The Curse of a Mobile Strategy

by Jared M. Spool

A friend posted this tweet: “Does Virgin America really not have an iPhone app?” Sure enough, a quick Google Search confirmed that, as of this writing, they don’t have one. The same Google Search showed lots of Virgin America customers want to know why.

People want to check in for their flights. They want to see a flight’s status. They want to check on their frequent flyer status. They even want to book flights.

Most other airlines, at least in the United States, let you do all of these things from their phone apps. Why doesn’t Virgin America?

Need an App? Or Just Want an App?

Virgin America doesn’t need an app. All of those things their customers want to do, they can do from their web site.

Virgin America redesigned their web site in 2014 to be slick and responsive. It has all the functionality you want. It works beautifully from the phone. It’s probably one of the best designed airline web sites in the world.

Yet people keep asking for a native app. They want the little icon on the phone. They’re disappointed it’s not there.

Virgin America’s customers don’t need an app, but they want one. Why is that?

Basic Expectations Are Always Shifting

Five years ago, nobody would’ve cared if an airline had a phone app. They wouldn’t have gone to look for it. Even if they had, they wouldn’t had been disappointed if it wasn’t available.

In today’s world, frequent travels find an app useful when traveling. Some airlines do better than others. For example, it’s much simpler to check in for a flight and get an electronic boarding pass from the JetBlue app than it is from the US Airways app.

Because most airlines have this functionality in an app, they’ve set a basic expectation amongst frequent travelers. Airlines frequently remind their passengers to download the apps. Once a traveler becomes conditioned to the convenience of having their travel information available in app form, they start to look for other airline apps.

The Virgin America’s team doesn’t believe they need to provide a native app. They never promised it to anyone.

Yet the expectation has been set and when it’s not met, Virgin America’s customers are disappointed. Virgin America didn’t frustrate their customers with something they did, rather with something they didn’t do. That’s how basic expectations work.

Mobile-Friendly Web Site or Native Mobile Apps?

Many of our clients are working on their mobile strategy. One puzzle in their mobile strategy is whether to have a mobile-friendly web site, native mobile apps, or some combination.

Native apps, when designed well, feel great. They give the user a locus of control directly on their own device. They often perform fast and have a slick user interface. They take advantage of locally stored data (such as your authentication and account information), location services (to help provide information based on where the phone currently is), and notifications to alert the user of changing conditions.

It’s easy to imagine applications for these advantages in the airline space. Keeping you logged in makes it easy to bring up your upcoming itinerary. Location services can help the airline give you information like which baggage carousel to head to (and directions to get there) upon landing. Notifications can alert you to changes in gates or flight times.

Of course, as HTML5 and browsers get more sophisticated, it’s possible to do this with a web-based app. But it’s clunky and the user needs more involvement. It’s not the smooth interface.

Supporting native apps for each flavor of phone and operating system is complicated. Multiple code bases means slower, less frequent updates. A web-based design can deliver immediate upgrades, without the user having to initiate the download of a new version.

There are equally good reasons to go with either a mobile-friendly web site or a native app. It’s not an easy choice. It’s a hard to come up with the right strategy.

Looking beyond the Medium of Mobile

It’s these decisions that push organizations into creating a mobile strategy. They need a way to answer the questions and putting focused thinking around it seems like a good idea.

However the idea of a mobile strategy has always struck me as a bit odd. After all, an airline doesn’t usually have a kiosk strategy or a customer service desk strategy. The kiosk and customer service desk are also places where customers want to get boarding passes, change flight arrangements, learn the status of flights, and all the other things a mobile experience would provide. Yet there’s no “strategy” around those options for the customer.

That’s because those are just the contact points with the airline. Those contact points (what the service design kids call touchpoints these days) are part of a bigger strategy, say a customer service strategy. Airlines, for sure, could use a better customer service strategy. (Yes, I’m looking at you, United.)

And that customer service strategy is likely part of a bigger customer experience strategy (or should be). The larger strategy touches every part of the service the organization delivers, from product creation all the way through problem resolution and beyond.

The problem with a mobile strategy is it’s about the medium of delivery, not what is being delivered. It focuses on the technology questions. Do we build a native app or a web-based solution? It doesn’t ask, what’s the best experience for the customer?

The Benefits of Thinking Medium-Free

What if an airline renamed their mobile strategy to be their boarding pass everywhere strategy? Say you’ve ended up at the airport without having checked into your flight yet. You approach the kiosk and put in your credentials. Why do you have to get a printed boarding pass? Why can’t the boarding pass immediately show up on your phone instead (or also)?

Not only do you have all the benefits of a mobile boarding pass, but also the experience of checking in on those nice large-screen kiosks. A best of both worlds scenario for you.

Of course, to do this would mean you’d have to think through a few things. For instance, how would the kiosk know your phone? Do you have to have the app loaded, or could the boarding pass somehow be sent through a technology like SMS?

Where does it get your number? Is that stored in your customer record, attached to the itinerary record or frequent flyer record? What kind of load would this put on the servers? What are the additional costs of sending out millions of SMS messages each day?

These are the complexities of any good design problem. We ponder these constraints and challenges, and come up with the best experience for the user. That’s what design is all about.

Why is the kiosk the only tool for this? Why can’t, when you approach the friendly agent at the service desk (or even United’s often-not-that-friendly agents), they send you an updated boarding pass on the phone? Your phone vibrates and you smile with your updated information. We could even see a call center rep having the same magical power, from deep within their secret call-center cave in Omaha.

Now we’re thinking about experiences across all the touchpoints. We’ve looked at the customer journey and learned to do it well everywhere.

We’re not focused on mediums, but instead on the entire experience. Experience design, at its best, is medium-free. The strategies behind it need to be medium-free too.

The Inevitable Psychology of the Mobile Strategy

The big problem with a mobile strategy approach is it sends a message to everyone that mobile is somehow different from the kiosk, the desktop, and the customer agent. That it requires a special team, often in their own special place, separate from everything else going on.

That’s ok at first, when teams are trying to figure out how they integrate a new technology into the overall experience equation. After all, at some point someone had to decide how the kiosks would work or what systems the customer service agents would use.

Yet, when organizations keep their mobile strategy team in place too long, the rest of the organization starts to think that mobile only belongs to that team. The boarding pass redesign team doesn’t ask questions about how to integrate a mobile touchpoint into the experiences they’re building out. They figure it’s the mobile team’s job.

The mobile team is usually too small and too constrained to build out every touchpoint that would create a great experience. The experience and knowledge they acquire doesn’t get transferred into the teams working on the problems. The result is nothing gets built well. The overarching mobile strategy never comes to fruition.

Organizations need to be careful to not induce the psychology of a medium-based strategy, like mobile. They need to keep bringing their strategic thinking back to the experience.

Epilogue: Should Virgin America Build a Native App?

If Virgin America avoids the problems with having a mobile strategy, and thinks about their customer experience strategy, it will likely become clear that they need a mobile app. Basic expectations have taught frequent flyers that a native app is a great way to integrate with the airline.

If Virgin America really does a great job on their customer experience, then they’ll use that native app as a sophisticated touchpoint for many of the services they provide to customers. But they won’t think of mobile as an isolated strategy. They’ll think of it as just one way they provide those services, with all the other touchpoints in the mix too.

The teams offering the services, like the boarding pass team, will have a full range of tools to make it great. And a native app will just be one more tool. They’ll have moved beyond the curse of a mobile strategy.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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