Southwest.com is a great web site. I’m on it several times a week and I consider it one of the better ones out there. However, as someone who has built a web site serving the travel industry, I have some thoughts on how it could be improved. Why should anyone listen to me? They shouldn’t, but I do have experience in the implementation of a lot of web sites. This experience comes specifically around usability design. As a die-hard Southwest supporter, I would love to help make the experience better for all users.
I like the home page because it has all of the links you need while not being terribly “busy”. It gives me access to most of the information I need and makes it easy to get started booking flights. From usability studies of travel sites I have been involved in, I know the first thing the user is looking for is the box containing the reservation section. Southwest does this right.
The home page is critical as it is the entry point to the site. The desktop version of the home page tends to be a bit heavy and you can experience issues on high-latency connections such as LTE or in-flight while you are waiting for scripts to finish loading. You’ll see these if you try to type in a location too soon. If the callback doesn’t go and translate your airport code to the name of the full name of the airport, you’ll get an error when you submit your search.
We’ll talk about the rest of the reservation process in a bit. Let’s look at some of the “widgets” on the home page. In this case, I am referring to the component on the right hand side of the page the provide modular functionality.
Account Log In
The account log in is your key to personalizing the rest of your home page. It lets you check-in for your upcoming flights as well as see your current Rapid Rewards points.
The Southwest.com login panel features a Remember Me checkbox. Unfortunately, there is a long history of this working off-and-on over the last four years. In fact, it has worked so little that it has forced me to remember my Rapid Rewards number. Right now, I would say this doesn’t work at all. It did work for most of 2013 though through the use of a cookie. I’d love to see this fixed.
After logging in
After you log in, the home page shows you some details including your status and number of points.
After you log in, I believe some of the functionality on the home page should change. For example, the Check In link prompts you for a Confirmation Number, First Name, and Last Name. Since I am logged in, it should have this information prepopulated with my next flight (especially if I am within 24 hours).
Again this is useful on the home page. However, once I am logged in, it should not prompt me for my details, it should show me a list of all my existing flights and let me continue from there.
Check Flight Status
This is another situation of a widget that should behave differently when you are logged in. Actually, it should perform this functionality when you are not logged in and it just knows your rapid rewards number. It should show you all of your upcoming flights and the status without having to click details or take any other action. I understand that there may be technical hurdles to this. However, I feel that flight information can be cached every minute and this data can just be queried against the cache.
I love this section, it tells me my next flight and my upcoming flight.
I also like that this widget, will have a button present when it is time to check in for my flight. I often find myself refreshing the home page as I am approaching the 24 hour mark to get my check-in as soon as possible.
What’s this widget missing? A link to see the rest of my travel (future and past). I often have more than one flight booked and I would like to see the rest of them. I should be able to click a “More” link or maybe on “My Travel” to go to another page to see all my flights. Instead I have to click on My Account (in a totally different widget) and then View all underneath “Upcoming Trips”. I would love for this widget to show me my flight status and gate number directly from here. Ideally, this information would just be shown without any additional clicks.
My Rapid Rewards
This section shows you how you are tracking towards getting status. It gives you a percentage but doesn’t show actual points.
Clicking on the “To A-List” or “To A-List Preferred” link takes you to the details page. However, once you get to that page, there is no way to see any other details about Rapid Rewards, nor is there a way to check your other statuses such as Companion Pass.
I’ll cover more on the Rapid Rewards section in just a bit.
Let’s talk about the rates screen next. Southwest.com shows you what you searched for including the dates and cities.
From a usability stand-point, what I find lacking here is the ability to completely change the date. You can click on nearby dates to compare fares, but if you need to change it completely, there is no option to start over.
I like that the rates for the outbound and return flight are on the same page. I also like that they are priced separately. This means you can fly to different cities on Southwest without a penalty. I also love that it’s easy to toggle between dollars and points.
