“Please, let me redesign your airline for you.”

Jared Spool

August 2nd, 2010

The airline industry is well-known for the wrath and frustration it inspires in its customers. Usually this manifests itself in shouting at gate agents or long, angry blog posts about being trapped on the tarmac for hours without rescue.

Recently, a new kind of manifestation has emerged: redesigning. Professional designers, frustrated by the experiences they are having with the airlines’ deliverables, are voluntarily redesigning web sites and boarding passes. They are publishing their pleas for a better experience online and getting a great response.

Most recently, it was Zach Klein’s redesign of Delta’s club portal that caught my attention. Before that, it was Tyler Thompson’s redesign of the Delta boarding pass. And it all started with Dustin Curtis’s redesign of American Airline’s home page.

In each case, these talented designers took time away from their work and life to help the airlines develop a better experience. While the world of professional graphic artists insists that “spec work” is an evil that refuses to compensate designers for the value of their efforts, these designers are donating their time to persuade multi-billion dollar companies on the benefits of good design. And, the worst of it is, those companies aren’t listening.

Original Delta Sky Club Portal Page
Original Delta Sky Club Portal Page

Look at the Zach’s redesign of the Delta Sky Club’s portal site. The original page design had nothing to do with the club members current context and experience. Here you have someone sitting in a club in Salt Lake City, on their way to New York City, yet the weather is for Atlanta. There’s a link to a story about saving $600 on a Bermuda vacation and another that presumably lists all the club locations in airports around the world. And there’s an ad for a $74,000 Porche.

Redesigned Delta Sky Club Portal by Zach Evans
Redesigned Delta Sky Club Portal by Zach Evans

Zach felt these weren’t the most important things for someone who just checked into the club. His redesign had, in big, easy-to-read text, the departure time, gate, seat, and arrival time of the next travel leg. It contains information on nearby food options, whether the flight has wifi and tv, the length of the flight, upgrade status, and which baggage claim area. These are all things important to a traveler in flight.

It’s a clean, well-thought through design, even though Zach claims he only spent an hour (the time in the club) thinking about it and designing it out. It keeps Delta’s brand in place while delivering an effective experience for a seasoned Delta traveler.

Tyler Thompson's Redesigned Delta Boarding Pass
Tyler Thompson’s Redesigned Delta Boarding Pass

Tyler’s redesign of the boarding passes followed the same themes as Zach’s. He took the existing cluttered information and, through color, grid, and typography, cleaned up it up, making it easy for a passenger to get to the information that’s most important: Flight, Gate, departure time, seat, and zone. Others joined in, with their own suggested designs. Each design took important requirements into account, such as making the TSA’s job easier for the info they need to find.

It all started with Dustin’s redesign of the AA.com site. In the blog post, he wrote, “The experience was so bad that I vowed never to fly your airline again.” He continued, “If I was running a company with the distinction and history of American Airlines, I would be embarrassed — no ashamed — to have a website with a customer experience as terrible as the one you have now. How does your CEO, Gerard J. Arpey, justify treating customers this way? Why does your board of directors approve of this? Your website is abusive to your customers, it is limiting your revenue possibilities, and it is permanently destroying the brand and image of your company in the mind of every visitor.”

Dustin Curtis's Redesigned AA.com home page
Dustin Curtis’s Redesigned AA.com home page

He took their cluttered, ad-ridden pages and cleaned them up to provide a simple experience for making new reservations, finding great deals, checking flight status, and getting to your account details. He’s even left a place for the CEO to talk about their new image (hee!) and the multiplicity of other options that one finds at a big airline, like access to the route map and a link for getting refunds.

How bad does an industry need to let its customer experience get before it starts to listen? And, here, the listening isn’t hard. These talented customers are telling the folks they would prefer to do business with exactly how to make their experience better.

The world is filled with talented designers. Which is less expensive? Letting your experience degrade to the point of frustration for every customer? Or hiring the designers who can help you provide a great design?

