When I talk to companies, customers, and colleagues about UX strategy and the importance of understanding the end-to-end customer experience, I often tell stories about seemingly trivial parts of an experience with a brand that can have huge impacts. Small things can have significant impacts on customer acquisition and loyalty—and companies often overlook or under-prioritize them. For example:

  • The process of exchanging a pair of shoes to get the right size may be so cumbersome that you don’t even want to bother with it.
  • A meal that you have at a restaurant leaves a bad taste in your mouth—not because it wasn’t delicious, but because the server was inattentive and rude.
  • Navigating a company’s interactive voice response (IVR) system to speak to a real person on the phone becomes a test of rage restraint, because it’s so abundantly clear that they want to make it as hard as possible.

We all have stories like these—little moments that play into the larger narrative of what user experience or customer experience means. Frankly, it’s the abundance of such stories that helps power our industry, because we are often the ones who companies bring in to help change such outcomes.

Bad service? You can always go to another restaurant or engage in some cathartic karma by sharing your dining experience on sites like Yelp or Urbanspoon.

But when companies are monopolies or have few competitors—for example, airlines and cable companies—you’re often a captive audience. Feeling that you have limited options often exacerbates your perception of these companies as “Masters of Egregiousness.” This makes them the butt of many jokes such as “United Breaks Guitars.” (Some of the best are not safe for work (NSFW)—for example, a story about an FAA report on Spirit Airlines and another about Comcast. That big, complex companies often deliver bad experiences is not news. I’ve always seen this as a case of tone-deafness at best; indifference at worst. But a recent article about the airline industry framed things differently by describing how companies intentionally design bad user experiences.

Takeoff

In his New Yorker article, “Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer,” Tim Wu calls out the elephant in the sky: “In the past decade, the major airlines have done what they can to make flying basic economy, particularly on longer flights, an intolerable experience.”  Yes, he’s talking about those dreaded add-on fees. This article is similar to countless others that lament such realities, but what really hit me was the elegant, pithy term he used to describe this: “calculated misery.”

According to Wu, in the airline industry, calculated misery means, “Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded … to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.” It really hits home when Wu explains that, in 2013, airlines made a whopping $31.5 billion on these fees. Ouch! The visceral, populist response to this fee-craziness is “Evil! Evil! Airlines are heartless, profiteering behemoths.” But there’s a lot more complexity to airline travel, especially since its deregulation in the late ’70s. And, of course, we know airline employees are not evil. The truth is that we consumers are a big part of the reason why we’re where we are.

Level Setting at 35,000 Feet

In both good times and bad, airlines have been doing what businesses do all the time: seeking ways to maximize profits while reducing the costs of delivering their services. And while they have certainly been profiting from increasing those fees, in fairness, it has not necessarily been a smooth flight for them. Since deregulation in 1978, the industry has lost almost $60 billion—the bulk of it since 2001. That’s a lot of pillows and peanuts! Add in the impacts of weather, regulations, global security, fuel-price hedging—minimizing volatility and disruption comes with many challenges.

When it comes to how you put a price on these services, we airline passengers haven’t helped. For 97% of US fliers, price is the top factor in booking flights, which has driven the growth in online travel sites such as Kayak, Expedia, Priceline, Travelocity, and Hipmunk. Metasearch gives us the power to choose flights from among numerous airlines based on price, putting the onus on legacy airlines to make sure they’re competitive with each other, as well as the low-cost, no-frills airlines. But over time, some airlines started tacking fees on their advertised base prices, propelling us into what seems like an endless match of one-downmanship, with first movers like Spirit, “the country’s undisputed king of fee-mongering” in the lead. In less than a decade, we’ve come to accept as the norm a slow, but steady march to paying for things that we had previously expected to be included in airlines’ regular prices.

While many of us may have come to see air travel as a right, flying on a commercial airline is a choice—except in a very few cases. Relative to other modes of travel, the chief value of flying is time savings. The farther the distance, the more flying beats a train, car, boat, bike, or walking.

Cabin Fever: So Why Does This Feel Different?

As a strong believer in free-market capitalism, I’ve struggled to wrap my head around my response to this change. After all, aren’t the airlines just giving us what we’ve asked for? We want to fly cheaply, and airlines are providing that service, while also delivering profits to their shareholders. Yes, but to play off the famous John Godfrey Saxe quotation about lawmaking, “Airline profits, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

One can argue that an airline owes you nothing more for your purchase of a ticket than a seat on a safely functioning plane. If that’s all you need, you’re in business. It’s a fair point that, had that been the case at the dawn of commercial flight, we would perhaps not take as much offense as we do today. (We’ve understood that a first-class seat is better than cattle class for decades now.) But I think it’s more than that. It’s calculated misery that stands out in my mind. That word calculated. Something that a company does “with full awareness of the likely consequences.” Something that is deliberate and intentional. What bothers me is the idea that a company is deliberately designing an experience to make us feel miserable. Airlines have, indeed, made it less pleasurable to fly, but is that really intentional?

