First, when I wrote the 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.
Here we have a decent UX designer, and he'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, good engineers, good employees, and good 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 through 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. This effect was clear during the last year of 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 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 to Gerard J. Arpey, the CEO, and the board of directors. Mr. Arpey seems to have no taste (how else could he allow such a terrible website to represent his company?). He can't raise the bar for his employees 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. Admittedly, most of these losses are the result of rising fuel costs, but when the earnings data is normalized to account for fuel across the industry, American Airlines comes out toward the bottom. Newer, more agile airlines that understand amazing customer experience have started to steal the casual travel market away from legacy carriers like American Airlines. 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 for every other employee who has a personal ability better than that required of — 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. •