The experience your brand offers users is shaped by much more than your website and apps: policies, systems, and legacy technology can have as much or more impact on user experience. Despite this, optimizing these things is not always considered a part of the UX team’s responsibility. Too often UX is, at best, considering the user’s journey within the app/website, and at worst, simply “doing the wireframes.”

To put this in context, I want to share an experience of mine. A few months ago, I was flying to New York on one of the major airlines. This particular airline has long been a favorite of mine thanks in part to their better-looking apps and a (relatively) well-designed site (at least for an airline). Yet as this particular trip would prove, their UX still sucks.

After repeated delays, my flight from Minneapolis (the scheduled layover destination) was eventually canceled due to inclement weather on the East Coast, which is where this particular airline’s UX began to go haywire. After waiting in line for about 45 minutes just to talk to the gate agent, I was informed that I had been automatically rebooked on flights for the next day, and if I wanted to modify my rebooking I would have to call a toll-free number or use the app.

UX Lesson #1: Empower employees to help users complete tasks

My frustration began after waiting in line for 45 minutes and then encountering a gate employee who did nothing other than give me a piece of paper with a phone number on it. Whether this particular gate agent lacked the authority or simply the desire to help my rebook my flight is unclear, but it was very clear that she was not going to help me. After waiting in line for that amount of time, my expectations were higher.

Piece of paper in hand, I whipped out my trusty iPhone and dialed the number … only to be greeted by an automated message telling me that all lines were busy and I could expect a callback from the first available agent in “more than four hours.” I gritted my teeth and opened the airline’s app. Alas … the app could not load my new flight itinerary details, much less allow me to modify them. Thankfully the Minneapolis Airport has free WiFi, so I pulled out my trusty iPad and prepared to do things the old-fashioned way—via the website. I quickly discovered why the app hadn’t been working. The servers were simply overloaded and neither the app nor the website could handle the volume of traffic that was hitting them.

UX Lesson #2: Make sure your system can handle your user load

The obvious takeaway here is that you should load test your servers and make sure they can handle the type of crazy spikes in traffic that can occur when all of your Northeast flights are cancelled and thousands of travelers are simultaneously trying to rebook. But the bigger principle is to design for the worst-case scenario. Too often in UX, we design for the best case because it let’s us get fancier and more feature-rich (an approach lends itself to better portfolio pieces). However, the worst experience is something you can’t even see because it won’t load with your 3G connection, or it can’t process your request because the server is overloaded. Simply making things that consistently work, even when conditions aren’t ideal, is a big first step towards a good user experience.

Too often in UX, we design for the best case because it let’s us get fancier and more feature-rich

At this point, it was looking like I was stuck so I decided to make the best of it. Thankfully, the airline had given out vouchers with a credit towards a hotel stay at certain participating area hotels. It was time to find out what my hotel options were. All I needed to do was just call this number or use this website. You guessed it: all the phone lines were busy and this website was also overloaded and unable to handle the traffic it was receiving from my fellow travelers. As my frustration mounted, I decided to track down my checked bag and get out of the airport. I headed to the baggage claim only to be told I would have to wait for four hours for my bag to be unloaded.

UX Lesson #3: Be reasonable

There’s a business case justification for all sorts of unreasonable behaviors, but your users don’t care that a 24-character password is more secure or that department X can’t transfer you to department Y so you’ll need to call a new phone number and wait on hold for another hour. All they see is friction, and when push comes to shove they’ll find someone who offers a smoother experience. This airline undoubtedly had other planes that needed to be unloaded and other flights arriving, but they also had a lot of flights from the East Coast that were not arriving, and if they had prioritized it, they could have unloaded our bags more quickly. Adapt your business’s processes as necessary to be reasonable. When you encounter something that an ordinary consumer wouldn’t consider reasonable, try to find a way to change it rather than trying to find a way to defend it as necessary or inevitable. As Uber, Seamless, and Instacart are proving, people place a high value on convenience.

Eventually on a tip from the baggage claims counter, I went to the check-in desk for the airline and was able to secure a flight back to my origin point (my parent’s place back in Illinois) and a new flight to New York set to leave the next day. As it turns out, the next day’s flight was also cancelled (not because of weather but simply because they wanted that plane), and I was delayed in getting to New York by yet another day. Fortunately, I was at least able to stay with my parents rather than being stranded in a random layover city.

Once the whole ordeal was over, I reached out to the airline to see if I could get refunded for my original flight costs (the flight rebookings were covered) since I had gotten into New York a full two days later than planned. Although I didn’t actually expect to get fully refunded, I hoped I’d get a partial credit or a voucher towards a future flight or some airline miles or at least some actual sympathy. Needless to say, this expectation was naively optimistic. Truth be told, it seemed like they could not have have cared less about the inconvenience they’d caused me, or the time I’d lost, which was a bit hard to stomach given that the second flight cancellation had nothing to do with weather.

UX Lesson #4: Be empathetic

You have to be willing to be empathic. No matter how great your design is, it may break down, and even when it doesn’t, human error and things outside your control (like weather) can still break the experience. How you react when that happens will determine the experience your users have. Practicing human-centered design is great, but being a human-centered business (i.e. not a profit-centered business) is the foundation of fostering brand loyalty.

From Apple to Nordstrom, brands that put the user at the center of not just their digital design process but also their systems and business decisions process reap the rewards of increased loyalty and an ability to charge a premium for goods and services.

So what’s the takeaway here? A brand I loved for their digital UX lost me as a customer not because they had flight cancellations or because I didn’t get to New York on time. They lost my business because my real world interactions with them showed that they didn’t really care about my experience. While it can be difficult and even controversial for the UX team to try and step outside of the digital box, it’s crucial to ensuring a truly great user experience. Things like customer service, the help desk, shipping, and merchandise returns all shape the overall user experience just as much as digital interactions, and they must be considered.

Image of stranded traveller courtesy Shutterstock.

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Thanks for your thoughts Jon, I can not agree more!That is why we see a (slow) development from UX Design to Service Design, where the designer is not limited to the digital world, but is able to create the entire customer experience, every touchpoint or interaction the user has with the service.

You know, no offense, but it sounds like you just had a bad day. Maybe a couple of bad days. And you were able to vent about it on a UX website and frame it in a way that makes it something other than just a random act of the universe. But, what you had was not a failure of user experience. It was just a bad day.

Why is this a problem? The more people in this field can stop discussing everything and everything as a UX problem, the more UX as a field will advance.