I came across something really interesting this week that was near and dear to my heart for two reasons. It was a site called ‘Dear American Airlines‘ that was created by Dustin Curtis who wanted to show American Airlines what an updated design could look like for their brand. He didn’t take the subtle route with comments like “If I was running a company with the distinction and history of American Airlines, I would be embarrassed–no ashamed–to have a Web site with a customer experience as terrible as the one you have now…Your Web site is abusive to your customers, it is limiting your revenue possibilities, and it is permanently destroying the brand and image of your company in the mind of every visitor.” Shortly after posting it Dustin received a response from a user experience architect who works on AA.com titled “ You’re right. You’re so very right. And yet…”. It goes into a long description of the reasoning behind why their corporate culture has blunted and paralyzed the design of the site to the point where the site and customer experience suffers greatly.
This problem, this brand and this trend are all very near and dear to my heart because I worked on American Airlines’s advertising for 4 years and I spent all of that time begging to get my hands on their site. Those attempts were greeted with the list of excuses that are chronicled in the letter Dustin received. It’s a problem that I have seen too many times over the years with my clients and even in my current client side position. So why does it keep happening? What goes wrong inside the creative process of a corporate structure that creates this dysfunction?
Short term memory loss in the ivory tower
I think the first part of the problem is a matter of perspective and being able to look at a project with fresh eyes. When a team starts working on a project they forget that when it is released the site the customer experiences is completely blind to the logic, compromises and excuses that have been built up on the by the internal team over the course of the project. The consumer doesn’t know or care about why something was de-scoped to awkward solution or that you will fix it when you get around to version 2.0. You have to have the ability to develop short-term memory loss and be able to see the work with fresh eyes or else those problems will be glossed over by the meaningless internal reasoning for why they it wasn’t right. You have to look at it from the customer’s point of view because that is the only true reality and that will determine the success or failure of the site.
I think this happens the most inside of a corporate structure because you live with the brands, their problems, their work and their excuses so you become desensitized to them. The symptoms of this are usually expressed as eye rolling and under the breath jokes in meetings when you try to propose solutions to fix long-standing problems that are en-snared with internal politics and problems. It is a hard place to be in when you have to be the person who needs to stand up against the apathy and frustration that lives around these issues and try to effect change. You constantly have to work to keep a fresh view of what the outside world is seeing. The only advice I would have would to try to start with small problems that can really be solved to get momentum and then try to work up to the larger ones building on the smaller successes.
Better design doesn’t just come from better designers
I wrote the previous paragraph knowing full well that even if you develop the ability to rise above the internal excuse blindness you still have to overcome a massive problem. Let’s look at the problem by creating a comparison between a web site that is produced by an agency and one produced by an internal creative team. What is the difference in the process and structure between the two where you generally see more cutting edge and powerful solutions out of the agency than what you see out of internal creative teams? The divergence isn’t in the process of how the work is created but in how it gets feedback, gets approved and the hierarchy is has to travel through. At an agency the creatives are in a structure that puts them at the center of the universe and empowers them to be leaders and the voice in guiding the vision with supporting teams to help delivery of their vision. In a typical corporate hierarchy creatives aren’t the center of the universe and they have they aren’t empowered to be able to influence the final deliverable because their work has to go up a decentralized corporate approval system. This breaks the idea in to multiple directions by multiple stakeholders who dilutes it in to smaller and safer ideas a large group can take credit for and will satisfy the internal approval audience. This is a crime because the internal creative teams have the best view into the problems that need to be solved for the company and can bring solutions to market faster than those created by an external agency who aren’t as familiar with all the nuances.
If you ask any company they will always say how they want to be like Apple or BMW and produce these breakthrough ideas and designs but they don’t understand that better designs and ideas aren’t going to come from hiring better designers. They come from a fundamental structural shift where the people with the best ideas are given the most power and best ability to execute on their ideas without having to put them through a mouse trap like system that robs them of their power. Hopefully more and more people will come to understand this problem so more good ideas see the light of day.