Experience Probe: Northwest Air

Little things mean alot. That's why, when I run into small experience issues that are rich in meaning, I like to point them out on this site. They often help demonstrate bigger considerations for experience design.

Last night, I called Northwest Airlines' Reservation and Flight Status information line, to make reservations for a flight (800-225-2525). Here was the interactive voice response (IVR) sequence:

Welcome: we are glad you called the Northwest Airlines Reservations and flight status information line...

  • To check the status of a flight, press or say 1
  • For travel or upgrades using World Perks Miles or any other Wold Perks information, press or say 2
  • For travel to or from Canada or within the United States including Alaska and Hawaii, press or say 3
  • For travel anywhere else in the world, press or say 4

    Now, I recognize this is my fault for having poor listening, but it was prompt #3 that tripped me up: I had to listen to the message twice because I heard Canada but not the United States - and it momentarily threw me.

    After thinking about it, I realized this is a great mini case study that helps demonstrate how business needs, customer ethnographics, channel and behavioral dynamics influence customer experience.

    Business Needs: Reservations is the third prompt on the list. It's probably #3 because because Northwest wants to push status checkers to use the automated information line to lower incoming phone inquiries (and costs). We might logically expect the Reservations prompt to be #2 on the list. However, this is for World Perks. Perhaps Northwest elevated World Perks to the second prompt in an effort to reduce manual call transfers to World Perks agents (more efficient and less costly). This demonstrates how business needs can dictate or influence the structures of these systems and this resonates with most of us (stating the obvious, perhaps).

    Ethnographics: The first country mentioned on the reservations prompt #3 is Canada. It's a small nuance in the scripting that made me go "hmm." Northwest is a U.S. based airline with more flights in the United States than any other country. I did wonder, "Why Canada first?". Does my expectation to have the U.S. listed in first prioirity make me another egotistical, ethnocentric American? Probably! ... A small example of how ethnographics can influence experience.

    Channel dynamics: Let's face it, when you're in a voice response system, it is easy to become distracted, become mesmerized by the automated voice, forget prompts, tune out, get confused and / or become stuck in "voicemail jail." Fortunately Northwest seems to understand this: Pressing # twice rolls the caller to a very friendly representative.

    Behavioral dynamics: Should I have listened better? Without a doubt. We've talked a little about "selective filtering" before. Simply defined, this is the adaptive process people use to process and ignore advertising and media messages. Selective filtering influences listening, as well. While I couldn't find any scientific numbers to support this idea, here's some food for thought:

    When I'm using automated voice response systems,I believe I may have a seven or eight word listening threshold per prompt. On prompt #3, the words "United States" were 10th and 11th - and respectively filtered! I'd love to find some more research on how these dynamics are impacting IVR scripting today. I can say from my experience with fortune 100 companies, most of today's IVR scripting is governed by marketers using systematic logic, rather than science.

    And one more thing -- context impacts behavioral dynamics, as well. Me? I was checking Travelocity when I called Northwest... If a you're multitasking while dialing or clicking, your experience can be directly compromised. Perhaps you're juggling a kid on your lap, driving in the car or answering your front door. It's hard for experience designers to plan for these scenarios, but this does demonstrate how context plays in to customer behavior. As multitasking becomes increasingly popular, and attention continues to splinter, this is something to consider!

    In closing, my experience with Northwest was, no doubt, different than yours might be. I very well may be one of the rare few who pressed # to listen to the prompts twice. You may not have noticed anything different -- or you may have noticed other issues. For example, if you are Spanish-speaking, you could be disturbed by the lack of a Spanish language option.

    The Northwest system isn't poorly scripted. It's just a great little case scenario that helps demonstrate how business needs, ethnographics, selective filtering, channel and behavioral dynamics have a direct impact on customer logic and experience. As we architect experiences for our customers, we need to envision these dynamics at play on a larger scale, and plan accordingly.

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    I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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