Why User experience is immersive & pervasive

It has been a long time since I have flown on any airline that is not Virgin or Lufthansa. I love the “friendly skies” of Virgin and love the quiet (German) efficiency of Lufthansa, especially on the international routes. Today, I am flying on America Airlines and then Air Berlin to Berlin. It has been less than two hours and I can already tell the gulf between Virgin and American.

The comparison is apt – after all both companies are in the same business. They essentially offer the same thing. Both are in somewhat precarious financial situation. The only thing which separates them are my perception of the two companies and it is shaped by my (user) experience.

Why do I fly Virgin? Simple: flying is a nerve racking experience and Virgin brings a service attitude and a user experience that is meant to puts you at ease and make sure your enjoy the journey in a germ-filled metallic tube at ungodly speeds, high up in the skies. [That tells you how I really feel about flying.]

And you can see it from the minute you get on a Virgin plane. Next time you are on one, try and notice that there are very few people with frayed tempers. The Virgin staff is constantly helping you secure seats, find you overhead bin space for your bags. They even take your bags incase there is no room for them online. And they do all that — smiling and in good cheer. The routine announcements – seat belts, turn off devices and what not are made in a calm, friendly and casual manner.

The friendliness of the Virgin brand is reflected in those announcements, not only the words, but how they are made, just as it is in the cool interiors, the colorful/fun logo and ease with which you can manage your itinerary (though lately that is a game in its own right #sarcasm.) You can hear the wink-and-nod in the no-smoking and turn off devices announcements. Flying Virgin is an immersive experience into the brand.

I compared this to American flight this morning. Maybe it is the ungodly early flight, but I didn’t see very cheerful staff. There were some annoyed people trying to find space for their bags. There were others who were scrambling to check-in their bags, in the process slowing down the boarding process. The announcements and the signage inside the plane have a bossy tone of big-brother. In other words, the user experience that is exact opposite of Virgin.

The comparison between the two flying experiences crystallized one thing for me: user experience is not pretty logos, lovely web design or rounded corners. A smile is a user experience and so is an honest and candid reply to a tweet. Experience is not just physical. It is delivering happiness across as many touch points as often and as frequently as possible, is the ultimate user experience. Apple and Virgin are good examples of that whole experience package.


  1. JJ Raoult (@jjraoult) says:

    July 19th, 2013 at 7:27 am Reply

    Two points:
    1) Customer experience does not have to cost more. Having more engaged personnel is not more expensive (it could be even less expensive with lower turnover). It is more a matter of doing things differently, than spending more. I do not believe it would be the main reason of less profitability for Virgin (if it is the case).
    2) Without a better customer experience, Virgin would not have made it and probably would definitely disappear. In any case, they attract a segment of customers that value this better experience and can afford it.

  2. Espen Irgens says:

    February 1st, 2013 at 10:21 am Reply

    I’m guessing, from the majority of user reviews on airlinequality.com that this article is about Virgin America, not Virgin Atlantic?

  3. Adrian Chan (@gravity7) says:

    January 29th, 2013 at 11:30 am Reply

    I’m reminded of Steve Jobs’ answer to why Apple hadn’t designed a phone. This was of course years ago. His answer was that he couldn’t control the user experience. Carrier quality and service. Now there’s an Apple phone. Still can’t control the experience if it’s a call from Mom. There are limits to what a company can control.

    1. Om Malik says:

      January 30th, 2013 at 6:13 am Reply

      Well said @AdrianChan.

  4. Rose THERESA (@StoryLabSF) says:

    January 25th, 2013 at 8:16 am Reply

    In response to your second paragraph, about what separates the two airlines, I would like to suggest you step back and look beyond your own self a little bit. American Airlines user experience was much different before 9/11, as it was for flying in general. American is perhaps the airline that suffered the most from the attacks and I would suggest that the company has never adequately acknowledged or addressed the extent of the (immersive and pervasive) damage to its corporate culture. Sick corporations tend not to provide delight to their users. Virgin America (owned in part by the Virgin Group, but not the same as Virgin), on the other hand, was born out of the near collapse and in response to ongoing challenges faced by the airline industry since 9/11 tragedy. The difference between the two companies, then, is that 9/11 provides the source of Virgin America’s opportunity rather than its demise.

  5. Mark Miller says:

    January 22nd, 2013 at 12:43 pm Reply

    I choose Virgin whenever possible in the USA. The flight from NYC to San Francisco is in competition with JetBlue, but I find the service, people and attitude much more to my liking. As you mention, even the perfunctory announcements before takeoff are handled in a way to make you smile, even after hearing/seeing them hundreds of times.

    I’m flying Virgin America to San Francisco in March when I go to speak at a technology conference. The only downside to their service that I can see is they are not part of an airline alliance, so my points take a while to accumulate.

  6. Linda Matthews (@LindainSF) says:

    January 22nd, 2013 at 12:21 pm Reply

    I agree with all you said, but would add that how a company treats its employees certainly shows up in the user experience. I don’t work for either Virgin or American airlines, but I am quite positive which company’s employees are happier. And I know where i would want to work if these were my two options.

  7. Hezi Taniani (@Taniani) says:

    January 21st, 2013 at 9:00 am Reply

    Thanks for the interesting read. I find the term “customer experience” more accurate over “user experience” since human’s touch-points are also physical (and not just digital) in this case.

