Young Designer Stages AA Intervention

Dustin Curtis is a 22-year-old user interface designer and head of user experience at Frogmetrics. He also travels a fair bit. If you are American Airlines, this might be an unfortunate combination. Especially when an open letter is addressed to you that begins in part: "Recently, I had the horrific displeasure of booking a flight on your website, AA.com."

This was Curtis' way of explaining why he had gone through the trouble of designing a mock frontpage for AA and addressed the posting thus: "Dear American Airlines, I redesigned your website's frontpage, and I'd like to get your opinion." Admittedly, the page Curtis spent a couple of hours creating is a fair bit better than the one American Airlines currently employs. But what possessed him?

"I was prompted to do the redesign when I finished booking my flight on AA.com and was presented with a broken page that had 15 CSS errors." Curtis tells Online Media Daily.

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He also must have been shocked to hear from someone at the company just hours after he had advocated for it to "fire your entire design team." And he must have been even more surprised when that person was AA's user experience architect. "When I wrote my letter, I wasn't even sure AA.com had an official design team, much less a 'UX architect'," Curtis wrote on his blog. The surprises did not stop there. "To my absolute astonishment, the guy is actually pretty good at what he does. He has a portfolio of some great work."

The UX architect, who asked to remain anonymous in his correspondence, wrote a very lengthy response to Curtis, and at no point did he rebut any of the charges Curtis had made. In fact, he started his response: "You're right. You're so very right," with a sort of exasperation. The UX architect then detailed the red tape and corporate compromises that have resulted in AA.com becoming the Frankenstein's monstrosity it is today. "The group running AA.com consists of at least 200 people spread out amongst many different groups, including, for example, QA, product planning, business analysis, code development, site operations, project planning, and user experience," he wrote. He further chronicles how his company's Interactive Marketing group, Publishing group and AAdvantage team all have their own access and input onto the site.

"Simply doing a home page redesign is a piece of cake," said the source. "You want a redesign? I've got six of them in my archives. It only takes a few hours to put together a really good-looking one, as you demonstrated in your post."

Its interesting to note that experience is becoming an increasingly large part of online branding, and companies overcoming organizational inertia seem well-equipped for this. The problem wasn't with the design team, as Curtis had surmised upon his unpleasant experience -- it was systemic. But the UX architect knows that that is not an excuse. "It'll happen because it has to, and we know that," he says.

Recent Forrester research projected that customer experience budgets would hold up (but remain flat) throughout the year. But in a recession, "customer experience professionals should promote improving Web usability as a key tactic for cutting sales and service costs" wrote Forrester analyst Megan Burns.

One thing the UX architect might have going for him is that Forrester research into customer loyalty showed a relatively low correlation between the likelihood of customers to switch and positive service in the airline industry -- meaning that even when customers have good experiences, they are not that much more likely not to use another airline. There are other factors -- price being a major one in casual travel. Counterintuitive to this, perhaps, the same research shows that the single organization in all industries with the highest correlation between reluctance to switch and customer satisfaction is US Airways.

Curtis's assertion that "we're on the verge of a shift" looks foreboding in this light -- at least if you are AA, maybe not if you are US Airways, Jet Blue or Virgin America.

Dear American Airlines

Dear American Airlines/Redesign

3 comments about "Young Designer Stages AA Intervention".
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  1. Tony Shiff from Big Bear Consulting, June 2, 2009 at 12:16 p.m.

    So very true. I tried to book a flight last month on AA and gave up after trying to work my way through their awful UI.
    How much business must they have lost because of this?

  2. Robert Moss, June 2, 2009 at 1:41 p.m.

    The response Curtis received from the UX architect at American Airlines is not surprising. One of the accounts I worked on at DDB, which will remain nameless, had so many business groups within the organization fighting turf wars over their website that it seriously hampered most efforts to improve it. This is endemic of many established companies.

    The examples Curtis offers (Jet Blue and Virgin) were able to start fresh when they built their websites, and naturally user experience was priority. Not so with American Airlines.

    Beyond website design and user experience, the larger story is that many once profitable and distinguished firms (e.g., General Motors and Nortel Networks) were unable to survive because they couldn't focus their attention and resources where they were needed.

    American Airlines should wrangle their various groups and departments, never mind the egos. Considering how difficult it is to compete in the airlines industry, it would help if everyone at AA got an old Delta or TWA business card and put in their wallet. Until then it’s unlikely they’ll give customer experience the attention it deserves.

  3. Warren Lee from WHL Consulting, June 2, 2009 at 1:45 p.m.

    John great treatment of the same old story. During Web1.0 most of the e-commerce companies were web based and UIs were fairly simple and straight forward. Now, however, with the web dominated by brick-and-mortar retailers, there are lots of different functionalities and options that are required of design teams and, as the article states, there are so many stakeholders that the key architects, knowing what the requirements are, have their hands tied and are not allowed to employ best practices. AA is a prime example, but they are certainly not alone, even in their category. I can not think of one airline, that I've tried to book on, that makes the process as easy as I would like. I think that a great way that businesses can leverage Twitter, and other social networks, is to "put it out to the cloud." Let your customers tell you what they would like, then make sure that the fixes are not diluted by divergent stakeholders.

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