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How to Understand Airline User Behavior [American Airlines Case]

Iztok Franko

How to understand airline user behavior

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we’ll travel in the near future. The things that seemed complicated a year ago, like figuring out visa restrictions, seem so simple now. Now there are so many new factors and restrictions that impact airline user behavior.

Each country has its own policies, entry rules, and quarantine rules that make life for travelers more difficult. A second challenge airlines have faced is having to make the travel journey contactless almost overnight. Out with papers and touch screens; enter mobile, digital, contactless.

I saw many airlines build great new digital solutions in the last year to adapt to the new reality of travel. But what is the process behind these new airline digital solutions?

How is the job of airline digital professionals changing in this pandemic-stricken world? What do UX experts do to understand new airline user behavior?

Learning from airline UX leaders (Diego Brunot, UX Lead at American Airlines)

To answer these questions, I talked to Diego Brunot, UX Lead at American Airlines. Diego and his team work on what is now a crucial part of the airline travel journey, the post-booking digital experience.

Listen to the new episode of the Diggintravel Podcast about how to understand airline user behavior in the post-COVID recovery period to build new digital solutions, or read on for key highlights from our talk with Diego:

And don’t forget to subscribe to the Diggintravel Podcast in your preferred podcast app to stay on top of airline digital and UX trends!

How is the UX team organized at American Airlines?

Diego and his UX team at American Airlines are a part of a bigger digital product team. Here is how his UX team is organized:

I have a team of 3 product designers that work with me. We have a product portfolio here at American Airlines that we are responsible for. If you think of the digital customer experience from start to finish, from planning and booking your trip to the day of travel and flying, we’re breaking this down into a product portfolio, into booking or purchase and post-purchase. My team is focusing on the post-purchase experience. So people who already made a booking are retrieving that booking to manage their experience. Maybe they want to add a seat and ancillary to the day of travel, so check-in and dropping bags.

New Digital Products for the Critical Part of the Travel Journey

The post-booking experience, especially the day of travel part, is where things have changed the most because of the pandemic. You might say that this became the most important part of the airline digital user experience and where people often experience the most problems. Diego and his UX team are focusing on how to address the key points of the new travel journey:

We’re trying to assign our resources and direct our energy towards the biggest pain points we feel our customers are experiencing, and try to fix them one at a time. It’s definitely a busy world; we’re not lacking in pain points to solve and experiences to try to improve, especially in a context like this, where people struggle a lot. It feels rewarding when you know that you’re working on something that really helps people.

Airlines needed to adapt and develop new, contactless digital solutions fast. Here are some of the things the UX team at American Airlines did to help their customers:

We have an initiative called ‘Prepared for the Air‘ that is trying to help customers navigate the new restrictions that exist today. They are a bit complicated to make sense of. It doesn’t help that different countries might have different sets of restrictions, and that doesn’t affect travelers only at their final destination, but at any destination on their journey. There is a lot of additional information that travelers have to consider, and for us it’s super important to be able to assist them in that new part of their experience.

How to Do UX and User Research During the Pandemic

Before you start building new digital products that address your customers’ pain points, you must first understand those customers. Doing user and UX research is another aspect of the airline world that changed because of the pandemic. Here is how Diego and his team do user research to understand new airline user behavior:

Obviously, we are not able to do the in-person tests that easily. We’ve got the remote testing tools, so we make greater use of them. They are great because they still maintain contact with our users, our customers. We can do remote unmoderated tests. Let’s say we have a prototype or an idea we want to test, and we just want to upload that prototype with a set of questions, or maybe a task if it is a functional prototype. It’s something we can put out there and in 24 hours we get tons of people who conduct that test, and the next day you can watch that video and get some powerful insights. You can do the same thing in a moderated test, so you have interviews but instead of having the in-person interview, you conduct it over Zoom.

“There is another concept we have embraced in the past year to give us a fresher perspective and help with the process of how we ask the questions differently. If we are struggling to find the right solution or if how we iterate the solution doesn’t give us the results, maybe it’s the way we ask the question that needs to change. This is why we really embraced the ‘design thinking,’ human-centered approach. It’s more about the way we collaborate within the team. We’re trying to ask different questions, get more participation, make sure we involve different teams very early on and get different perspectives to help frame the problem better. That usually leads to better solutions. Having additional tools that can enhance collaboration in a remote world and having a digital whiteboard are great ways to improve the process.

How to understand the changing airline user behavior during the pandemic

How can behavioral science help us understand new airline user behavior?

Doing user research/user testing and observing people is one thing. But how do you really understand why people behave the way they do? People often say one thing, but then in real life, they do another thing. Diego sees learning more about behavioral science as the next step to dig deeper into really understanding why people behave as they do:

For me, I always felt that behavioral science is a natural progression. I feel like behavioral science is the next follow-up step. Even as you go and observe people in the field, or hear what they have to say, you might still come back with a lot of questions. Because what you heard and what you saw doesn’t explain everything. That’s where, to me, behavioral science is that follow-up step that can help [you] dig deeper and find better answers for more complex problems that UX can’t solve alone.

We need to find better tools to not just explain what people want, or try to make sense of what they say or how they feel, but also explain what they do and why they make the decisions that they make.

If you want to learn more about behavioral science and how it can help you to take the next step in your user research, please listen to the full podcast chat with Diego.

The balance between ancillary, customer service & UX

The last thing I wanted to ask Diego was about one of the key challenges airlines are facing, especially in the post-booking part of the travel journey. I’m talking about the challenge of generating revenue by selling ancillary products, but at the same time not worsening their digital user experience.

That is the balancing act that any airline needs to have. At the core airlines have their customers in mind, so they are very customer-centric companies, like service providers. I belive in that even more because of my background, having started in customer service – taking bookings on the phone, talking to customers and seeing the impact and what it means to them to take those trips.

But at the same time, we’re also here to make a living, make a profit. The [balance] is definitely a challenge. Some teams are more business driven, revenue driven and other parts of the organization are more customer centric. That’s where having greater collaboration early on is definitely something that’s helped us improve.

I wouldn’t say airlines have always been great at that. There was a time, in the early 2000s, when especially US airlines were struggling with their business model. Before the pandemic, airlines had finally found the right sweet spot with the business model and were able to generate enough profit and still have a decent customer experience. We started to see, ‘We’re a bit more stable financially; now let’s refocus on the user again.’ It’s that kind of a shift that’s created an input for our team early on in any initiative.

Do You Want to Learn More About Airline User Behavior and UX?

If you want to learn from leaders like Diego and from airline digital case studies, please:

Diggintravel Academy - how to master airline marketing

Iztok Franko

I am passionate about digital marketing and ecommerce, with more than 10 years of experience as a CMO and CIO in travel and multinational companies. I work as a strategic digital marketing and ecommerce consultant for global online travel brands. Constant learning is my main motivation, and this is why I launched Diggintravel.com, a content platform for travel digital marketers to obtain and share knowledge. If you want to learn or work with me check our Academy (learning with me) and Services (working with me) pages in the main menu of our website.

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