when a “wrong” action is taken, often nothing happens – there is simply no reward. That is all. The absence of a reward is itself a punishment.

These are simple but important lessons that those designing public buildings such as airports might wish to learn. The entire design of Terminal 5 at Heathrow shows an abysmal ignorance of the brain’s reward system. Consider this: that when you enter the building, you are ushered to lifts, which have no call buttons. So you cannot even take an action, either rewarding or punishing. If a lift goes by without stopping (punishment), there is nothing you can do – like pressing a button and watching a light come on (reward).

The sign-posting is about the most inept you can imagine. When you arrive and try to make your way to Heathrow Express, there is one arrow pointing forward. You proceed down the hall until you get to the end, and find nothing (punishment). You turn back and, after some searching, find that it was on your left, but there is no filter arrow to indicate it (punishment). Once you get the right direction, a sign tells you that the quickest way to Heathrow Express is by the lift, not the escalator (reward – but read on). So you take the lift and go to the Heathrow Express hall only to find that there are no ticket machines and no ticket counter (punishment) or, if there is one, it is extremely well hidden (Recall that, as a punishment, you would have to pay more to buy your ticket on board the Heathrow Express). So now, you take the escalator back up (remember, lifts have no call buttons, at least on the outside) and go to the arrivals halls, where the automatic ticket machines are located, and then back down again.

This disgrace even permeates the BA lounge. If you follow the sign to access it, you are told to go back to the escalator, retrace your steps one floor down, where you will find the lounge located below. Once you get there, you are ushered upstairs again, where you end up where you started from! I have seen many bewildered passengers wondering what this is all about. The reason is simple. Apparently BAA wants you to visit the shops through this detour! That this is punishment is implied by the fact that premium passengers (those paying upwards of £5000 for a flight) are allowed in without having to retrace their steps, although one would have imagined that they might have more money to squander on shops. In fact, much of the internal architecture of the terminal – emphasizing space – is lost because it is cluttered with shops. Indeed, one gets the impression that the airport is more of a shopping mall than an airport, with passengers a nuisance to be tolerated provided they shop.

The huge new BA lounges are inviting at first. But then, if you want to go to the champagne bar and also have a nibble or two, you will find no food there (punishment). To get the food, you have to back-track some distance – greater or lesser depending on whether you want hot or cold snacks. The best of all is that there are no announcements (punishment) – not that there isn’t an intercom system. There is, but I suppose that they don’t want to be bothered with it. So you have to rely on the electronic notice boards. But these are not everywhere (punishment). There is none (punishment) in the champagne bar, where the tycoons and tycoonettes congregate. I saw one tycoonette who was outraged when informed casually by another passenger that there are no announcements, and she had to walk a good distance to find a board which announced that her flight to Istanbul was closing – in a satellite building which takes some 10 minutes to get to. The poor old dear, she had to gulp her champagne quickly and rush cursing to the nearest exit.

We are told that this is the biggest free standing building in Europe, perhaps the world. You would imagine that such a building – a gateway to the world – would have an inviting and aesthetically pleasing entrance, which could be viewed and admired. Forget it! The front is covered by concrete buildings and fly-overs to deliver those lucky enough or rich enough to use taxis and limousines (at about £80 for a taxi ride to central London, this makes even Heathrow Express – the most expensive railway route in the world – seem reasonable). The only way you can admire the building – if indeed you want to after these punishing experiences – is from the runway, providing you are sitting in the correct position in the plane.

It seems to me, then, that BAA and architects could learn a thing or two by making a greater effort to study the reward and punishment systems of the brain. There is even an Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, founded by John Eberhard, from which they could get some help. There are of course some architects who do this already. Philippe Rahm, in Paris, actually studies papers in neuroscience and incorporates the lessons he derives into his designs. He sets a good example.

This of course will take time. Meanwhile, Heathrow remains the worst airport in the developed world (though you would be forgiven to think that you have arrived in the non-developed world). It is a puzzle that so many want to use it – with its long delays, its inept and rude staff, its designs that are wholly removed from human needs, one would have thought that most would by now have abandoned it or at least protested vigorously enough for something to be done. But I suppose actually getting to London (or getting away from it) must be a bigger reward, worth all these punishments. Terminal 5 is bad, very bad. But it could be worse. You could end up in Terminal 3 or Terminal 4! There are clamours for the monopoly of BAA over British airports to be broken up. I would advocate going a step further – break up the monopoly over Heathrow, and let different companies run the different terminals. That will introduce more competition, which will be a good thing.

1 comment:

Halewyn said...

Perhaps they are interested in having anxious passengers, because in the way out of this puzzle or laberinth, they could liberate anxiety with some shopping; but not interested in ungry passengers, because they are too focused on solving the puzzle or getting out of the laberinth.

So I suppose that they “know” that is better to give wrong indications (with associated punishments), than just simply a mess, with no punishments or rewards. This way the passenger tends to balance punishments with small rewards and keeps its faith on the good will behind the indications.

But the key point of all that may be that the long walks on space and time through the airport invite the user to calm the “ungry“ response, but not anxiety, that by its nature is more easily acumulative, with the consequences described at the beginning.

So, from this point of view, it could be said that it’s a somehow “organized” mess, that –in reality- is self-organized by the situation you described in reference to the role which BAA plays on all that; being a good start or solution the one you propose at the end.