I would like to see a number of additional things here though. First, i would like to see more of the flight details directly on this page. Specifically I want to know what type of plane it is and whether or not there is WiFi. Right now if you want that information, you have to click on the flight number to get that information.
Next, if the plane has a stop, but not a plane change, it’s buried underneath another mouse click. I’d like to see this information all at once.
On the next page, you get a confirmation of what you selected before you have to start entering personal information. I like how it tells you if your flight has WiFi here. It also tells you when there are limited seats left for Business Select. Other airlines do this too, but it’s on the rates page. I think I like it better here since it keeps the rates page cleaner
Scrolling down, you have to hunt a bit for the “Continue” button. I think the “Add a Hotel” and “Add a Car” sections are a bit too prominent and detract from booking the reservation. That’s just my personal opinion though. I’ve never used those ever. It would be nice if the credit card advertisement wasn’t there since I already had the card, but I don’t mind it too much.
When you get to the last page, it prompts you for your traveler information. If you haven’t logged in yet, I don’t think it does a good chance to prompt you to log in.
As a new user reading from left to right, you are prompted to enter your information. No where here does it say if you log in, it will populate this information for you. This should probably be present right above the personal information so that the user doesn’t enter the information twice. A lot of sites will now allow you apply whatever you entered in and join the loyalty program directly from this screen. I think this would be a good value add and increase membership for people who aren’t familiar with the benefits.
Further down this page, it prompts you for your default contact method. It gives you a choice of E-mail, Text, or Call. This should really default to Text I think.. However, I really think you should be able to specify this setting in your profile and have it automatically set. That would allow this section to be removed from the page entirely.
After this, you can choose to apply travel funds. I have to say travel funds need a lot of work with Southwest.com. The only way to apply them here is if you know the previous reservation number they were associated with. That means if you ever change or cancel a flight and have funds left over, you better keep track of that confirmation number. It’s really the only way you have a hope of applying them to your flight. If you don’t know the reservation number, then you need to know the credit card number used when you booked the flight and you have to call. Anyhow, we’ll cover that more in a post in the future.
I find that the Rapid Rewards section has the information you want but a lot of it is quite buried. Even as an experienced user of the site, I have trouble finding information such as how I am tracking towards companion pass. Let’s start with the entry point. If you click Rapid Rewards in the global navigation, you get something like the following (even when logged in).
This is great information, but I probably already know this if I am a signed-in member. Instead as a user, I am expecting to see information on my account, recent travel, points earned, tier status, etc. Instead, there isn’t a single link to any of this information from the Rapid Rewards section. How do you get the Rapid Rewards information info you need? Click on the “My Account” link in the right navigation. That takes you to the Snapshot page.
This is your entry point into the account information you are looking for, but some of the thing you want are still a bit hard to find. This page has some information I am looking for, but has a ton of information I don’t need. A lot of screen real estate is wasted by the huge buttons on the side.
It shows me my next flight which is great. However, the View All link probably should be in the bottom right. Next to Upcoming Trips, it would be nice to show the number of flights I have booked. They recently changed the text to “Set up Flight Status Messaging”. This is a nice improvement because it used to say “Get Flight Status”. The latter makes me think I could get the flight status easily from this screen which was not the case. Instead it took me to the screen allowing me to sign up for an alert. I would like to see them add a link when your flight was within 24 hours that had the flight status. Even better, show the flight status directly on this page without me having to click another link.
Other information I am looking for on this page is about points recently acquired. It’s there in the bottom left of the screen, but it barely makes “the fold” (if you still believe in that old dated design paradigm).
Saved flights are a nice concept but pretty much useless because they are buried. It’s easier to just type in your cities on the home page again. If they exposed this information there, they would get more use. Past flights can be useful from time to time. However, I have never seen anything on Promotions ever so it probably needs to go.
If you scroll down this page, you will see an icon for “View my Tier Progress”.
