Interaction Design and Institutional Culture

An interesting exchange occurred recently between American Airlines and interaction designer Dustin Curtis (who I hadn’t heard of, but, thanks to the tenacious twittering of Dan Saffer, is now on my to-read list.)

First, this Dustin Curtis fellow wrote a pretty scathing evaluation of the usability of the existing American Airlines site – going so far as to call for the firing of the entire design team responsible. Not surprisingly, he’s since received a response from a “Mr. X”, a UX designer at American Airlines. “You’re right. You’re so very right,” he starts. “And yet…” In short, AA gives a spirited defense of their user experience work at their site (, particularly detailing the nuances of their corporate culture and how working in a slow, multi-billion dollar corporation ties his team’s hands from creating a unified, seamless user experience. What’s unspoken in the letter is how decisions are often driven by things outside of “the customer’s best interests” entirely – be it political divisions, internal logistics unseen to the end customer, or plain old bad management.

Dustin seems pleased, but unimpressed, with the reply from AA:

“A lot of people blame bad design and bad customer service in big organizations on the fact that they are big organizations. This is what Mr. X did. But that’s a cop-out. The reason large companies with bad design are the way they are is because they are run poorly from the top, with philosophies that force the entire company to behave like its lowest common denominator. The company ends up making bad products. It ends up treating its customers badly. And if the company is being run by people who don’t have taste, it gets stuck. Eventually, the company’s brand suffers. This is what has happened at American Airlines.”

Dustin, as a design community, we’re right. We’re so very right. And yet, we’ve missed something in completely ignoring the spirit in which he makes his defense. (Sorry Dustin, I’m picking on you to make a point. It’s not you specifically that’s missed the point, but rather, I fear, most of the design industry.)

From Paul Rand-quality logos and top-down branding, to multimedia marketing agencies, we’ve spent decades desperately trying to learn how to imbue large corporations with a sense of taste. I’d say we’ve largely succeeded in that endeavor – any company that wants to can present as slick or as formal of an image as they desire. However, as a design commnuity, we’re terrible at teaching executives design *processes* that reinforce the “spirit” of a company, the things which defined them and made them succeed in the first place. It’s true – a company like JetBlue that isn’t afraid to start from scratch has a tremendous competitive advantage. It’s also true that it takes incredibly strong leadership to realize that such a transformation is needed – leadership that, unfortunately, American Airlines seems to be lacking (judging from a confluence of terrible, selfish decisions they’ve made over the years.) Unfortunately, we neither can nor should always start over – and in those cases, education and patience, not brushfires, are needed.

I’ll admit – I have close to no formal design training. (That’s why I’m heading back to school, among other reasons.) However, my first job out of college was working as an interaction designer for a consultancy working for various departments of transportation. The government – talk about a place that needs to get with the times, right? However, I learned a few things working with the government:
*People within big organizations, more often than not, feel like they’re “outside of the stereotype”. They see their units as doing the best they can in a large, behemoth bureaucracy.
*More often than not, these people are right. As far as I can tell, apathy is the exception – at least in a field like transportation, where today’s 50-year old transportation officials are more typically the older version of kids who grew up playing with toy trains, or whose fathers drove them down Eisenhower’s interstates.
*Some of the best people I’ve ever worked with exist within transportation.
*Most importantly, as an interaction designer, nearly everyone I talked to in transportation was *happy to see me.*
Yes, I was 25. I was new to the workforce, much less transportation. And, more unspoken, my designs and plans for technology were designed to make things so much more efficient that many jobs could be made redundant as a result. Yet those people in the system with both patience and a passion for their work were always willing to work with me, not against me; to slowly but surely transform their culture from within – while keeping what makes their sector (transportation) special, and letting transportation make designs THEIR designs.

All I’m saying is, when you start from scratch, you invariably throw something away. Designers LOVE to throw away existing systems entirely – and certainly, often that’s the right thing to do. One of the things designers are best at is knowing not to get too attached to work – something companies, often with jobs passed down from generation to generation, are inherently bad at. However, designers need more than the courage to decide what dies – they also need the courage to decide what parts of their corporate culture can be saved, and the patience and consideration needed to make that happen. Only then will designers be seen as working *with* companies, as opposed to being “pretty packaging.”

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