American Airlines Web Site: The Product of a Self-Defeating Design Process

Designer Dustin Curtis was so disgusted with the American Airlines Web site that he redesigned it, and posted the results as an open letter to the company. Guess what? One of AA's designers responded with a long defense about why better design dies a slow death at places like AA.

As Curtis wrote: "If I was running a company with the distinction and history of American Airlines, I would be embarrassed—no ashamed—to have a Web site with a customer experience as terrible as the one you have now...Your Web site 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." But it just took him a couple hours, starting with the original design, to produce a cleaner concept. Here, a before and after (check out the links for the full design):

AA Original

AA Fixed

Why doesn't such an obviously better design win out, at a place like AA? Here's what a one Mr. X, an experienced and, according to Curtis, quite competent UX designer, had to say for the company's feeble effort:

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…

The problem with the design of, 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 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. ...Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that 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)! 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 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.

A pretty sad state of affairs, which reminds us of this interesting piece in Product Design & Development, which, as Core 77 points out, illustrates just how ugly and dysfunctional the design process is in many corporate settings:


The biggest challenge to better design isn't getting better designers. The problem is organizational, and the hub-and-spoke decision-making process that was originally created to slash bureaucracy—that is, to create more decentralized decisions and less hierarchy. But the overriding weakness, which design thinking makes manifest, is that good design is necessarily the product of a heavily centralized structure. Great design at places such as Apple isn't about "empowering decision makers" or whatever that lame B-school buzzword is. It's about awarding massive power and self-determination to those with the most cohesive vision—that is, the designers. Those are the people with the best idea of what customers want. That's the essence of "design thinking." If you were to summarize just how ugly—and self-defeating—the alternative can be, AA's Web site would be a smoking gun.

[Via Josh Spear and Core 77]

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  • troconnell

    I worked at a very large online insurance company for 4 years, and eventually this kind of bureaucratic nonsense was so intense in the design end of things I couldn't take it anymore. This is the upsetting truth of what happens when people with expensive MBA's get their hands on design. "Oh, anyone can play with pictures.... it's just colors" ... yeah right buddy.....

  • Roger Volk

    Saddly you have lost all credibility with me and my family because of the way your flight attendant treated our beloved Glenn Beck, talk show host and patriot extraorinare! Unless you publically apoligize and fire this moron attendent we will no longer use your Airline! Roger Volk and family!

  • kerook

    I wish we were, though! Imagine the cool stuff we could do if we could operate more. Like you say, comments keep the conversation going. They also provide additional insight to the readers and the bloggers. Comments offer a different perspective and put a "face" to the readership

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  • Kevin Ohannessian

    I have a friend whose son works for AA and I sent his to him. I've been using that site for years, and I know first hand how it sucks. However, even Southwest's sucks when you look at it in terms of the design possibilities.

  • Scott Campbell

    I understand both sides of the story...I did a UI design for a company called Farecast that was similar to the Curtis design. Cleaner, relational, with predictive modeling thrown in. Microsoft paid $40M for them and bookings are very healthy. See or now

    When AA gets in the way of the basic tasks users want to do a company's web site isn't furthering the airline. Booking will continue to go to Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia. Alaska, United, Jet Blue and others have been greatly improving their booking rates with better site flow. Does this mean that AA is going the wrong direction? Maybe the best discount/crazy bargains look is fueling bookings.

    My point is it all really needs to be tested, whether it is through gauging bookings through mirror sites or focus groups. If it is like the travel sites they will make more margin on booking a hotel than a flight on their own airline. The bottom line is complicated.

  • Jason Kunesh

    As a former Orbitz information architect and someone who's worked with both AA and UA, there's a few things at work here.

    First off, one of the biggest things that drives revenue for these companies are ticket prices. Even though Orbitz has a better user experience, we'd always encounter people who would book at another carrier to avoid a fee or find a lower price.

    Dustin is right about finding excuses. It's all you can do when you are a staff designer working within an organization that does not empower design. The problem at most companies is that they blur the line between stakeholders and designers.

    Stakeholders are just that: people with something at stake in the outcome of the project or product. At some companies they are empowered to dictate the design solution intended to accomplish that outcome. That is misguided and guarantees mediocrity.

    As someone else said, A/B test them and let the data drive design decisions, there by empowering the designers to prove their solutions.

  • smith dwayne

    I agree with the author. Thanks to the author for bringing this before our site. Wish to know more about this matter through him.
    Matt, from Softlaser .ORG

  • Bob Firestone

    Most of the negative comments are the designer has no information to base his design. I can't argue with that but he has picked up on the real reason exists... To Sell Tickets! All other activities are ancillary.

  • Eric Gockel

    ditto to Gong's comments. and @Victor, forget Dustin's lack of experience, I see his comments more as that of a user (remember those?) who took it upon himself to design out what what would be appealing to him.

    I'm pretty sure Dustin would be accommodating to the client's "requirements" upon review. Of course he doesn't know all the hurdles and obstacles that the internal guys have. But do the ordinary users of AA? Do they care?

    My vote is empathy for the users, you can keep yours for the client's processes.

  • Gong Szeto

    i fly a lot of airlines including american, and their site does remind me of how caked-up and disgusting their planes are. "clean" both as design aesthetic and cabin hygiene are not concepts familiar to them. i have more or less read every comment, and the ones that strike me the most is by designer/programmer jon cockle. why on earth are you so offended by this? my money is on dustin having the huevos to kick up a shitstorm. designers (corp ones especially) tend toward the mean more often than not. who cares if his "pretty" design doesn't solve all of american's internal dysfunction? all "users" want is a clean website to book tix. and all "customers" want is to get from point A to point B for the least amount of hassle and money. i, for one, appreciate CLEAN as both a user experience as well as a flyer experience. fake it, outsource it, whatever - american is going the way of GM. yes to jetblue, yes to virgin. yes to the 21st century.

