Virgin America’s Crappy Online User Experience

These days I mostly prefer to fly on Virgin America. Their flight experience is a huge step above most of the other domestic carriers (friendly service, decent seats, regular non-prison inmate faucets, etc.) and touches like plugs in every seat, a good entertainment system (although there’s also a huge unfinished post about improving that), and now wifi, all at a competitive price makes it pretty much a no-brainer for me.

So, it’s always been a little surprising that for an airline with such a strong focus on branding and flight experience that seems targeted at people like me would have such a bad online experience.

I’m actually not going to bitch too much about the website (you know, about how it’s slow, has weird bookmark-unfriendly urls with weird sessions, is much too dependent on Flash with lots of weird interactions where it consistently takes me multiple times to log in because it’s login form doesn’t tab properly, etc). but rather to focus something that happened to me today that should have been a good thing.

I had a 2PM-ish flight back home today. At 11:30AM, an email gets sent to me from telling “Virgin America Guest Services” about an “Important Schedule Change Notification”:

Your flight has been impacted by a schedule change which may result in the departure time of your flight being earlier than previously scheduled.

That’s actually great – well, certainly better to be notified as soon as possibly than not to find out at all. And besides being good customer service, I’m sure it’s good on VA’s end if they can reduce the amount of shuffled seating that kind of schedule change might cause. However, it continues:

We’d encourage you to login to the Check-In / Travel Manager section of our website at to view your current itinerary. You’ll need your elevate login information or your confirmation code (see below) and your last name to access your itinerary. If you have any questions regarding the new time please contact our Reservations call center at 1.877.FLY.VIRGIN (1.877.359.8474) between the hours of 3:30am – 11:30pm PST. You may already be aware of the new departure time and will not need to take any action at this time.

Now, this is cut and pasted directly from the email. It is an HTML email, but it doesn’t include even a link to the site, not to mention a link to the flight information. This of course is made doubly frustrating by the fact that it is a personalized email that includes my name, address, and confirmation number. Now, I’m not a rocket scientist, couldn’t they just save a step and include the flight information and what changed? If for some reason they couldn’t, why wouldn’t they include a direct link to that information? That’s all before you try to load the VA site on your phone. (Which works, barely, on my iPhone. Good luck with that if you don’t have 3G or WebKit.)

It seems that VA would actually save money if they could streamline this, since as it is, they probably get a lot of people calling rather than looking at the email and finding out what they need.

Since I like VA, the next step for me was replying and letting them know that it’d be great if they could include the information, a link or something mobile friendly. Unfortunately, once I got home, I saw that it was sent to a no-reply email address (bounced!). There’s no other contact VA from the email, unless you want to spend time on the call center, which isn’t a good use of anyone’s time.

Well, since I really do like VA (have I mentioned it’s incredibly easy to standby on an earlier flight?), I decide to go to the website and contact them… and after writing out my brief issues with 4 bullet points, it turns out there’s a 1024 character limit (yes, that’s 7 tweets and no dynamic character counter).

At this point, I probably should have given up, but I’m a sucker for sunk costs, so I went to look for an online character counter and started shaving off characters and doing some txt squeezing. In the end, they got my “feedback,” but it did get me thinking about this whole chain of events, and about how lots of these little bad UX decisions can compound to ultimately burn good will really quickly (and how difficult this sort of thing is to measure).

Now, I don’t think that this had a particularly big effect on my feelings about VA getting me from point A to point B decently, however it’s interesting to me when I compare say their level of quality/attention to detail for things like their safety video (the best I’ve seen) vs their online/digital UX.

From my perspective, I also think that there’s a pretty strong business case, and at least from some of these, ROI is calculable (ie, bucket-testing call % or missed flight percentage if you A/B test variations of the initial email), but for most of the rest of it, it’s not. To some degree, I also wonder whether a company like VA (or almost any company) really values how much of their UX and ultimately, (marketing, customer service, and brand) is dictated/deeply impacted by their online experience. They must have the numbers on what percent of their sales come through the website and what percentage of them are subscribed to email or use the mobile web.

