Design for a hospitable and headacheless experience

No one knows your company’s processes like you do. Layers of commonly shared assumptions empower your team to work quickly and intuitively. However, if your team fails to translate these assumed processes for the customer, your customer might be in for a frustrating and flummoxing interaction.

I jumped on a plane with my 3 year old son recently to go visit my grandmother. Travelling with a toddler requires a lot of extra arrangements. Snacks, small-space-friendly toys, little blankets, multiple boarding passes and carry-ons, and an awkwardly clunky car seat. When it comes to helping a parent and young child succeed on a flight, an airline’s work begins long before father and son show up at the gate. It’s essential to give careful thought to the entire customer experience in order to set up the customer for success at every point, and to build trust between the person and the airline. On this particular trip, the importance of a carefully-crafted user experience couldn’t be more clear.

The day before our departure, WestJet sent a friendly email inviting me to check in. When I tapped open my WestJet app, my flight was already highlighted. In minutes I had picked seats, declared how many bags we’re packing, and promised not to bring firearms. The app recognized that my son was very young, and asked if I needed to bring any “child mobility” items like a car seat or play pen. I checked “car seat”, finished the check-in, and instantly received our boarding passes by email. Easy. The flight was great, and no bags lost. That’s a thoroughly excellent, confidence-instilling interaction. Thank you, WestJet.

Then, a few days later, it was time for our return flight. For reasons of cost and schedule, we had planned to return home with Air Canada. Once again, the day before the flight I received a friendly check-in reminder. For the most part, the interaction was the same. Seat selection, bag count, dangerous items left behind. However, Air Canada’s check-in didn’t acknowledge my son’s young age. No reference to him as a “child”, nor mention of “child mobility items”. Not wanting to show up unchecked-in, I finished the process, but was concerned about my son’s car seat. I didn’t want to pay extra to bring an item that other airlines carry for free, so I reluctantly called customer service. After waiting far longer than the “estimated wait time”, I was able to explain my issue to a representative. Her reply? An incredulous “Oh, we never charge for car seats. That’s always free. Just take it to the baggage desk and check it.” Okay… but how was I supposed to know? I had to call customer service to find out.

This isn’t a rant against Air Canada, but a testament to the importance of translating internal assumptions into information for hospitable interactions. The assumption “We never charge for car seats” never made it into the check-in process. By failing to equip the check-in system to answer a common customer question, I was left feeling alienated as a parent of a toddler, I formed doubts about the competency of Air Canada’s service, and I spent an unnecessary half hour on the phone only to be told my concern was obviously illegitimate. All Air Canada needed to do was to offer visual indication of my son’s “child” status and trigger an extra check-in step in which I could have declared my need to bring a car seat, and my interaction could have ended in feelings of confidence instead of frustration.

So, if you offer a service to customers, make sure you map out a hospitable interaction. Come at it from as many angles as you can. Pay close attention to the various types of people who will use your service, and make sure the whole experience makes sense for each one. A headacheless customer is a happy customer.