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Dustin Curtis – Dear American Airlines

Dear American Airlines: http://dustincurtis.com/dear_american_airlines.html
The response: http://dustincurtis.com/dear_dustin_curtis.html
The incompetence of American Airlines and the fate of Mr X: http://dustincurtis.com/incompetence.html

Take Dustin Curtis, for example. He’s not exactly a loyalless[1] consumer, but one company I know he’s not loyal towards is American Airlines. It all began with a blog post titled, “Dear American Airlines…” in which Dustin said the following:

Dear AmericanAirlines,

I redesigned your website’s front page, and I’d like to get your opinion.

I’m a user interface designer. I travel sometimes. Recently, I had the horrific displeasure of booking a flight on your website, www.aa.com. The experience was so bad that I vowed never to fly your airline again. But before we part ways, I have a couple questions, and three suggestions for you.

dc1

How did this happen? 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.

I have three suggestions:

1. Treat this as a serious emergency across your entire company. Your shortfalls in customer experience do not stop at the website. Your company is losing money every day because customers hate the way you treat them. And it appears that you are doing nothing to fix this.

2. Fire your entire design team, if you have one. Hire an outside design firm on an emergency timetable to design your online experience, and build it as quickly as possible. Your in-house team is obviously incapable of building a good experience. Get outside help.

3. Follow the lead of new, young, and innovative airlines like JetBlue and Virgin America. They know how to harness repeat business through excellent customer experience.

Redesign

dc2

I spent a couple hours redesigning your front page. This is what I settled on. It’s just a small start.
Imagine what you could do with a full, totally competent design team.

Very truly yours,

Dustin Curtis

American responds in two very interesting ways:

1.     An innocuous and non-committal tweet:

@dcurtis Thanks very much to you and everyone who has shared their thoughts about improving AA.com- we value the feedback!

aa

2.     A private/personal e-mail from an employee at American Airlines who is in charge of user experience. With permission (and anonymity), Curtis reprints the reply and adds in some additional color commentary:

A user experience architect who works on AA.com sent me a response to my letter. He titled it “ You’re right. You’re so very right. And yet…” Two things about this: First, when I wrote my letter, I wasn’t even sure AA.com had an official design team, much less a “UX architect.” Second — and to my absolute astonishment — the guy is actually pretty good at what he does. He has a portfolio of some great work.

But wait. If the UX architect at AA.com is actually pretty good, then why does the site suck so much?

Before I speculate on that, you should read his email in full. I am republishing it here with permission from him; but he did ask that his name and some other minor details be withheld. So let’s refer to him as Mr. X.

May 18, 2009

Dear Dustin Curtis,

I saw your blog post titled “Dear AmericanAirlines,” and I thought I’d drop a line. Sorry for the length of this email, but let me sum up the gist of what I’ve written below: You’re right. You’re so very right. And yet…

First, an introduction. I’m Mr X, and I work here at AA.com. I’ve been doing UX design and development for about 10 years with a variety of companies in a variety of industries, and I work with a team of other UX specialists on AA.com. I like to think I’m decent at what I do, and I know the others I work with here are all pretty good. The problem with the design of AA.com, however, lies less in our competency (or lack thereof, as you pointed out in your post) and more with the culture and processes employed here at American Airlines.

Let me explain. 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. We have a lot of people touching the site, and a lot more with their own vested interests in how it presents its content and functionality. Fortunately, much of the public-facing functionality is funneled through UX, so any new features you see on the site should have been vetted through and designed by us before going public.

However, there are large exceptions. For example, our Interactive Marketing group designs and implements fare sales and specials (and doesn’t go through us to do it), and the Publishing group pushes content without much interaction with us… Oh, and don’t forget the AAdvantage team (which for some reason runs its own little corner of the site) or the international sites (which have a lot of autonomy in how their domains are run)… Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that AA.com is a huge corporate undertaking with a lot of tentacles that reach into a lot of interests. It’s not small, by any means.

Oh how I wish we were, though! Imagine the cool stuff we could do if we could operate more like 37signals and their Getting Real philosophy (http://gettingreal.37signals.com/)! We could turn on a dime. We could just say “no” to new feature requests. We could eliminate “stovepiped” positions. We could cut out a lot of the friction created when so many organizations interact with each other. We could even redesign the AA.com home page without having to slog through endless review and approval cycles with their requisite revisions and re-reviews.

But—and I guess here’s the thing I most wanted to get across—simply doing a home page redesign is a piece of cake. 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. But doing the design isn’t the hard part, and I think that’s what a lot of outsiders don’t really get, probably because many of them actually do belong to small, just-get-it-done organizations. But those of us who work in enterprise-level situations realize the momentum even a simple redesign must overcome, and not many, I’ll bet, are jumping on this same bandwagon. They know what it’s like.

