Airport User Research may not seem like an efficient way to gather primary research. However, I’ve found them to be a great resource in helping to understand product-market fit and quickly gather early learnings, and have tried to incorporate this guerrilla research technique on a lot of my projects.

Emerson’s New Product Development (NPD) group thrives on early user research and feedback to usher projects through our Stage-Gate® process by using a build/measure/learn approach. The ability to quickly locate potential customers and gather qualitative and quantitative research has been instrumental in accelerating our time to market. To gather rapid feedback, we’ve had to get creative in how and where we can execute this research. Fortunately, every major city has an airport with a lot of foot traffic and a highly captive audience.

Cost effective user research

Stephen at DFW
That’s me in the green and blue shirt (but with a lot more hair) informally interviewing someone at DFW.

In a pinch, a marketing agency could go out on your behalf and survey customers matching your profile screen. That won’t square in my group – we vastly prefer primary research over secondary methods. We also highly value getting our team out of the building and face-to-face with people. One of our axioms is we do not pay consultants to know more about our customers and end-users than we do.

The main drawback to hiring a marketing agency to execute the research is, predictably, the cost. I obtained a quote from a local agency to discuss the research project and propose how they would field a study. I was shocked to see the price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars.

No thank you.

We have fielded a few large-scale studies to help profile our target customer. Knowing the demographic clusters for our customer profiles, we opted to fly from St. Louis (STL) to Atlanta (ATL) and walk through Terminal A, B, and C to identify our target users and solicit their opinions and feedback on our proposed product design and features.

A flight from St. Louis to Atlanta – even purchased 12 hours before departure! – was $480. I took a product manager along with me on the trip, doubling the cost (but even with meals and incidentals we still came in under $1,000).

We departed at 6 am and returned at 3:30 pm, and engaged with over 100 people. Money, and time, well-spent.

Pre-screened audience (and not by TSA)

Having built the personas and written screeners for usability participants, I know our target customer’s background, wants and needs. Locating these individuals in the Atlanta Airport – the busiest airport in the world! – was not difficult.

So, why does the airport make so much sense? Well, the people traveling meet certain income thresholds. You are either traveling for work or pleasure, and air travel is not cheap. It’s also reasonably easy to use your powers of observation to spot wedding rings, business professional attire, and technology adoption.

Having a pre-screened audience at our disposal made for an easy and somewhat enjoyable day of research. I was even able to close all of my Apple Watch activity rings!


We brought physical prototypes with us on a powered board and set off to the last gate in Terminal A to set up shop. Arriving early, we connected to the free ATL Wi-Fi and loaded our Surveys on two iPads we brought with us to capture feedback.

It didn’t take long before we had a full gate of users either de-planing or waiting to board. At ATL, there’s also a good chance that passengers will have a lengthy delay, so you’ll (literally!) have a captive audience.

In the end, we captured 107 data points that helped inform a product decision. And, at a hair under $1,000, saved the company a considerable amount of money.

I’d love to hear from you – where is the most out-there place you’ve conducted VOC research?