Red tape

July 17, 2009

I had the pleasure of stumbling upon the open letter “Dear American Airlines” by Dustin Curtis, in which he suggests a redesign of the American Airlines website. I recommend reading the article and looking at his supplementary redesign, which is really miles (hah) better.

Dear American Airlines

But the response that Curtis received from American Airlines, “Dear Dustin Curtis,” is truly illuminating. If you don’t want to click through, the gist of it is that a user experience architect who works on AA.com completely agrees with Curtis’ arguments, but because AA.com is such a huge corporate undertaking, with so many different departments who have their hands on it, it’s impossible to push anything through the red tape.

Simply doing a home page redesign is a piece of cake. You want a redesign? I’ve got six of them in my archives. It only takes a few hours to put together a really good-looking one, as you demonstrated in your post. But doing the design isn’t the hard part […] Those of us who work in enterprise-level situations realize the momentum even a simple redesign must overcome.

But Curtis thinks that the simple fact “I work for a large company” is a cop-out. He blames the AA.com suckage on a corporate culture of bad taste; the company is so complacent that it never strives to achieve greater things.

The ideology permeates the entire organization, lowering the required level of awesomeness expected from each employee. Companies like this just float along, in the background of capitalism, exchanging goods and services for money. And that is it. They suck. […] The reason large companies with bad design are the way they are is because they are run poorly from the top, with philosophies that force the entire company to behave like its lowest common denominator.

Indeed, when his superiors found out about the letter he wrote to Curtis, said UX architect was fired. How’s that for forward change?

Now that I’m taking on a more managerial position at my job, I find that these are exactly the roadblocks I’m encountering: superiors whose styles are more “reactive” than “proactive.” They don’t want things to get better. They want things to keep in step. Design overhaul? Sure. As long as it matches the rest of the godawful university website—which isn’t even consistent with itself.

I do want to change the system, and now it looks like I’ll have an even longer timeframe in which to attempt it. But it can’t be a revolution; it has to start with baby steps. And that is perhaps the most frustrating thing of all.

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