OK, so it’s not all bad. The good news is that we have a lot of UX improvements coming down the line, most of which we’ll incorporate over the next 12 – 18 months as new projects go live. Some of our slated efforts include improved navigation; 16 column grid-based layouts; a lighter, more airy visual design; improved user interactions; and an increased transparency to fares and sales policies across the board. We’ll work it all in organically, as the site evolves to include new features. But it won’t be done via an explicit, massive redesign. Can’t be.

So, since it won’t all get done overnight, don’t give us a bad grade if you don’t see it happening fast enough for your taste. Even a large organization can effect change; it just takes a different approach than the methods found in smaller shops. But it’ll happen because it has to, and we know that. And we’ll keep on keepin’ on, even if most of us really and truly would prefer to throw it all away and start over.

Very truly yours (and hoping I don’t get fired for being completely incompetent),

Mr. X

Wow. That is depressing.

Here we have a decent UX designer [who’s] being smothered by something as innocuous as “corporate culture.” I’m glad he mentioned “culture,” though, because I think that’s an extremely important part of the puzzle.

There’s a common attribute that makes for good designers, engineers, employees, and companies. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out what it was. Was it practice? Was it skill? Was it innate ability? Turns out, it’s none of those. It’s taste.

When I first started designing as a hobby, I hated everything I made. I knew it was terrible, and no matter how hard I tried, I could never make it good enough for myself. But I didn’t give up, and after a while something clicked. I started to sort of like my work. But I am still not satisfied; every day I reach higher, trying to grasp the level of awesomeness that I can feel but can’t recreate.

I didn’t realize this was happening until I saw a video of Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, explaining the phenomenon as it relates to writing and production. He points out how that gap between ability and taste drives creative people to achieve great things. But I think it goes deeper than that. I think you can abstract taste one level further from the people of a company and apply it to the culture of the company.

The permeation of bad taste and large organizations

In the same way bad designers sometimes never get better because they don’t know what they’re aiming for, some companies have a culture that just promotes bad taste and doesn’t encourage improvement. The ideology permeates the entire organization, lowering the required level of awesomeness expected from each employee. Companies like this just float along, in the background of capitalism, exchanging goods and services for money. And that is it. They suck.

A lot of people blame bad design and bad customer service in big organizations on the fact that they are big organizations. This is what Mr. X did. But that’s a cop-out. The reason large companies with bad design are the way they are is because they are run poorly from the top, with philosophies that force the entire company to behave like its lowest common denominator. The company ends up making bad products. It ends up treating its customers badly. And if the company is being run by people who don’t have taste, it gets stuck. Eventually, the company’s brand suffers. This is what has happened at American Airlines.

Customer experience is the new brand

I’m not referring to a brand as a logo and a typeface. I’m referring to the new kind of brand; the one is formed by the entire experience of a customer’s interaction. That experience gets branded into his or her memory and leaks into the buzz of modern culture. If you can’t make a good customer experience from start to finish, you’ve failed to generate brand value that will attract customers to come back for repeat business and tell their friends to come back, too. That’s how good customer experience directly affects the bottom line.

Increasingly bad customer experience seems to be a leading indicator of decreasing revenue. We saw this effect at Circuit City, when a new CEO fired every expert sales associate in the organization and hired new, cheaper, inexperienced ones who didn’t know what they were doing. Customers left the stores with incorrect information or with their questions unanswered. They went to Best Buy instead.

Finally, placing blame

The American Airlines website is a wickedly bad customer experience. In my previous letter, I pointed to the designers of AA.com as being at fault. I was partially wrong. I still think they need some serious help, immediately, but a lot of fault might belong in the lap of Gerard J. Arpey, the CEO, and the board of directors. Mr. Arpey seems to have no taste (why else would he allow such a terrible website to represent his company?). Because of that, he is unable to pilot the enterprise called American Airlines. He can’t raise the bar and increase the level of awesomeness of his organization.

Sadly, for American Airlines, the bar is on the floor. The company lost two billion dollars last year (ok, a lot of this is due to fuel and other things also). Newer, agile airlines that understand amazing customer experience started to steal the casual travel market from legacy carriers like American Airlines a few years ago. Now they’re starting to steal the more profitable business customers. If I were at the top of American Airlines, that would scare me.

At the AA annual shareholder meeting yesterday morning, Mr. Arpey said the company is “taking efforts to improve customer service”. I think this is a shortsighted goal. AA should take efforts to improve the whole customer experience. AA suffers from deficits in every aspect of its business. The website is a horrid abomination, the customer service is generally — infamously — bad, and the casual travel market is practically ignored. The customer experience, from start to finish, for every interaction a customer has with the company is not perfected. That’s where the problem is.

I feel sorry for Mr. X. and every other employee with a personal ability better than that required — and allowed — by the culture at American Airlines. But I don’t see customer experience improving without some major, sweeping changes. Sadly, with the current CEO, I don’t see those changes coming any time soon.

-d


[1] A term I created in “Life after the 30-second spot” to describe today’s “changed” consumer

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