Changeit: Reimagining the Alaska Airlines flight change experience

Human Centered Design & Engineering Undergraduate Capstone | Jan. - June 2019


Team Members: Carina Dempsey, Timnit Bekele, Melody Xu

Duration: 6 months

Skills: Competitive analysis, User research (surveys, interviews, usability test), paper prototyping, high fidelity prototype (Sketch)

Role: Content strategist and research program manager

Overview: I worked in a team of four undergraduates in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering to reimagine the change experience for Alaska Airlines by conducting foundational research, creating a paper prototype, and testing it with users.. My primary strengths were developing interview and usability test protocol, design recommendations from user research, user interface (UI) writing, and storytelling.

THe Problem: Reducing Call Center volume and empowering guests

Call center volume at Alaska Airlines has increased faster than Alaska Airlines business size. There are self-service tools that can be used to change flights, they are hard to use on certain platforms (web, mobile, etc.) or unavailable in others. Our goal was to empower Alaska Airlines guests to feel confident when using self-service tools. We wanted to propose a redesign that increases guest trust in Alaska Airlines.

Understanding the problem space: Why and when do guests change their flights?

Our guiding research question was:

 How do guests prefer to change their flights, and why do they choose these particular methods?

We had the following research goals:

  • Gather quantities and qualitative data about the tools that guests use when changing their flight

  • Learn about guests’ rationale for choosing their preferred platform

  • Identify design guidelines for a reimagined change experience

To develop a foundational understanding of Alaska Airlines users’ and the tools they used to change their flight. To understand the problem space, we created a survey to ask users:

  • In what situations do you prefer to use a self-service tool versus the Call Center?

  • What tools do you use to change your flight? Why?

One interesting finding was that guests under the age of 35 have a higher preference for the mobile app and computer, whereas guests over the age of 25 prefer the Call Center over self-service tools. From our survey, we identified 8 interview respondents and conducted 45-minute interviews with them, which comprised of a few open-ended questions and a usability test of the current system.

Because of my past experience as a journalist, I focused on writing a set of interview questions that would enable us to develop rapport with the interview participant, learn about their past experience with changing flights, and give them the opportunity to ask questions. I focused on responding to participant’s answers with a reflective summary of their statement as a marker of our impressions, which were helpful references for their train of thought when identifying key findings.

A visit to the Call Center

In addition to learning from Alaska Airlines guests, we wanted to learn more about how and why people call. Timnit and Carina both visited the Call Center and listened in on a few calls, and we discovered a few main takeaways.

Alaska Airlines’ guests call the Call Center when:

  • A situation feels out of control: For example, guests want to solicit help from the Call Center if they are changing multiple parts of their reservation.

  • They believe they can get a better deal: In reality, Call Center employees see the same information about flight availability as guests.

  • They want to tell their story (i.e. family emergency): One guest in particular told a story about how they spoke with the Call Center because their family member was sick, so they needed to make a last-minute change to their flight so she could stay with them longer.

KEy research findings

To measure the usability and desirability of the self-service tool during subsequent usability tests, we used Likert scale questions to gauge how much our users trusted the system, and we will ask them to use think-aloud protocol to explain their expectations when going through the change process. These qualitative questions enabled us to understand our users’ expectations when using the prototype and helped us identify opportunities to address our hypothesis.

Based on our findings from surveys, interviews, and our usability test, I wrote the following design guidelines that guided the development of our high fidelity prototype I choose to develop design guidelines that could inform future iterations of the change process.

Design guidelines

Break it down: The process of changing a flight should be broken down into manageable parts.

  • We separated the passenger and flight selection process into multiple pages so each page had a discrete action, reducing information overload for the user.

  • We added breadcrumbs so guests can track their progress and know where they are in the change process. This was a feature that was used by other airlines like United, JetBlue, and American Airlines, which we discovered through our competitive analysis

“[It’s] easy to indicate which passenger or whether I wanted both passengers to be changing…really easier than I expected, especially based on my experience with other airlines. Every step of the way, I had no doubt about what I needed to do next.

- Participant (P2)

Be transparent: Guests should know how their old reservation relates to their new reservation. Change fees should be communicated up front.

  • We added green checkmarks on the passenger and flight selection screen so users would receive feedback and feel confident in the fact that they were correctly changing their flight.

  • We created a clear cost breakdown that shows the cost differences between the  old and new reservation and change fees. However, there were varied levels of credit halfway through the process

 “I love that it says Updated itinerary. Sometimes, just a few words can make all the difference in reassuring you that you’re making all the right changes” - Participant (P5)

Provide context: Not everyone knows the term “credit” or how they’ll receive a refund. We should provide this information in context.

  • The original reservation is available for reference at the top of the page when selecting a new flight (interview finding)

  • We implemented hover features that enable guests can see information about terms like “My wallet” in context. I also focused on using language that was consistent with Alaska Airline’s policies.

Iterating on a paper prototype

Based on our findings from user research, we developed a paper prototype that replicated interactive screens with pop-outs using sticky notes. This allowed us to quickly create a prototype that we could iterate on quickly and show two different versions of the cost breakdown

Overall, participants thought our system was simple & easy to navigate

  • Participants described as “straightforward”(P7) ,“clear”(P5),  and “self-explanatory”(P8)

  • All 8 participants ranked the task as a 1 (very easy to complete) on a scale of 1 to 5

  • All participants properly defined the word credit by the end of the user test.

Proposing a reimagined change experience

Ultimately, guests value cost transparency, guidance, and intuitive language. Although our prototype will continue to be developed, we believe that the user-centered design process is a valuable way to translate feedback into design recommendations.

We also recognize that our redesign could not address the frustration with not being able to use credit towards a change fee. This is because the current system doesn’t align with guests’ mental model of “change” transactions because typically, users can use the money from an exchange towards a new purchase. Without addressing this pain point, people will continue to use the Call Center