  • Damien Morton

    Visual clutter is a huge problem in GUI design, in which the architect needs to balance the desire to have all information immediately available to the the user, with the need to enable the user to make sense of that information. The aesthetic of minimalism often falls victim as the designer acquiesces to the many competing demands of a project, resulting what I call the “Las Vegas School of Design” - a myriad of colours, shapes and sounds, rendering the user completely insensate.

    Ruth Rosenholtz proposes several measures of Visual Clutter, the most practical of which is to compress the image in question using something like JPEG2000 to compress an image of the homepage - the smaller the resulting file, the less clutter.

    A colleague of mine once proposed disinvesting in companies based on the clutter found on their home page - an unfocused company would tend to have a homepage beholden to too many competing interests within the company, resulting in a homepage populated with too many grabs for the users attention. Would be an interesting excersise to track measures of homepage visual clutter versus stock price.

  • Roy Leban

    I completely agree with the indictment of the AA web site. But I agree more with the indictment of the redesign. If you ignore all the actual requirements, it's much easier to do a nice design.

    Despite the discussion about the experience being important, the redesign is all about visual aesthetics. Sure, it's a lot more attractive, but what about functionality? How much has been left out? How much has been moved to another page? How much has been made harder to find? or use?

    Yeah, I know it's only two hours worth of work. I've done the equivalent myself, but when I only have an hour or two, I think about feel, not look.

    And what's the real problem with a site like What is the biggest experience problem? Is it the home page? Of course not. It's all the stuff behind it. Like actually making a reservation and picking flights. Like printing off boarding passes. Like checking flight status. In other words, it's all the details that a redesign like this glosses over. AA and all the other airlines could do much better in all of these areas and it would make far more of a difference than a home page redesign.

    I'll give two examples:

    1) When you search for flights, you get an absolutely abysmal results page. The unreadability and uselessness of the results is astounding. But, more astounding to me is that the AA results, while less attractive than those on Northwest's site (the airline I usually fly), they're more usable. All of the airlines and even sites like Expedia just stink at this.

    2) Going back one step, when you do the search in the first place, how about a well designed form? Why is it that they all have the worst date pickers invented? The awful date picker on actually cost me hundreds of dollars when a bug in the way they handle the use of both tabs and mouseclicks caused my wife to schedule a trip lasting a week and a month instead of just a week (the fact that February was four Sun-Sat weeks this year contributed, but the bigger factor was the UI auto-advancing to the next month in a particular situation). By the time we noticed, it was too late. When I called Northwest to complain, they said that their site didn't have any bugs. Yeah, right. And, no a simplistic form as in the redesign doesn't cut it.

    In summary, it's not that the redesign is bad. It's just that it doesn't address the real problems. It's superficial.

    Roy Leban

  • Ben Whitehouse

    Dustin is absolutely right. What's wrong with American Airlines is what is wrong with just about every failing American company - NO VISION. Apple succeeds because it is driven by individuals who make decisions and live by them, not by what their customers think they want. It's the way business used to be run in this great land of ours but then people with degrees in procrastination sold us something called market research. Design is about problem solving from the gut and the fact that Dustin took the time, unpaid mind you, to fix that AA means there is a huge problem with Is Dustin's design the solution? No, probably not, but what he did in an hour is a huge improvement. F*&% metrics, F*&% testing, F*&% shareholders departments trying to bow to the whim of every customer. The customer rarely understand what they really need and will often get distracted by what they want. What you are seeing is Dustin's perception of what his might look like to be useful for him and I happen to think it's what 80% of their users would respond opt in for. Ultimately American Airlines has a huge hurdle to overcome, to become truly forward thinking. It's one thing to follow the follower to become more green, it's another to actually innovate. The only way to do that is shed the committees and get back to strong central leadership who boldly decide what it is they think is important… or as Henry Ford said "If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse"

  • Christopher Ayres

    The designer's solution was obviously a bit over-simplified. While it is much nicer eye candy, it really isn't a solution to merely delete what you don't want there, ha. I've dealt with many an airline website over the years as a consumer and I must say that I really dig jetBlue Airways' site at Clean design, but with all the pertinent information intact within a much more organized hierarchy. And it's aesthetically pleasing to boot. Although it can be difficult within a large corporation, a good compromise is always the more valuable solution.

  • Matius Larson Krisetya

    I agree that AA's design is difficult to navigate. It tries to serve all but the end result it serves none. I see this in management whether corporate or public, it is akin to having fiefdoms vying for control of information and legitimacy. What I experienced is that you see a mess that is hard to see or lacks in coherence. Coherence is about respecting customers as Curtis points out. Customers I think are smart to recognize that when the company's main point is to maximize revenue then they will seek other alternative airlines that actually serve its customers.

    This relates to what I believe a fundamental design flaw in AA, which is not understanding its customers or end-users. I don't believe that most Americans like me see the colors and Americanism to be very appealing. It actually is passe. I think AA can learn a lot from global airlines like Singapore, Qatar, and Cathay who recognize the fact that we all have become global. Thinking global is in and yet AA continue its fundamental path in culture that spills into their design of hunkering with a concept that has decreased in relevance and uncompetitive in today's global market.

    I believe eventually web based tool to generate revenue will catch up to its customers who seek a more global flare rather than outdated ideas about how great we were once. We're great now, how do we become relevant? AA's design is sorely lacking in relevance.