Tuesday, May 28, 2013

App and web development - airlines probably need some usability help

Are airline phone and web apps fit for purpose - for the traveller (not the airline)?

I think they need work, well certainly the ones I have used (which I admit is not a statistical sample).

Having bought a new iPhone I was looking for an excuse to use the new passport app and on a rare trip to the US eagerly downloaded the airline app so I could use my phone, instead of a boarding pass.

I struggled like crazy to achieve my primary goals - check-in and then use my phone as a boarding pass. Surely these are the priority customer journeys for such an app?

I never actually managed to check in with the app but having switched to the website to check in followed by a lot of trial and error I finally managed to get the boarding pass to display. But was it worth all the hassle? Probably not, especially as you can get a mobile boarding pass emailed to you from most airlines, and the GDS/Travel agent systems seem to do the same.

The ONLY unique feature of any use to me for an app compared with the email, was the purported ability to display the boarding pass as part of the phone's lock screen thereby saving me the hassle of unlocking my phone at each checkpoint. This may seem minor but when you are carrying a whole bunch of stuff and trying not to drop your phone while unlocking it, all the while under pressure as you hold the queue up at the checkpoint it's pretty useful - especially as my phone wouldn't stay unlocked for very long. Did it work - of course not.

What became clear to me was that the app was designed for the airline, not the passenger. In fact I suspect it wasn't subjected to any usability work in design or development. It didn't make me feel kindly about the airline brand, in fact on another journey I resorted to paper. Paper is easier to carry, works on all scanners and doesn't need unlocking! It needn't be that way, a phone could be so much better.

The other pretty silly experience was this airline's online check in. One the outward bound journey I couldn't event beyond the home page on an iPad but the real trial was the return. If you picture the situation, it's 10 minutes before online check in closes, I'm in a taxi and have already established I stand no chance of checking in with the app, oh - and I haven't got my reading glasses. There I am, paying for a fortune in roaming data charges, on a supposed 4G connection (which is slower than UK 3G) desperately trying to get checked in.

Firstly the website doesn't recognise mobiles. Surely somebody at this airline has had the sense to look at their analytics to see that business travellers often check in at the last minute and usually use their mobiles or tablets. In these days of HTML 5 and CSS3, re-purposing web screens for phones and tablets really isn't that hard, even I can do it. Not having my reading glasses on me, I was really struggling.

Secondly, the simple task of trying to check in was hampered by stupid up-sell pages. When you are struggling to read the screen and having to zoom in the was a royal pain in the rear end. This is about usability 101 - primary school curriculum  let me achieve the task (user journey - see note on tasks and Gerry McGovern) I am trying to achieve. There will be plenty of evidence of conversion rates in their web analytics of these up-sell pages over time which, I bet, will show no conversions that late in the check in window - so why give me the stress, delay and overall hassle ?

All this boils down to the simple proposition that usability should be a central part or web and app development. This is practiced in UCD (http://bit.ly/12N8Pij). Instead of user testing once you have built your web or mobile app, the sensible thing is to test throughout the design and development process. The benefit ? It saves the expense of re-work after release by instead catching issues early and ensures that what gets delivered is what users want. The result ? Typically - increased conversion rates (and sales), reduced calls and happier customers. Common sense ? I think so, but that's just me.

It also highlights that testing in a lab, will not provide all the answers, you need to test the pre-release app in situ, with real customers in real situations. Only then will the importance of situational factors be fully understood. Airline check in and boarding is the bane of most travellers existence  a prime candidate for situational testing as part of overall usability work.

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