The multiple layers and executives involved at a large corporation can often inhibit innovation. But in the case of American Airlines, they recently got an online awakening that their business structure was affecting their website and the way that people interact with their brand. Designer Dustin Curtis took their site into his own hands when he got frustrated with American’s user interface.

Curtis posted an open letter to the company to show them the future of what their website could look like. He wrote:

“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. How does your CEO, Gerard J. Arpey,
justify treating customers this way? Why does your board of directors
approve of this? Your website 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.”

Curtis spent a few hours taking the original design (below) and creating a new homepage (above) according to his specifications. And he soon got a response back from an employee at the company:

“The problem with the design of AA.com… lies less in our
competency (or lack thereof, as you pointed out in your post) and more
with the culture and processes employed here at American Airlines
Let me explain. The group running AA.com consists of at least 200
people spread out amongst many different groups, including, for
example, QA, product planning, business analysis, code development,
site operations, project planning, and user experience. …Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that
AA.com is a huge corporate undertaking with a lot of tentacles that
reach into a lot of interests. It’s not small, by any means.

“Simply doing a home page redesign is a piece of cake. You want a
redesign? I’ve got six of them in my archives. It only takes a few
hours to put together a really good-looking one, as you demonstrated in
your post. But doing the design isn’t the hard part, and I think that’s
what a lot of outsiders don’t really get, probably because many of them
actually do belong to small, just-get-it-done organizations. But those
of us who work in enterprise-level situations realize the momentum even
a simple redesign must overcome, and not many, I’ll bet, are jumping on
this same bandwagon. They know what it’s like.”

The response did not hearten Curtis, who thought it depressing:

“In the same way bad designers sometimes never get better because they
don’t know what they’re aiming for, some companies have a culture that
just promotes bad taste and doesn’t encourage improvement. The ideology
permeates the entire organization, lowering the required level of
awesomeness expected from each employee.”

For large corporations like American Airlines, hurdles between implementing innovative ideas have less to do with recruiting talent and far more to do with the compicated approval process neccessary to get ideas to market.

As Fast Company puts it:

“Apple isn’t about “empowering decision makers” or whatever that lame
B-school buzzword is. It’s about awarding massive power and
self-determination to those with the most cohesive vision–that is, the
designers. Those are the people with the best idea of what customers
want. That’s the essence of “design thinking.” If you were to summarize
just how ugly–and self-defeating–the alternative can be, AA’s Web
site would be a smoking gun.”