14 Responses to ““Please, let me redesign your airline for you.””

  1. Melanie Says:

    Good points. Even WORSE, when the American Airlines UX designer responded to Dustin’s email agreeing with his points, AA fired him. How hostile to good customer experiences can you be?

    I hate to travel and I’m loath to spend money on it. But Zach’s Delta Club site makes me WANT to be a member. If good, usable design can make me want to spend money on something I hate, why aren’t the airlines listening, indeed?

  2. Jason Grant Says:

    The industry won’t start listening until there is an issue (i.e. a drop in revenues because of a certain reason). This is why these horrible UXes keep re-appearing around the web.

    The ‘horrible ads’ are those things which the business wants to ‘push’ onto the users without realising that they are simply just pushing the people away from their main focus (i.e. booking a ticket in the first place, etc.).

    I like the first screen shot very much, but it is oriented at a very specific (fairly simple) scenario, which is fairly easily dealt with.

  3. Chris Hass Says:

    Thanks for drawing attention to these egregious examples of airline inattention and defeating them with wonderful examples of designer ingenuity! Having conducted usability research in airports I’m aware of what a quagmire of shared responsibilities and time-honored jurisdictions airports can be. Signage, check-ins, security, curbside support- all can be run by different agencies. However, this article’s focus on badly designed materials airlines are primarily responsible for makes an effective and focused plea for necessary improvement.

    Considering how vital it is to airlines that people move swiftly through the airport and onto their planes, it seems unbelievable that they spend so little time thinking about how those actions literally occur.

    Moving through an airport, surviving the security check process, and arriving at a gate is stressful enough. Why should we have to be detectives to find out our own boarding information? Thank you for reminding industry professionals that boarding passes should be human-readable, easily scanned while moving through a crowd, and that transit websites should provide (gasp!) logistical support, not fantasy ads for improbable purchases.

    I suggest we hold the first ever “Airlines Olympics.” Five incognito airline CEOs are dropped curbside at Boston’s Logan Airport with check-in bags, three kids, a carry-on, a laptop bag, (at lunchtime) with 40 minutes to make their flight.

    I bet less than an hour later we’d see mandates for improving airline signage, websites, mobile sites, and written materials…

  4. Dave Hogue Says:

    I would like add two things:

    @Chris Hass – we should also make the CEOs fly in economy seating. I recently flew from PHL to SFO on United and the seats were so close together that there were literally 10 inches between my face and the back of the seat in front of me. Ironically, the movie they showed was about Temple Grandin and her stockyard designs for the humane treatment of livestock. I felt like cattle, and I cannot image any high-ranking airlines executive tolerating this level of seating density and customer treatment for themselves.

    @Jared – having worked (as a consultant) for many large corporations, I think that one of the biggest problems that results in these poor designs and experiences is design by committee. These companies do not have a central owner and vision for their digital experiences – different components of the experience come from different corporate divisions with different owners/leaders and requirements. I would not be surprised at all to learn that boarding passes are in a different unit from ticketing, that online reservations are different from online check-in, and that travel services are different from flight status and monitoring. It really should be no surprise then a web page looks like a shotgun blast of diverse and disparate experiences with no unified goal or focus for the customer it is because different silos within the organization own different parts of the page. It’s a case of the right hand not talking to the left hand, and no one taking responsibility for a high-level mission and goal.

    We can fuss and complain all we want about poor design and bad experience, and we can even convince the organizations to hire great designers, but until the organizations come to the realization that good experience comes from having a vision, a purpose, and a centralized owner and control of the experience with the legitimate power to unite and even veto the contributing corporate units, then all we will have are frustrated, great designers and web sites that still cobble together disparate components of a non-unified experience.

  5. Michael Hoskins Says:

    It’s because of design by committee that these awful portals exist. Dustin Curtis shrugs this off and says that if AA has a corporate culture crappy enough to allow this site to exist, then they should reorganize or fire the employees responsible.

