The New Virgin America Site
Virgin America's new site is what everything a redesign should be. Yes, it's big and beautiful and flat and colorful and responsive and uses SVG animations and and and, but the improved user experience doesn't just come from the new aesthetic. Virgin took a chance and released a truly disruptive design for the travel industry.
What was once a clusterfuck of marketing gimmicks and fare charts, epilepsy-inducing auto sliders and a company news feed no one really cared, is now a bold step toward revolutionizing the airfare booking experience. I can't remember a time in my life where I went to an airline site without an idea of when and where I'd go; no amount of pretty photos will convince me that I should forgo my trip to Boston for a conference and instead go to Cancun because "oh wow, that's a good deal."
Someone up top (God? Richard Branson? Same guy?) put their foot down and took charge of the site's strategy. It went from looking like a hodge-podge clutterfest to a ridiculously fun site to use. I'm really hoping the data shows that this radical redesign resulted in more sales. Websites should meet the needs of users, not marketing teams.
Instead of pandering to the depands of various departments and marketing teams, Virgin put something out there that users actually want. Their site doesn't look like a landwar. There is no choice paralysis. There is no ridiculous "Stay Connected" box (seriously, WHY are these still around). The majority of link anchors no longer blandly say "Learn More."
Here's what it's like to book a flight on the new Virgin site:
In case you were blown away by how cool that was and forgot what the real world is like, let's take a look and remind ourselves how airline sites typically look...
Here's the current/retiring design of VirginAmerica.com:
If you've ever worked with a large organization where many people have their fingers in the figurative website pie, the fact that a shit ton of home page marketing cruft was pushed down "below the fold" or removed entirely from the Virgin site is remarkable. But why is it that most travel sites insist on the sensory overload that are marketing promos?
Let me tell you about the epic story of American Airlines and Mr. X.
Back in 2009, user interface designer Dustin Curtis put together a redesigned version of American Airline's horrendous atrocity of a website in an open letter to the company (blog post since removed). He also suggested they fire their design team.
The blog post was passed around on the designer news feed circuit and gained a lot of attention. It wasn't a bad analysis of their design and user experience either (much more than can be said about the recent upsurge in Facebook, IMDB, and Wikipedia redesigns).
American Airlines responded on Twitter:
@dcurtis Thanks very much to you and everyone who has shared their thoughts about improving AA.com- we value the feedback!— American Airlines (@AmericanAir) May 18, 2009
Well, at least we know their social media marketing team is as blaaaahhh as their website.
But here's where things got interesting.
A private email was sent by a UX architect who works at AA.com, who remained anonymously known as Mr. X by Curtis in his follow-up blog post. Here's the letter Mr. X sent:
The group running AA.com 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. We have a lot of people touching the site, and a lot more with their own vested interests in how it presents its content and functionality. Fortunately, much of the public-facing functionality is funneled through UX, so any new features you see on the site should have been vetted through and designed by us before going public.
However, there are large exceptions. For example, our Interactive Marketing group designs and implements fare sales and specials (and doesn’t go through us to do it), and the Publishing group pushes content without much interaction with us… Oh, and don’t forget the AAdvantage team (which for some reason runs its own little corner of the site) or the international sites (which have a lot of autonomy in how their domains are run)… Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that AA.com 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 (http://gettingreal.37signals.com/)! 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 AA.com home page without having to slog through endless review and approval cycles with their requisite revisions and re-reviews.
Curtis published a thoughtful analysis following the response he received from Mr. X. We all sighed, learned a bit more about designing for big organizations, and were about to move onto the next story, when —lo and behold—American Airlines fucking fired Mr. X. That's right. The bosses up top found about the sent email and tracked down Mr. X and fired him for a breach of the NDA. And the PR team released yet another shit statement rejecting Curtis' claims about the website, citing that "more than 90% of AA customers rate AA.com as 'good' or excellent." Bull. Shit.
So, kudos, Virgin for not being the evil American Airlines. Thank you for not designing by committee. Thank you for learning how to say no. Thank you for making something different.