Test Before You Launch, Virgin!

In this day and age of airlines filing for bankruptcy, you’d think the remaining airlines would be as cautious as possible to make sure they keep loyal customers. My favorite airline is Virgin America, because of its terrific on-board experience. But, Virgin showed its humanity (read: idiocy) this quarter by shooting itself in the foot with a new “upgrade” to its reservation system.

First off, let’s look at the positive things: the new features the new reservation system has brought to the user experience. Well, there are none, but I was told I am often too pessimistic, and I should try to find the good in things. Now on to the bad.

I have no idea of anything about the new reservation system except for one thing: it is not compatible with the old system or the current website. While one can book flights from Virgin’s site, it is next to impossible to do anything else at this point. Forget trying to change flights, cancel flights, or do anything else. For that, it requires that you call in.

And here is the rub: Virgin Atlantic is all too aware of the problems its new system is causing. Its website says:

If you run into any errors while changing your flight, please contact us at 1.877.FLY.VIRGIN (877.359.8474) and we’ll be happy to help. We’re currently experiencing a high call volume and longer than usual hold times due to our recent switch to a new reservations system. We appreciate your patience and apologize for the inconvenience.

When you call in, the voice system says the same thing. The airline has extended call center hours, hired additional staff, but still the wait time will be more than usual. As I write this, I have been on hold for 40 minutes waiting for Virgin to answer.

Here is what I don’t understand: what would cause Virgin America to launch a new reservation system before thoroughly testing it? And, what would cause it to do this during Q4, the year’s busiest travel season? It seems ludicrous to me. I hope that Virgin had a gun to its head and was forced to launch this, because there is no other excuse to unleash a broken product onto the market (especially during Q4). Most sites freeze their code at the end of October. After that, nothing else can be introduced to a site until January. At least, that’s the way e-commerce sites typically work. Perhaps no one gave the airline industry the message.

I have to imagine that this premature launch of a broken product is costing Virgin a lot in terms of money, brand, and customer satisfaction. I’ve only ever had good things to say about Virgin America up to this point (unlike things I’ve said about Virgin Atlantic in the past), but this misstep is too big to ignore.

The moral of the story? Test your sites before you launch them, please! Make a robust list of all the use cases and run tests. Make sure the site doesn’t fail when doing the most normal of operations (such as changing a flight) and also doesn’t fail when doing more esoteric functions. This is your job, after all.

I’ve spent the last 10 years of writing this column focusing on strategy, design, and user experience. I don’t talk so much about implementation, because I assume it’s an obvious idea to say, “Oh, and the site actually has to work when it launches.” But in case it’s not obvious, let me say it again: make sure your site works before launching it! Otherwise, the results will be disastrous for your brand, your bottom line, your users, and your future – especially if you are in an industry that plays “who’s not bankrupt yet?” every quarter.

And if it isn’t working by Halloween, scrap it and launch it in January. Don’t you dare unleash it in Q4. If you do, and it negatively affects your business, you are getting what you deserve.

Until next time…

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