    Maybe he’s right, and maybe not; I don’t really care what an outsider’s thoughts are on a given company. I know I’ve fought against asinine design decisions from people who didn’t know better plenty of times. As the designer at AA he spoke to said, it’s easy enough to do a redesign. Submitting neat-o spec work is an easy way to appear as if you understand everything that makes a website.

    The real world has practical considerations, and idealized spec projects happily ignore these to make a nice, flashy presentation. Sure, tickets could look that way, but what’s their unit cost? Would printing white numbers on a solid black field even work? What types of printers would be needed (thermo paper has a purplish tint)? What about smudging? Will boarding passes look like that when printed from a kiosk/clerk/ticket agent?

    But hey, I’m sure the hard-working people who actually get paid to work on these sites love hearing from some freelance guy that they should all be fired for incompetency. I know getting free spec work always puts a smile on MY face.

  6. Jared Spool Says:

    Michael,

    I hear you that these folks have attitude and their solutions may or may not work.

    But that wasn’t my point.

    My point was that they were frustrated enough with the airline’s current design state to, rightly or wrongly, start working on their own versions.

    That means something, don’t you think?

  7. Michael Hoskins Says:

    Jared,

    I guess I did miss the point a bit. As a designer who does have to work within the previously-mentioned constraints, it irks me to see someone’s design hailed the way these are, when they were essentially designed in a vacuum with no outside interference (the way a real-world design would).

    Certainly wasn’t trying to say that things couldn’t be done better, and an airline might just do well by hiring someone that puts out work like this and can stand up for their convictions. JetBlue has gone a long ways to make themselves very customer-friendly, and any airline could do the same if they put the customer experience first.

  8. links for 2010-08-03 | Small Farm Design Says:

    [...] “Please, let me redesign your airline for you.” » UIE Brain Sparks Professional designers, frustrated by the experiences they are having with the airlines’ deliverables, are voluntarily redesigning web sites and boarding passes. They are publishing their pleas for a better experience online and getting a great response. (tags: usability design business strategy) [...]

  9. Brian Tarbox Says:

    How about web site speed? The best site can be defeated by total lack of responsiveness. I use United because my company mandates it. Their web site typically takes 20-30s for each flight search. The actual pages could be great but I’d still hate it.

  10. Zephyr Says:

    @Michael Hoskins: Good points. Having worked as a designer in the airline industry I can say that there are a sh*t ton of constraints stemming from size, legacy systems, lack of money, corporate culture and lack of standardization.

    AA doesn’t value their customers’ experience and it shows in everything they do. I’m not sure any amount of pressure from designers, no matter how helpful or angry, is going to change that. In the mean time, you can still vote with your feet… Spend that extra $40 and fly a more deserving airline.

  11. Michael Swartz Says:

    This is one of the most inspiring blog posts I’ve read in a long, long time. UI design seems to go by the waste-side and I love seeing the new clean examples of some of the airline sites. They’re really incredible.

    It’s unfortunate these companies haven’t used these suggestions. They’re fantastic!

    Thanks for sharing.

  12. Cliff Tyllick Says:

    Has Delta perhaps listened to its designer-customers since Tyler Thompson published his ideas? I flew Delta in late May and remember being impressed with how much easier it was for everyone — me, gate agents, TSA agents — to find quickly the information they needed. As I rushed down concourses and through customs, I never had to break stride to read the information for my next flight.

    So maybe there is a bit of hope, Jared.

    And then there is American.

  13. Overlap10: Wicked Problems | Michael Leis Says:

    [...] was reminded again of a corporate Wicked Problem when Jared Spool put together this list of airline redesigns. When you look at the Websites as design problems without the organization, the solutions are often [...]

  14. Zusch Login » Blog Archive » Stat 203 Says:

    [...] It’s only with today’s UX enlightenment that you never see the virtual equivalent of a big-ass tripping hazard on a web site. Besides, to his credit, the BOFH is open-minded -anything to improve [...]

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