How Virgin Airlines Opened up a UX Frontier

When I’m upset, I like to close my eyes and imagine myself sipping a martini on a beach somewhere tropical. You could say it’s not healthy to imagine my problems away, but fantasizing about traveling somewhere sunny and warm does me well in bringing temporary relief. The soothing imagery of waves washing ashore, just barely touching the tips of my toes has never failed to alleviate whatever frustration I feel. But, inevitably, those waves somehow always transform into a web-browser; a confusing web-browser. Oh god. I see an airline website. There’s so much clutter. There are so many sidebars, so much text. My sense of peace quickly vanishes. My eyes still closed, I see the haunting image of a booking section. Every avid traveler knows that the idea of escaping to somewhere tropical is exciting until you’re forced to actually book a flight. For some unclear reason, many airline websites offer broken usability and an awful user experience on the booking section of their sites. Traveling can be incredibly stressful – throwing a confusing booking site with terrible UX into the mix only adds to that stress.   But not every airline is neglecting UX. One airline, Virgin America, has made it a priority in recent years. The U.S.-based airline is leading the charge in revolutionizing the UX of online booking sites. Virgin America’s emphasis on usability and UX has resulted in a site that’s not only easily navigable, but actually – shockingly – enjoyable to use. Let’s take a look at the UX of Virgin America’s booking site and pick apart what makes it so great: ux1   Above you’ll find the homepage. Pleasant, right? Simple. Aesthetically pleasing. Usable. I can’t name a single thing wrong with it. There’s only one thing I need to think about when I come to it – where, in this great big world, do I want to go? I don’t need to think about dates yet. I don’t need to think about prices yet. My user experience is off to a great start, as the idea of traveling somewhere seems for once relatively straightforward. Let’s say I want to go to Boston from San Francisco. I want to learn about Paul Revere and the Midnight Ride. It’s time to choose dates for my trip. Even now, I’m not overwhelmed with what date I want to depart and what date I want to return. It’s a simple, peaceful UX. I’m in no rush. Lucky me – each departure date has an individual price listed: ux2   Unlike other sites where you have to commit yourself to dates before being disappointed by the steep price you’ll have to pay for your trip, Virgin lets to budget as you go. After you select a departure date, a nearly identical section appears instructing you to select a return date (which is optional, if you’re feeling like running away and never coming back). Once you’re ready to wrap up the booking process, this uncluttered, simple, pleasant flight-selection page appears: ux3   Simplicity reigns supreme! Forget what you see – take a moment to consider what you don’t see. No sidebars, no tabs, no clutter, and no overwhelming amount of fine print. At this point in the booking process, many users visiting other sites would turn and run. But when shopping for deals on Virgin, the pleasant UX almost begs you to continue booking through completion. Select your flight and pick your seats. Not only is seat selection with Virgin simple, the addition of avatars makes it sort of fun. Is that nerdy of me? Who cares, this UX is awesome:   ux4   Below you’ll find our trip summary. You don’t have to scroll up and down to ensure you’ve selected the exact departure and return dates you want. They’re right next to each other. In fact, even if you want to scroll around like a madman, you can’t. This is all you get before you’re directed to your payment page: ux5   Okay, we’ve gotten this far without turning around and fleeing in fear. Heck, I don’t even have a headache yet. But the payment page is coming, and we all know how stressful it can be to checkout. But on the Virgin site, you get this: ux6   Prices and fees are easy to find. There are no surprises. Selecting a credit card type doesn’t require a frustrating, often broken dropdown menu. You simply roll-over and click your card of choice. Then you enter the bear minimum payment information, click proceed, and pack your bags. Of course, if this were a real vacation I would select flights with prices that wouldn’t result in an $812.20 total. I would also be flying to Maui, not Boston. But my point is an important one: Virgin America, despite being in an industry that doesn’t prioritize UX, has taken the initiative to make the lives of its travelers easier. Of course, there’s always room for improvement and ways to make self-service even more appealing, in a way that will also reduce calls to support by frustrated users. But all in all, the company is well-known for the great in-flight customer service it provides, but I think it’s fitting that we recognize and appreciate it for the great UX its site-designers have created as well.  
Megan Wilson is user experience specialist & editor of UX Motel. She is also the Quality Assurance and UX Specialist at WalkMe Megan.w(at)