The United Airlines app is quite clearly a cry for Product help. If I were Tim Cook, I wouldn’t let my employees fly United!
I hate to be so critical about a company I actually like, but the product they have put out on both iOS and Android screams “old company that has no idea how to staff a digital organization”. United has a great opportunity here. They are trying to serve two audiences; the traveler and the tracker. United has a very good chance of getting download penetration because checking-in and traveling with the app is probably twice as easy as dealing with print outs these days. They aren’t threatened by third party tracking apps because they don’t serve the purpose of the traveler, only the tracker. Owning all the data here is also a critical advantage as it will allow United to deeper personalize the mobile experience in the future. Hat tip to Nick Vivion who presented some solid survey data on the landscape of Airline mobile experiences.
OK before I even get started… this app looks like an iPhone app from 2009.
1. The Navigation is Horrid
Navigation is probably the most important part of a mobile app, and certainly the first thing that should get figured out during R&D. When we built the SportsCenter app at ESPN, we spent weeks thinking through navigation, and at the end of each day my brain actually hurt. It’s clear that there was very little thought put into navigation and the conversation revolved around “supporting the business side”.
Note the six buttons in the first screenshot– these are static buttons that do not ever change or reflect where the user is in the app. What is worse is that 31% of the available screen is dedicated to this static navigation. 8% of the screen shows the user’s name and how many account miles they have accrued. How often do you really need that information? To see it every time I open the app? Come on, that’s comedy– I know my own name.
What’s even worse is that this navigation style leads to a one dimensional experience. What if the user is standing in the security line, currently checking-in, and also looking to book another flight? The user can only perform one function at a time! Boo-urns! Twitter is a great example of an app that allows the user to do multiple things in different tabs of the app.
In the stomach of the app, we got View Mobile Boarding Pass, Reservations, Push Notifications, and United Club Passes. First, why is my mobile boarding pass separated from my reservations? My current trip is one of my reservations– it shouldn’t be broken out, it’s clear which itinerary is called out with the green capital letters above (ha). I also think this should be labeled Trip instead of reservation, as it isn’t as if a user can just cancel or change the “reservation” without incurring a hefty $200 fee. For 99% of people, these are Trips.
The push notifications section has good intentions as timeliness in air travel is everything. However, users don’t want to enable push notifications in one section of an app anymore. The days of a “preference center” are over. Notifications should be configured upon startup, and contextually throughout the app experience. I would like to see more notifications sprinkled into the check-in flow. Some options could be:
- check-in now available
- time to depart for the airport
- flight about to begin boarding (5 min warning)
- last call
- delay update
- message when lost luggage has been found and leaves for delivery
- message to complete a survey at the end of the travel experience
Most of this, United already does via e-mail and could be easily spread to Notifications. The business side is well represented here with the ability to purchase a United Club pass before boarding.
Perhaps the most alarming part of the main screen is the fact that the user isn’t aware of what time their current flight departs or arrives. Naturally, there is going to be some information that will live on the second screen, (which I will later reference as the flight detail screen), but time of departure has got to be displayed at quick glance.
3. My Reservation
So the user either wants to see more flight detail, or they’re ready to board. Dig one level deeper to the poorly designed flight detail screen.
When viewed on an iPhone 5, only the first four lines of the details are above the fold. Notice that more than 50% of the screen is dedicated to the QR code, which by the way, may already have been shipped into the Passbook app.
Now the app is back to fundamental navigation problems. There’s a refresh button at the top next to the back button. Aside from my browser, I honestly can’t remember the last app I used that had a refresh button. There’s also a home button in the top right and a Main Menu button at the bottom. Given that the user is only one page deep in the app having three buttons that take the user to the main menu is extreme overkill.
Now there’s pertinent information here that wasn’t available on the previous screen; the boarding group, QR code, seat information, the departure and arrival times, and other general flight information. This screen serves its purpose decently; however United has buried some incredible functionality here! If the user taps on the Flight Status text, which does’nt look like a button, it will take them to all sorts of really good detail about the flight. The user can view the seat map, upgrade list, standby list, and in-flight amenities. Most of that information doesn’t belong under the guise of Flight Status, but should be available on the flight detail screen!
I would love to see the weather at my destination, along with a live countdown to my departure time.
4. One Moment Please
There’s no question– United isn’t loading their data efficiently. Any personalized data about a user takes anywhere between 5-10 seconds to load on a 4+ bar LTE connection. That is comedy. Another cardinal sin here is the hijacking of the app. Any time data needs to load, the user essentially has a dead screen. This should never ever happen in an app, it’s a horrendous experience. The user spends more time looking at the screen to the right than he does actually using the app for what it’s intended to do.
5. Book a Flight
63% of people surveyed reported never having booked a flight on their mobile device. That statistic is bound to improve if the user has better tools. Today the screen serves its basic purpose, but it could do so much more.
United needs to add a user search history– and remember my last segment searches, not just my recently searched or used airports. Many times I come back and search NYC->DEN, or I will frequently be searching a few different itineraries, and all of that goes in the toilet when I exit and re-enter the Untied app. Do a side by side comparison of booking on the Kayak mobile app and booking on the United app– look at the detail that Kayak put into their calendar selector. There’s progress to make here.
6. Get Social
There’s absolutely zero social integration in this app. What a bummer! If there is one thing that all of my foursquare friends do, it’s check-in (and usually brag) at airports. Partner, and make that experience seamless and include stats. Heck, there are so many food options in ORD; what if it showed the user where they checked-in at last time they were there– maybe they liked the food.
7. I Should Note
I didn’t include the screens where United allows the user to purchase seat upgrades or standby on an earlier flight. As I stated earlier, the business side is well represented here, but the UX is very much lacking. The app does a great job up-selling Seat Upgrades, Flight Changes and United Club passes, but the baseline of functionality is lacking.
61% of the app’s ratings are three stars or less, 34% of which have been one star reviews. There’s a reason that 48% of users responded “Usability” when a survey asked “what specifically are you dissatisfied with”. When you look at apps like this, it’s easy to see why. This app lacks fundamental thought process on navigation, user experience, and design.
It’s clear to me that somebody in this organization is trying to straddle the Product+Project Manager roles, or the Product Manager+Marketer roles. At large organizations, employees can get stretched thin with the best of intentions, but it leads to products that don’t delight users– worse, they actually hurt the brand and image.
The user experience should be extremely well thought out, and the mission of the app should be to provide the user with a seamless, first class travel experience.