This link confuses me a bit. First, it should just show your tier progress which you can see by clicking “My Rapid Rewards” in the navigation. It takes you to this page in the Rapid Rewards section which shows your status.
However, this isn’t the page you get if you click on “My Rapid Rewards”. That leads to a bit of confusion to the user. It turns out most of the pages you need are underneath the My Rapid Rewards menu item, but there is no central navigation between any of the items.
Clicking on this page yields you absolutely no useful information. Again, the huge buttons on the left waste a lot of screen real estate. However, if you happen to scroll down a little bit, some of the most valuable information in the whole section is there in the left. It’s how you are tracking on all tiers.
Here you can see how you are tracking towards tier status, Companion Pass, and your recent rewards activity. If you remember from my introductory post, you have two separate qualifying point totals: one for tier status and one for Companion pass. Here is where you see that information.
Clicking “View My Details” takes you a screen where you can view your point history for Rapid Rewards point, tier status, and Companion Pass status. I find this information highly valuable, so I feel it should be promoted in the navigation over the current links they have there today. Ideally, you can get it directly from the snapshot page.
Once you find this page, I find that it works pretty well. It has the right amount of filters and provides enough details to figure out where your points came from.
Clicking on My Travel shows you similar information from the snapshot. Again, I think it should show you more than just one flight. It should show you all future flights booked (within reason).
If one of your upcoming flights will earn you points, it will show an estimated number of points. This is the raw base value of the points received based on the fare type you booked. It would be nice though if it showed you the number of points you get with your bonuses such as A-List (25%) and A-List Preferred (100%). In reality, this flight should give me around 6,452 points. I’m sure there are a number of technical complexities to make that happen so if it’s not feasible, maybe state something like (+ tier bonus points).
The flight status page can be a bit frustrating for me. As I mentioned above, I have to type my flight information in every time, even though the web site knows what my next flight is. This often leads me to typing in the departure and arrival cities without specifying a flight number (since I rarely remember it). This gives me a list of all the flights for the day.
What’s missing here? The actual flight status. To find out the status, you need to click the “View Status” link.
That’s great, I have the flight status now. When I have a flight later in the day, I will check this page throughout the day. Unfortunately, this page doesn’t refresh automatically. If I hit the browser refresh button (F5), it will reload the page and then I will have to click the “View Status” page yet again. I would love for this page to just show the status automatically, but maybe there is a performance issue with the way the data is retrieved. I fully understand that.
To get to a page that you can actually refresh, click “Details”. Here you will get a page dedicated to this flight. Hitting refresh will reload the page and won’t require any additional clicks. If you happen to know the flight number when you start your search, you will be taken directly to this page as well. What I would really like is for this page to update itself periodically. I would also like it to have a time stamp on it on when the status was last updated. That way when you hit refresh on a slow connection, you can tell if the status actually updated or not.
As a Rapid Rewards member, any time I return to the Southwest.com site to book a new flight, I get prompted with the following.
I fully understand why session timeouts occur. When you are booking a flight, the fares are only good for so long. It should definitely display this message if you start to book a flight and then get interrupted because you went to a meeting and came back. However, it shouldn’t show this message when you open a new browser and come back to the site three days later. It should clear my session automatically and take me to the home page without an error.
Southwest makes a great web site that serves my needs from booking to checking my tier status. Why did I take all the time to document this? Because, I am passionate about Southwest and I am a user of the site several times a week. I feel that I can share a unique perspective from both an end user and someone that understands UX. I love the people at Southwest and by no means is this a knock on the hard work from the great people in marketing and IT behind the web site. I care about the end users of the site. The better the experience for the user, the more successful the site can be.
I decided not to include the mobile site or the in-flight site as this post is already long enough. Be on the lookout for future posts on how I think we can improve the user experience for those sites too. I’ve got lots of ideas for all of these sites, so if anyone at Southwest wants to talk more in detail, I’d be happy to.
Have other ideas for improvements to Southwest.com? Leave a comment!