Anyway, enough rambling. Now I’m just putting off all the work I need to do before my next flight…

Jim Cramer on The Daily Show

Jon Stewart is able to articulate some of the things that are so exasperating about this whole situation and that the “real” media has been remiss on. Worth watching.

For geeks wondering about whether these systemic issues might be fixable, Toby Segaran and Jesper Andersen gave an interesting talk at ETech about developing a more robust credit rating system (it picks up in the last third where they start demoing what they’ve been doing). Check out Freerisk to see what they’re up to.

What I’ve Been Up To Lately

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been spending most of my waking hours working on a new project with an old friend. It’s still a bit of a work in progress, but we’ll be at ETech this week and at events at SXSWi and SXSWm the week after, so what better time then now for a long rambly blog post introducing the Lensley Automatic.

Our new photobooth
A couple years ago, Jaime decided to build a photobooth (and with no prior experience, headed off to Home Depot…) and it’s been percolating along since. We’ve done events at the X-Games, the US Open, and with clients like Nike, Adidas, Diesel, Fuel.TV, Fuse.TV, MTV, etc. Towards the end of last year, after returning from a several month long interruption working on the Obama campaign (that worked out OK, btw :), we decided that it was time to take it to the next level.

It’s been an incredibly busy past few months, but what we’ve ended up with I think is something pretty unique (with a lot of potential). We have a new and improved enclosure (although, admittedly, a new version is already cooking), and more interestingly (well, it certainly took a lot more of my time) our own custom software for the booth, visualizations, and network interaction, giving us the ability to completely customize the printed output, the booth user experience, and the digital followup. For a start, we’ll be tweeting and posting photos to flickr w/ autotagging by way of RFID (fingers crossed on that!) at ETech. Just the first of the cool things we have planned.

And, while learning Cocoa hasn’t been all roses, it has been a great deal of fun working on a project that touches on hardware, visualization, photography, events, and the social web (and soon, video and mobile) – it’s a big cross section of “things I’m interested in.” Plus, all the joys of starting a small business (that’s half facetious, but also half genuine). Sure the timing might not be ideal, but all in all, it’s been a great experience in terms of stretching out some different muscles after being a bit cooped up. And well, there’s no time like the present to do your own thing.

Oh, if you’ve seen me in person in the past couple months (not likely!) and I’ve been more scatterbrained than usual (or have been responding in a zombie-like fashion), now you know why. (Not helped by the fact that for whatever reason, I spent a good few weeks of development time on a 4pm-10am schedule.)

Stimulus 101

I’ve been otherwise occupied this month, so I’ve only had a chance to keep an intermittent eye on the Stimulus Plan and its development. One of the things that I was a bit disappointed to find is that despite the copious amounts back-and-forth prattle coverage and the much better ongoing discussions in the economic/biz blogs that I follow, that I couldn’t find a really good single page/resource for describing in simple, understandable terms what’s happening to the economy and why economic stimulus is needed and how the plan will help.

One of the first places I went to was and the complete failure in communicating and selling the stimulus plan on there, especially coming from my experience on the campaign, was a (surprising) failure on the part of the Obama administration. And, while I think that this past week has been much better with the President’s recent WP op-ed and tonight’s press conference (video), I think that having a good, concise one-pager would still be an enormous benefit.

