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American Airlines, JetBlue, and Your Mobile Strategy

23 Jan 2013

Last week, American Airlines, one of the last remaining legacy airlines, unveiled a new branding identity, complete with a new mark, new colors, new fonts, new patterns, new livery; a complete overhaul of American’s distinct and long-standing classic look. Reactions came immediately and ranged from the dismissive and derogatory response of the original campaign’s designer, Massimo Vignelli; to the sentimental and melancholy meanderings of this guy.

Wherever you fall on the look and feel of American Airlines’ new visual identity campaign, it actually is representative of an elephant-in-the-room question that happens so often in the world of apps and mobile strategy. And it’s a question (two, actually) that many companies don’t realize they should be asking:

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Is it time for our mobile strategy to get a fresh coat of paint, a new look, some up-rezed pixels? Or is it actually time for a whole new mobile experience, a fresh strategy for engaging customers and users and new clients?

At Chaotic Moon, we often field calls or email inquiries from prospective clients who simply want to put some ‘spit on that shine,’ basically for us to take something that exists but isn’t really achieving their business goals and do some work to breathe success into it. This can actually be done, much like Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, breathing sweet Westley back to life. We do this every now and then, with not just a modicum of success, and we call it App Resurrection.

On the other hand, Miracle Max was a dirty old man with a drinking problem and unhappy marriage, so this is not always the best strategy. Then what would we suggest? Simple: take a step back from your mobile campaign, from your app, and ask yourself some key questions:

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1) What *would* it look like if this app was successful?
2) What is the main thing our customers need or are expecting to find when they open this app?

Since we’re talking airlines, let’s take a look at two airline apps. These apps are the mobile offerings from the airlines we fly the most: American Airlines and JetBlue (and just to save you some time, we fly these two because they have the best direct flights to the places we fly the most, and also, we freaking hate Southwest’s cattle-car style of ‘travel’).

Before we dive in, let’s answer those two questions above as it relates to an app from an airline. What would it look like if the app was successful? The app would look like a success if travelers of all stripes, both business travelers and families going to Disney World alike, could use to app to quickly manage the travel experience, especially the stressful in-airport experience on the days of travel. The app would be able to be used quickly to accomplish those tasks, and then be put away. A useful tool.

And what would the users expect to find when they opened the app? The very features that would make it successful: the ability to see upcoming flights, find out where their gate is and if the flight is, and to be able to use their mobile phone to check the family in for the flight, and then again at the airport as the boarding pass.

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So having framed our goals, let’s look at JetBlue first. Upon opening it, we notice a great amount of polish: the animated start-up screen is pleasant, and the overall UI looks quite nice. This experience should be promising! As we dig down, we find all sorts of great features in this app, including checking flight status, getting notifications, even booking a flight.

But a key feature is missing, glaringly at that, as it is the key feature travelers need when they actually fly: the ability to check-in and receive your mobile boarding pass. JetBlue’s app does not have this, despite other carriers having had the feature for quite some time. (Note: JetBlue’s app allows you to check-in, but inasmuch as this doesn’t alter your seat assignment or put you at the front of the list for an upgrade–unlike on other airlines–it really is a rather hollow feature, with no clear benefit. It’s almost like a virtual placebo.) It is on JetBlue’s radar, to be sure, but that doesn’t cut it: it’s 2013, and the ability to check in and have a mobile boarding pass generated is not a new feature, it’s not a luxury; it’s something that’s been around a while and which JetBlue has implemented yet, which may be related to its own infrastructure debt which puts quite a bit of emphasis on the in-terminal kiosks, an unpleasant experience as well as a possibly costly and certainly unnecessary detour for busy travelers.

So instead of having what we really need on the day of travel when flying JetBlue, we must print up our boarding tickets at home, or use the kiosk once we get to the crowded and busy airport. Not a good user experience, and no amount of polish and good design in the JetBlue app can make up for this. (Adding injury to insult is that there is the ‘Fun Stuff’ section of the app which allows us to send postcards and download JetBlue branded wallpapers for our phones. Really? Branded wallpapers but no boarding pass?)

When we open American’s app, it looks a little on the sparse side (if you don’t have any upcoming travel), not quite as polished as JetBlue’s app. But the couple of of things that travelers really need out of a travel app are right there: Check Flights, and Book Flights. If I were to have upcoming travel there, it would be listed with flight info, delays, the ability to check in, and once I had done so, a link to my mobile boarding pass, which not only gets me on the plane, but is also sufficient to get through security.

This leads us back to our original question: Is it time for simply a fresh coat of paint, or do the guts of the project need overhauling? Surely there are things that could be tweaked with American’s app, but the guts of it are solid: the ability to book flights, check status, check in for your travel, and the mobile boarding pass. Some design elements could be changed, certainly. But when we weigh the existing app against our questions of being a successful time-saving management tool, while giving travelers what they expect from their airline app, the most this app needs is our ‘new paint’ fix. The guts are all there, and this is a solid, useful tool.

JetBlue’s app, on the other hand, looks like great, but it does not feature core elements travelers need, the most vital time-savers and must-have conveniences, namely the ability to check in and receive a mobile boarding pass. In this day and age, requiring a paper ticket printed at home or an even more inconvenient stop at a kiosk (which might be malfunctioning) is a failure to users and a disservice to travelers. Mobile technology exists to allow travelers to save time and make their airport experiences easier, and yet it is not offered in this app.

So where is your mobile strategy? Does it need a fresh coat of paint, or is it time to reconsider the needs of your audience, and put some data and creative thought towards a new solution?