When you think of user experience and good design, few brands come to mind: Apple, Square, and The Virgin Group are sure to be included in the list. This holiday weekend, long hours of travel inspired an homage to good design impacting positive user experience. On Thursday, after a long hiatus, I flew Virgin Atlantic – the brainchild of famous entrepreneur Richard Branson and the inspiration for Virgin America (which actually is not a subsidiary of Virgin Atlantic and legally exists as a separate airline.)
I’ve only ever seen Virgin America associated with good press in the last few years and am in awe of their PR/branding strategies. Even now, despite a lapse in their online customer registration portal – few can complain about the overall Virgin experience.
Customer Service: The Virgin Group doesn’t take customer service lightly. Good user experience starts the moment you step into the airport. Both airlines easily dominate the airport lobby with their bright red floor carpets and smiling agents in red skirt suits. They are so eager to help that you almost feel bad saying you have things under control. When juxtaposed with an aged British Airways brand or Jet Blue’s perpetually “out of order” kiosks – the simple “we are ready to serve you” mentality is an automatic first win for Virgin. Despite reporting a $270 mm loss from August 2007 (when it first began) to the first two quarters of 2010, Virgin America’s unrelenting belief in the sustainability of good customer service helped them boast a $7.5 mm profit in the third quarter of 2010. Good customer service/user experience almost always results in success.
Photo #1: Virgin America’s Check-in Stations at SFO, Terminal 2
Photo #2: A Virgin Atlantic Stewardess in head-to-toe red
The Cool Factor: Either Virgin branding is saturated with 20-somethings or they have the best branding analysts in the world. Virgin’s value proposition was always its “hip factor.” Everything from their business class lounges to their economy cabins scream millennium generation. In Virgin Atlantic planes, premium economy passengers are invited to sit at a 6-person bar at any point during the flight. The bar is in tones of purple and red with blue lights emanating from the floor to add a “club-like” effect.
All Virgin America flights are known for their “mood-lighting” - cabins lined with purple/blue lighting, a stark differentiator from the harsh white fluorescent lighting in most airline cabins. They even spend money on making their cutlery fit into the “purple” color theme.
A good use of color schemes isn’t the only way Virgin gets the attention of their customers. They invest in good copy as well. Virgin Atlantic is also known for its its “tongue-in-cheek” slogans all the way from “Still Red Hot for 25 Years” to “Your Airline’s Either Got it, Or It Hasn’t.” In an archaic industry, rife with “safe” branding – the virgin brand is sure to get your attention.
Photo #3: The Virgin Atlantic In-flight Bar
Photo #4: Mood lighting in Virgin America
Technology: Virgin America boasts a touch screen GUI for each passenger in economy as well as a Panasonic IFE (in flight entertainment) system. My favorite feature is the on-demand ordering system. Every passenger can order from the menu built into their IFE systems. A picture and price for each item is clearly identified (there is also a separate section for free items.) If a passenger wants to pay extra for an item, they can swipe their credit card in the back of the seat (Yes! It is really that easy.)
Virgin America was also the first airline to offer wireless inflight internet and include power ports for each seat. The best airlines in the world (like Emirates and Singapore Airlines) only offer power ports to their business and first class passengers (they still don’t offer internet.) Unfortunately, Virgin Atlantic didn’t embrace internet and power ports in the same way. It might have something to do with the clients they were servicing (are Americans more dependent and demanding of technology than their European counterparts?) Would be an interesting point to research further.
Photo #5: My all-time favorite feature: on-demand ordering via touch screen in Virgin America
The Little Details: Both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America pride themselves in good design. The font utilized on all items at first glance seems like a cross between Helvetica and Arial. In reality, it is a font customized specifically for the Virgin Group, called “Virgin Galactic.” Clearly, they don’t take these things very lightly.
For long-haul flights, Virgin Atlantic gives each passenger in economy an amenity kit with bright red socks, a pen, a sleeping eye mask and a purple map of everywhere Virgin flies.
The introductory security video that plays before each Virgin America flight is also a testament to the little details they pay attention to. Virgin’s videos are very different from any other video in the airline market. They play upbeat music and make light of certain safety precautions through the development of a funny storyboard with sketch cartoon characters instead of boring airline models. One particular part in the video that always makes me laugh is how they preface the seatbelt portion: "If you are of the 0.0001% of people who have never seen a seatbelt, this is how you’re supposed to buckle up." It is the most obvious little detail and so true but no other airline thinks this way! We all hate security videos but airlines must show them due to regulations and liabilities. Virgin understands. Why not take the chance to be funny or sarcastic and make a passenger laugh? Like I said, its the little details.
Photo #6: Salt and Pepper Packets
Photo #7: High Tea Snack Box in a Number of Languages