UX Design: Text & Talk, The App for Millionaires

True Story
About a year after this product was released, it had the highest adoption rate of any single product Aircell has ever made at $10,000 per license. Around that time Bill Gates was flying on a jet and was told about this app. THAT BILL GATES, my friends. Guess what platform we didn't make the app for? Windows Phone. So he used it on someone else's phone and after so doing, said, "I want this in Windows Phones. Figure it out." Windows Phone devs were deployed to Gogo to Make It So. True Story.

The Business Problem
By 2012 Aircell, the business aviation arm of Gogo, had long since solved the problem of  in-flight phone calls with devices that lived inside a jet. In fact, those came long before wi-fi was available. But people who fly in these jets really don't want to use these devices to make calls, and they want to be able to send SMS messages to people on the ground.

The People Problem

  • Do you know who thinks they know how to design an app? EVERYONE.
  • Inexperienced mobile app developers who didn't understand SIP (do you?) and needed near-constant handholding.
  •  A surprisingly high percentage of people who fly commercial don't know that private jets are really different, so they downloaded the app and decided it didn't work.

The Approach
I started at Gogo as a consultant in June of 2012 and listened to the sprint team for a few days. They talked about all the things they were concerned about -- device security, custom interactions, which operating system we should build toward, and most importantly, WHERE ARE THE WIREFRAMES WE CAN'T DO ANYTHING WITHOUT THE WIREFRAMES WE'LL ONLY KNOW WHAT TO DO ONCE WE HAVE THEM.

And I thought, HOLD ON. You need me to wireframe out a phone call? 

So I said something like, "the phone call is over 100 years old and the text message, 20 years old. Smartphones with touch screens, almost ten years old. One thing you don't do as a UX Designer is mess with things like that. And sure. That isn't the best way to build an app with "sizzle," but that isn't my job. My job here was to build an app that works the way people expect it to."

So we used the way the devices currently work and made something that looked just different enough for a person to recognize they aren't in their phone's native functionality.

Piloted in early 2013 and released in May of that year, to this day the app doesn't score under 90 percent on the SUS and is the most rapidly adopted product the business aviation division has ever released. Below are a few sketches, mostly of the Android version since the OS we chose was relevant to the look and feel of the app. For the iPhone, I reviewed the functionality of the native device with the team before each feature was built.

What I learned

Do not mess with the designs of Alexander Graham Bell or those who created a killer app like texting because someone tells you a thing needs to be "sexy." Have a sexy phone call or a send a sext if you want that.  Make something that works and advocate tirelessly for that.


Service Design: Think Outside The Plane

Imagine my alarm when I had this conversation with an engineer (paraphrased, because really it took half an hour to get all of this information).

Engineer: "Well, it'd be way easier to just make Wi-Fi available when it's available, but we decided to shut it off before the plane even takes off if the flight's connectivity will be intermittent."

Me: "But... it's our flagship product. Wi-fi makes 96% of our revenue. Why on EARTH would we make it so people can't buy it when we could make it available?"

Engineer: "Because we don't know how to notify the user of what's available. That would be hard. And we're afraid we'll upset someone who just bought a subscription and then can't use it because they're flying over the ocean."

<eight more edge case descriptions ensue>

Me: "But... that's a user experience problem we can totally solve. It's just about notifying people and letting them plan their trip accordingly."

Engineer: "Well, you'd better say something in the next meeting or that's the final design."

The Business Problem
If an aircraft was going to have intermittent Wi-Fi available due to things like flying over bodies of water, then Wi-Fi was going to be completely shut off on that flight -- by design. What that means is this: the company's flagship product was not going to be made available for purchase during a growing number of flights over the next two to five years. 

The Technical Problem
Planes fly over oceans, and the system was originally built for the contiguous 48 states using land-based cellular towers.  Since satellite-based service was at least two years out from being installed widely, we had to work with the current systems.


The People Problem
People who make a product can't see that what they're making isn't the best thing for the people using it. And I had a very limited amount of time to persuade those same people to change the hardware design. People who couldn't see beyond the edge cases like the one described above.

The Approach
Move quickly to have effective, game-changing conversations with decision makers that would change the system design by showing what we could do with flights that spent some time with and some time without wi-fi.

Me and my partner in crime at the time decided we'd have to tell a story so clear, compelling and persuasive it would give us an undeniable path. We scheduled meetings and got ourselves invited to others.

The Deliverable
The right deliverable for this situation was a deck. It needed to be shareable, grokable without us needing to be there to explain it, and optimized for meetings, not individual demos.

Really, we were empathizing and extrapolating about what end users would want. We didn't have personas or journey maps, because the organization didn't understand how those would help in a case exactly like this one and so wouldn't allow the time to be spent creating them.

The Effect
Almost a year later, we've done the research needed to discover what people expect and want. And I am shocked to be able to tell you that we were actually... pretty... dead on about what people expect when they fly.

Not a moment too soon, either, as Gogo gets ready to launch Alaska Airlines by early 2015. Their fleet flies over water all the time.

What I learned
First: two years of guerrilla research really did help us make an educated guess about what the service could become. And I really do have a good eye for human behavior. 

While presenting this work I also learned when I was out of gas and when my reach had finally exceeded my grasp -- AKA, why title and place in an organization really matters and what biting off more than I could chew really meant. This was a place that was "struggling to keep the lights on" as my boss said to me when I resigned, "and your ideas are just too big." She may have been trying to make me feel better, but it wasn't untrue, either. 

By way of comparison, many many people want to "fix" air travel. They want the experience to be better in virtually every way. I get it. Lots of room for improvement. I know many people who went to work for United in Chicago fervently believing they would do just that.  But the truth is, United's job is to get an object weighing many tons, full of people, up into the air in one place and back to the ground in another place, safely. And profitably. Everything else comes second. Everything. At Gogo, it was a similar chain. The people who ran the place viewed themselves as running a telecom company - they made the internet work in planes and that was it. Their whole job. The whole list. And people want it enough to go through a painful user experience to get it. So, me suggesting all of this easing into the service by making a plan before the plane took off? Just too much. 

The gallery below shows a selection of slides we put together for our presentation. (It was really fun to use 80s movies.)