Enter A New Class of Service: Economy Minus

Yes, you’ve read that right. Fifteen years ago, United had a breakthrough with Economy Plus-seating, giving a bit more room than standard economy. This past October, Runway Girl Network reported that a major, legacy airline was considering a fourth class of domestic service, which they’re currently referring to as “economy minus.” Long story short: even more seats crammed into the same space. Seriously? Would anyone put up with even worse service?

Well, again, it seems we asked for it: studies show that 42% of the market are open to sacrificing legroom to save on a flight. Of course, if an airline gave people a choice of more legroom and amenities for the same price, most people would take that option. But what about the people who can’t afford to make that choice? And because airlines have failed to reduce fuel surcharges after a precipitous drop in oil prices, one can easily imagine that today’s prices for regular, economy seats will rise along with the advent of economy minus. The airlines would still make seats available for all, but at even more pricing tiers. Is there a morally relevant differencebetween someone who can afford only an economy-minus seat and someone who can afford a better one, but chooses not to?

This is what I think makes calculated misery feel so different. This thinking takes people’s feelings into account, but not the positive, delightful, meaningful kinds of feelings that UX professionals strive to achieve for our clients, companies, and the world. Inducing behavior change through pain rather than pleasure feels insidious. Anti-human. Wrong! A few years ago, I would have laughed at the notion of paying to use a restroom on a plane. But today, a your-first-pee-is-free policy—and a fee for each additional restroom visit during any flight under 3 hours—doesn’t seem beyond the realm of consideration anymore, does it? While this policy does not yet exist, hold that thought for a second and calculate the misery of holding your bladder to avoid paying.

I’m traveling to Japan next month in regular economy. While writing this, I thought I’d take a look at what an upgrade to Economy Plus would look like. Take a look at Figures 1-3, which show United’s three classes of service and see whether you think this was calculated. Look at me in business class. I’m happy and smiling with all of this room!

Figure 1—Business class

In Economy Plus, I’m happy and smiling, too. And look at my hand—I think I’ll recline because, hey, I have the room!

Figure 2—Economy Plus class

But I’m not smiling in economy class because these seats are kind of snug.

Figure 3—Economy class

Why is this any different from other ways in which we spend our discretionary income? Consider the profit margins that are baked into the retail prices of items that we purchase. We know that, for many of the higher-end devices, watches, handbags, jewelry, shoes, and articles of clothing that we buy, the cost of manufacture is a fraction of the price we pay. Many have huge, some would say obscene margins. We pay far more for name-brand items than for others of identical quality. They’re just valued differently. Why should airlines’ simply charging for what were once bundled services as à la carte services to support different price points be any different? Whether you fly in first class or economy, you get the same essential quality of service—that is, the same plane arriving at the same place, at the same time. It’s just valued differently.

You’re Motoring, but What’s the Price for a Flight?

A potential way out of this situation might be through those same online travel sites that helped us to get here in the first place. In what’s become an extremely competitive space, there seems to me to be a huge opportunity to gain market share by exposing full fee parity. Given that price is the top factor in booking flights for 97% of fliers, there is a great opportunity for wholesale travel sites to provide a complete picture of what it costs to fly. What if there were a booking search engine that factored in all additional service-fee items as part of your original search, providing competitive pricing based on what you need?

Imagine there were three people considering a four-day trip to the UK, starting with an overnight flight from NYC to London. The scenario might go something like this:

  • Person 1 is visiting a friend. She’ll bring only a carry-on bag and has no seating preferences or any problem sleeping on a plane, which is why she likes overnight flights. She’s pretty sure about her dates coming home, but may want to stay an extra day or two.
  • Person 2 is tall, so he requires a seat of a minimal size to accommodate his height. He also needs just a carry-on bag, and he’s working on a presentation, so doesn’t need in-flight entertainment, but would welcome a stiff drink or two and perhaps a meal on the plane.
  • Person 3 is checking in two bags and will definitely need some in-flight entertainment because he cannot sleep on planes. He is on a special diet, so doesn’t need a meal, but might consider an alcoholic drink.

If these people added their fee-based preferences to their initial search query, their search results for the same flight could vary significantly. Looking at the fees individually, the cost of a meal might not have as much impact on choice as a $40 difference in the price of each checked bag. But considering them in aggregate would provide a clearer, more accurate comparison of costs. Plus, it would let travelers avoid spending the time it would require for them to research each airline separately or finding out the hard way when they realize  they didn’t consider the cost of changing their plans.

This idea isn’t a new concept. It’s good-old capitalism. When many companies select a vendor for goods or services, they often throw out the lowest bid. One reason for this is to avoid the less scrupulous companies that low ball their pricing estimates to win a deal, then tack on additional fees once a customer is under contract and the cost of switching is either too costly or impossible. Clearly, in the online-booking space, many airlines have been successfully playing this game for years.

Prepare for Landing

While this column has focused largely on the airlines, other discretionary service providers—from theme parks to product support centers—are pursuing tier-based pricing models that have the patina of calculated misery. There is nothing wrong with providing very basic services to all, while offering more comprehensive services to those who are willing to pay more. But when a company intentionally designs a miserable experience to increase their profits—that just feels wrong. Do you agree?

Written by Ronnie Battista