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Designing the Friendly Skies

21 Jun 2006

The airline industry is a mess. The established carriers are being cannibalized by discounters exploiting consumer willingness to trade a few dollars of savings for comfort and service. Byzantine fare rules multiplied by desperate cost cutting has made travel – especially this summer – nightmare of dissatisfaction.

The New York Times recently drew attention to one outcome of all of this: airlines are rapidly redesigning their web sites hoping to cling to increasingly dissatisfied customers. They’ve pitched this as a benefit on both sides of the transaction. Customers get more flexibility and control over their travel through features like online upgrades, printable boarding passes, and the like. And the airlines save money every time someone uses their site rather than calling or interacting at the counter.

Of course, these redesigns aren’t easy. A vice president of marketing for US Airways justifies the generally poor user experience found on these sites, saying:

"Technologically, airline Web sites are as complicated a retail site as you're ever going to see."

Well, duh.

Airline web sites are complex and confusing because the way airlines do business is complex and confusing. The variable pricing model these companies use is at direct odds with their customers’ goals; this has traditionally worked because the airlines could obfuscate their data. In an age of nearly unlimited access, that strategy just makes people frustrated. Their attempt to redesign their web sites using “customer friendly” techniques is shining a cold, hard light on just how unfriendly their operations are. Good design can’t fix broken business models.

Good design isn’t about pretty or ugly. It’s not even about usability or intuitive interaction. Good design solves problems. The airlines prove that even the best design techniques are worthless if designers don’t have access to the very root of the problems they’re trying to solve. ​


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