It’s one thing to talk about a full-blown crisis, but an image like this (posted Friday on Nancy Pelosi’s blog) makes things much clearer:

Job Losses in Recent Recessions

(Here’s a version with job losses from all post-WWII recessions, although I don’t know if they’re using consistent measurements)

Also, from a understanding macro-economics or fractional banking perspective, I think that there’s a pretty big gap in terms of understanding what’s going on (about 3min in to hear about the details of the bank run):

For me, the things I’d be most interested in are the economic projections (job losses? GDP shortfall?) and accessible breakdowns of the stimulus plan effects (hint: a 100pg PDF is not the ideal format), the effects of the infrastructure investments, and comparisons of tax cuts vs direct spending:

Fiscal Stimulus Bang for the Buck

Lastly and perhaps most importantly I think is that spotlight on the economy needs to force us to talk about and address the huge structural problems that we’ve been ignoring – sustainability of growth, consumption, income inequality, etc. Here’s a video of Robert Reich discussing some of this:

While I’m disappointed that neither the MSM nor the Stimulus Plan backers have done something like this, it’s occurred to that this is the perfect sort of project some good designers to tackle in conjunction w/ either some of the economist bloggers that have covering this stuff or some of the civic groups out there. (Just saying.)

(FWIW, I recently started reading Krugman‘s The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 which has been pretty interesting so far. For those looking for a better idea of how our money and our economy works, Chris Martenson’s Crash Course is good (and depressing) start. The Wikipedia entry on the Economy of the United States is also a good place to start surfing.)

Recently Reading

I’ve long been a fan of Andrew Leonard’s blog (my favorite on Salon by far) but lately I’ve been especially enjoying his posts (it’s a shame there isn’t a public feed reader that really takes into account the ebb and flow of post-level reading patterns), which have focused on the economic meltdown. Here’s a list for example of the posts I particularly dug from this past week:

And that’s just the standouts since last Wednesday.

For those of you who have even a passing interest in the economipocalypse, PBS’s Business Desk w/ Paul Solman has also been quite interesting. Here’s a great piece on how the collapse has affected trade (via):

Macro 101? Financial Stimulus Within A Credit Economy

While I’m not the biggest fan of the Fed (and their infinite money printing machine), Brad DeLong’s description of monetary circulation is a clear and simple rebuttal for anyone who might be nodding along to John Cochrane‘s recent paper, Fiscal Stimulus, Fiscal Inflation, or Fiscal Fallacies?

Actually, Brad DeLong’s post is worth reading if you have any interest in why stimulus works. To sum up, Cochrane argues that stimulus creates public debt that offsets private spending, but DeLong describes exactly how this flow will create the same amount of debt, but gets people that would otherwise be sitting around doing nothing to do something (the definition of recession basically being underutilized capacity).

What surprised me this morning was reading Krugman’s followup this morning. Not that he agrees with DeLong, but rather I hadn’t known that Eugene Fama (yes, the Fama-French Fama) apparently also voiced the same thoughts as Cochrane did.

Now, I’m not a business genius, so it puzzles me how Fama and Cochrane can believe what they’re saying when it’s so obviously (and easily proven) wrong, even to a layperson like myself (and even without Krugman’s mathy deconstruction).

Ignorance Is Strength

The SF Chronicle had an interesting article, Venture capitalist says U.S. losing green race, on a policy briefing held in Congress today. Here’s the paragraph that jumped out at me (emphasis mine):

Doerr was invited to speak by California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the committee, along with Friedman, the author of a new book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” which calls for a green tech revolution to solve the country’s climate, energy and foreign policy challenges. They spoke at a policy briefing, not a formal hearing, but most of the committee’s Democrats stopped by. None of the panel’s Republicans attended, a sign of the continuing partisan split on Capitol Hill over how to address global warming.

Now, I’m far too jaded to say that I’m honestly surprised, but read that again, and reflect that the context of this discussion was not climate change per se, but rather, a policy briefing on the country’s lack of competitiveness within the new global order:

Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which is betting billions on clean energy technologies, told senators that two of his firm’s biggest investments were with foreign firms because U.S. companies did not have the most advanced technology. Of the top 30 companies in solar, wind and advanced batteries, just six are U.S. firms.

“Notice the trend here,” Doerr told members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “We won the space race with the Soviet Union. Now as (New York Times columnist) Tom Friedman says, we’re in an Earth race with other nations to see who can invent the technology so that men and women can stay on Earth. And we are not winning today.”