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."

Meghan Keane

Published 2 June, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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