I just spent the past few days at Giant Conference, where I gave a talk of my own and listened to numerous designers discuss everything from visual design to comprehensive user experiences. Nowadays, the term “user experience” isn’t limited to the intangible digital world. With tech increasingly overlapping into the physical world, user experiences are impacted by everything from text fields to face-to-face conversations. Due to this progression, it’s important that both elements, the digital and physical, be carefully designed to work in tandem to satisfy and delight. With that in mind, I offer this story of US Airways’ (lack of) user experience design.
My flight leaves in an hour and a half. The taxi arrives at 6:10am, and I find my cabbie waiting for me in the hotel lobby.
We smile and shake, and while he doesn’t offer his name, he offers to take my bags and I politely decline. During the drive to Charleston’s airport, we listen to Tony Joe White’s ‘Poke Salad Annie’ and he asks if Minneapolis is still cold. “I thought it was always cold up there”, he laughs. He asks some more about it, asks where my accent is from, which leads to a brief conversation about Kentucky. He concludes the conversation with, “I was a chemical engineer once. I’ve visited more countries than states, and I stayed in all of them for months at a time. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than South Carolina”, he smiles. I want to ask more, but we’re at the airport - I’ve got a plane to catch and he’s got more fares, so we shake again and part ways. He is still humming Poke Salad Annie.
After an uneventful check-in process, I sit at the gate, keeping tabs on my flight to Washington DC and the connecting flight which will me home to Minneapolis. One bumpy flight and six X-Men comics later (Uncanny X-Men and All New X-Men, if you’re wondering), I arrive in our nation’s capital knowing I’m only a handful of hours from being home.
When the scheduled boarding time for my flight arrives with no fanfare, I get up and check the departing flights board.
“US Airways Flight 3436: CANCELED”
No problem, I head to the agent manning the kiosk and explain. “Was this a US Airways flight?”, she asks, oblivious to the fact that I had already stated it was. Upon my reiteration, she points elsewhere without making eye contact, “Over there. Customer service.”
The agents manning customer service are currently dealing with some angry people. I wait patiently and wonder if the customers have heard the old adage about catching more flies with sugar than vinegar. 30 minutes and two satisfied (using the term loosely) customers later, I explain my situation again.
“Hello, I was on flight 3436 to Minneapolis but it looks like it was cancelled. I was wondering what I should do next.”
“You and a dozen others”, she spits.
After a few silent minutes later, a printer I believe to be a relic from my 1st grade classroom spits out a piece of paper. She hands it to me without explanation.
“Is this a new boarding pass?”, I ask. It certainly doesn’t look like one - it is a virtually illegible wall of text, with no spaces between characters, let alone section titles or anything resembling organization. I am essentially handed a print out of Matrix code. Only I can’t see blondes, brunettes, or redheads.
“No. Take it to the Delta ticketing desk past security. You’re booked on a 5:00 Delta flight to Minneapolis. US Airways doesn’t have any more flights to Minneapolis until tomorrow.” She is sure not to break eye contact with her monitor, so she doesn’t see me smile, nor does she seem to hear my thanks.
Thirty minutes later, it is my turn in line to speak with a Delta employee. I smile, explain my situation, and hand them the paper I was given.
“We’re not accepting customers from other airlines, all of our flights are full.”
“I understand, but I was told that my seat is booked.”
“You are in the baggage line, you need to speak with an agent.”
I take a step back and look up, every station is labeled “Baggage”.
“Okay, where is an agent?”
Looking at her computer, she replies “All agents are busy, please sir you are holding up the line.”
“I’m sorry but I’m really just trying to understand what I should be doing right now to get home.”
“Sir, you need to speak with US Airways.”
“But US Airways said I needed to speak with you”, I can feel my patience slipping.
She raises her voice, “Sir, you are in a baggage line and I need to assist Delta customers.”
“Well you don’t have to be a fucking asshole about it.” I lost my patience, I regret it immediately, and the people in line probably wonder if I’ve heard the old adage about catching more flies with sugar than vinegar. I don’t wait for a response, opting to leave for the US Airways ticketing desk.
Thirty minutes later, it is my turn in line to speak with a US Airways employee. I smile, explain that US Airways told me that I was told to speak with Delta and Delta said I needed to speak with US Airways. I hand them the paper I was given.
“Sir, you need to speak with an agent.”
Here we go.
She point to another line, “That’s the agent line, this is the self check-in line.” Defeated, I walk to another line, noting that every kiosk, even in the supposed agent line, is marked “Self-Check In”.
A US Airways employee stops me and says the agent line is closed and I need to get in the other line.
I explain my situation, and after demonstrating an unwillingness to entertain the conversation, she leaves, and I wait in line. Thirty minutes later, it’s my turn to speak to a US Airways agent and I explain everything that has happened to this point.
“You need to speak with Delta.”
I start laughing. It’s too much. I leave and sit down, too frustrated to think and unwilling to go back to Delta, knowing I’ll be told to speak with US Airways.
Recomposed, I get back in the US Airways line. I get to the front. Again. I explain my situation to a new agent. Again. I’m told to take it up with Delta. Again.
Only this time I refuse.
“Well sir, you need to take this up with the whoever sold you the ticket.”
“I know, I’m trying. US Airways sold me the ticket.” I hand her the paper again, and she looks it over, nodding.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
To my left, I hear another man upset about his flight to Minneapolis being canceled. He is fighting with an energy I no longer have. I am defeated. I am a shell.
After a few minutes of silently navigating their system, she looks up and says that she found a US Airways flight for me. This is news to me, since I was earlier told that US Airways didn’t have any flights to Minneapolis until tomorrow. Now, I am to fly from Washington to Charlotte, then from Charlotte to Minneapolis. She hands me my new boarding pass, but it doesn’t have my name on it. I point this out and she refer to the paper I initially handed her, the paper given to me by US Airway’s customer service desk.
She points to a section of this unapproachable wall of text, it reads “SOOMAR”
“This isn’t your name?”.
Thelma, that was her name, Thelma and I begin laughing. Laughing at everything. What else could we do? In that laughter was the cathartic acknowledgement of all the slime I’d been wading through. A laughter only permissible because she could print me out another set of boarding passes. She could still get me home.
Oh, and the name on my sheet of paper? Soomar? He was the frustrated man that had just been next to me during my time with Thelma. I hope Soomar found found a resolution to his plight. Come to think of it, I hope everyone on our doomed Minneapolis flight is finding their own way home. I hope their experience hasn’t been as frenetic, but you’ll forgive my skepticism at the thought.
Reinvigorated by our shared laughter, I thank Thelma and headed to my gate. I’d be spending the next nine hours in an airport and won’t get home until well after midnight, but at least there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel.
Thelma was the only positive interaction in all of my dealings with US Airways’ unconsidered user experience. I am obviously in no position to understand and suggest improvements to the tangled inner workings of US Airways’ customer service, but generally speaking, making it more like Thelma would be a good start. Making it more like this morning’s nameless cabbie would be an even better start.
Maybe I’ll listen to some Poke Salad Annie now.
By Alex Griendling / Blog / Twitter