  8. Phong Nguyen says:

    January 18th, 2013 at 1:31 pm Reply

    The vast majority of fliers in the United States seek the lowest price possible. Leisure travelers are often on a budget and trying to save every dollar and hence will look on Hipmunk, Orbitz, Kayak and other search engines or discount airlines like Southwest. Business travelers are typically mandated to choose the lease expensive flight; if they have any flexibility such travelers will choose whatever airline or alliance they have frequent-flier status in.

    Here comes in Virgin America (VX), which does provide a superior service. It also costs more, instantly disqualifying it from a great deal of travelers whether by choice or not. If they wanted to chase business travelers, their route network isn’t exactly set up to do that. Worse, for quite awhile their flights weren’t in the usual corporate flight booking systems! This isn’t RIM vs. Apple: corporate travel happens through those systems or not at all. Adding to corporate-travel woes, switching from a major network usually means loss of elite status (free upgrades to first-class, priority boarding, use of special security lines, etc.) and points that are essentially useless.

    Notes to some of the above comments: American Airlines (AA) may be in bankruptcy, but for reorganization and not because they’re out of cash. They’re well-positioned to come out with lower expenses and a modernized fleet. VX, on the other hand, has not yet had a profitable quarter. Their route network directly competes with United Airlines (UA) and AA’s hubs; those big airlines can simply bury VX.

    (I am an AA Platinum and VX Silver flier … and I usually fly AA on the strength of their schedule and frequent flier program)

  9. rohanchandran says:

    January 18th, 2013 at 9:34 am Reply

    Virgin created an experience. They probably started by setting a goal of having customers feel relaxed and happy. American focused on the interface. They likely began by defining the set of things that have to happen during a flight.

    Happens in product companies all the time as well. Instead of thinking about the user *experience* that we want our users to have, we define the interface. That tends to lead to a checkbox list of ‘features’ without consideration of the whole. As you say, Apple is a great example of a company that seems to get the difference.

  10. Vermont Devil (@vermontdevil) says:

    January 18th, 2013 at 8:07 am Reply

    The reason our airlines suck in the US is that not a high % of Americans fly. Those who do are content with the low fares and crappy service.

  11. Alain Pirlot (@apirlot) says:

    January 18th, 2013 at 7:02 am Reply

    It is all about people, but may I add, it is all about how you treat your people. People are the most important asset companies have. Treat them well, help them, hear them, train them and you will reach your goals in a fantastic manner.

  12. andrewxmclaughlin says:

    January 17th, 2013 at 11:59 am Reply

    My 10 year old dog passed away last night unexpectedly and I had to cancel an early morning flight with Virgin to be with my family. I called to explain my situation and was offered sincere condolences and the Virgin rep was a surprisingly and unexpected compassionate ear. I was rebooked on a flight tomorrow and the representative went out of her way to be respectful and understanding of my situation in a very empathetic way. Virgin is the type of airline I’ve always gone out of my way to fly due to the wonderful staff in the airport. But after this morning, I can attest to the fact that they take as much care with their phone staff as well. It’s all about the people.

  13. Mike Loy (@Man_0_words) says:

    January 17th, 2013 at 8:37 am Reply

    American Airlines isn’t flirting with bankruptcy, they are in bankruptcy and have been for over a year.

    1. Om Malik says:

      January 17th, 2013 at 9:28 am Reply

      Mike I thought they came out of bankruptcy but were going into it again :) sorry, my bad

  14. Ryan Pfleghaar says:

    January 17th, 2013 at 6:47 am Reply

    How much is the user experience worth? Virgin is losing money in the US market and will probably pull out. Americans just don’t see the value in a good flight, they’d rather be jammed into a bus with wings, have soda and crackers tossed on the floor for them to fight over like ducks at the park, and save $15.

    1. Om Malik says:

      January 17th, 2013 at 7:53 am Reply

      Last I heard American is losing money and is flirting with bankruptcy constantly. It is still a terrible airline. Virgin can scale it’s ambition and become profitable. La, New York and San Francisco would be enough to support a niche airline with decent margins and happy customers. They are scaling too fast and hence not making money

  15. Han (@hanverstraete) says:

    January 16th, 2013 at 7:11 pm Reply

    Being London-based Virgin is a default choice for us however I’d love to hear how you feel about Singapore Airlines or – the best of them all – Japanese ANA. Meanwhile, why do Americans cope with the rudeness and indifference they receive from their national carriers?

  16. Scott Clausen says:

    January 16th, 2013 at 5:29 pm Reply

    In the nineties my wife and I flew American to Austin, Texas via Dallas. Due to bad weather we stopped at Midland and were held onboard for about 2.5 hours without any sort of relief, no water, no bathrooms, etc. We then flew to Austin due to continued bad weather in Dallas. When we went to leave the plane we were informed we had to fly back to Dallas and then back to Austin as that’s what our ticket said. After much arguing we deplaned. I contrast this with a Lufthansa flight (first class due to points) to Munich where we were treated royally. In fact, the worst part seemed to be that the flight attendants were sad that I didn’t eat the caviar. Suffice it to say I will never flight American again while Lufthansa has my continued loyalty.

  17. Dave Chapin (@DaveChapin77) says:

    January 16th, 2013 at 3:50 pm Reply

    Is the comparable Virgin flight to the AA flight the same price or higher? If higher how much higher. Is anything about what Virgin is doing more expensive to deploy: more space, more staff; or are those things pretty much the same?

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