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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.

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.

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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’ddrop a line. Sorry for the length of this email, but let me sum up thegist of what I’ve written below: You’re right. You’re so very right.And yet…

The problem with the design of AA.com, however, lies less in ourcompetency (or lack thereof, as you pointed out in your post) and morewith the culture and processes employed here at American Airlines

Let me explain. The group running AA.com consists of at least 200people spread out amongst many different groups, including, forexample, QA, product planning, business analysis, code development,site operations, project planning, and user experience.Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is thatAA.com is a huge corporate undertaking with a lot of tentacles thatreach 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 ifwe could operate more like 37signals and their Getting Real philosophy)!We could turn on a dime. We could just say “no” to new featurerequests. We could eliminate “stovepiped” positions. We could cut out alot of the friction created when so many organizations interact witheach other. We could even redesign the AA.com home page without havingto slog through endless review and approval cycles with their requisiterevisions and re-reviews.

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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:

0pddnet

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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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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