The Ryanair approach to progressive enhancement

I fly — a lot. I spend more time in airports, in the air, hotel rooms and conferences than at home. As I am a natural recording and analysing device, I take in a lot of things on my travels.

People at airports are stressed, confused, don’t pay attention to things, eat badly and are not always feeling good. They are tired, they feel rushed and they want just to get things over with and get where they want to go. Others — those new to travel — are overly excited about everything and want to things right, making mistakes because they are too eager. Exactly what users on the web are like.

I found that companies who use technology for the benefit of their users are those people love and support. That’s what progressive enhancement means to me. But let’s start at the beginning.

Avoid the queue

One thing you want to avoid is queues. The longer the queue, the more likely you are to miss your plane. Every single person in that queue and their problems become yours.

Photo by James Emery https://www.flickr.com/photos/emeryjl/520109861/
Photo by mroach https://www.flickr.com/photos/mroach/4659815616/

Improvement: self check-in counters

Manned check-in counters are also the most time consuming and expensive way. They also don’t scale to hundreds of customers — hence the queues.

Improvement: mobile apps

Of course, every airline has their own app and all work different and — at times — in mysterious ways. But let’s not dwell on that.

Apps are incredible — they show you when your flight happens, delays, and you don’t need to print out anything. You get this uplifting feeling that you’re part of a technical elite and that you know your stuff.

  • Apps crash and need to have a connection to re-start and re-fresh your booking content. That’s why a lot of people take screenshots of their boarding passes in the app.
  • You need to turn off your phone on planes, which means on changing to another plane you need to re-boot it, which takes time.
  • Some airports don’t have digital readers of QR codes or have access to priority lane only as a rubber stamp on a paper boarding pass (looking at you, SFO). That’s why you need a printout.
  • Staff checking your boarding pass at security and gate staff tend to wait for your phone display to go to sleep before trying to scan it. Then they ask you to enter your unlock code. There is probably some reason for that.
  • Some security lanes need you to keep your boarding pass with you but you can’t keep your phone on you as it needs to be X-Rayed. You see the problem…

This is progressive enhancement

This, is progressive enhancement:

  • You analyse the task at hand and offer the most basic solution.
  • With this as a security blanket, you think of ways to improve the experience and distribute the load.

Forcing your users to upgrade

Then there is Ryanair and other budget airlines. You will be hard pushed to find anyone who loves them. The mood ranges from “meh, it is convenient, as I can afford it” to “necessary evil” and ends in “spawn of Satan and bane of my existence”. Why is that?

These companies chose to offer apps so they can cut down on ground staff and less check-in counters. They are not an improvement or convenience, but become a necessity.

The “let’s make you queue anyways” app experience

The other day I was in Italy flying to Germany with Ryanair. I have no Italian data connection and roaming is expensive. I also had no wireless in the hotel or the convention I was at. Ryanair allows me to check-in online with a browser 24 hours before the flight. I couldn’t. When you use the app is even more draconic: you can only check in two hours before the flight. If you remember, I add a my 3 hour trip cushion to the airport to my travels. Which means I am on the road which in London means I am underground without a connection when I need to check in.

This was almost the price of the ticket. I told him that because of the 2 hour period and me not having connectivity, I couldn’t do that. All I got was “this is our policy”.

I ground my teeth, and connected my roaming data on my phone, trying to check in with the app.

Instead of asking for my name and booking confirmation it asked for all kind of extra information. I guess the reason was that I hadn’t booked the ticket but someone had booked it for me. The necessary information included entering a lot of dates with a confusing date picker. In the end, I was one minute late and the app told me there is no way I can check in without going to a counter.

I queued up again, and the clerk told me that I can not pay at his counter. Instead I needed to go to the other side of the airport to the ticketing counter, pay there and bring back a printout that I did pay. Of course, there was another queue. Coming back, I ended up in yet another queue, this time for another flight. I barely made it to my plane.

Progressive enhancement is for the user and you benefit, too

And this is when you use progressive enhancement the wrong way. Yes, an app is an improvement over queuing up or printing out. But you shouldn’t add arbitrary rules or punish those who can’t use it. Progressive enhancement is for the benefit of the end user. We also benefit a lot from it. Unlike the physical world of airport we can enhance without extra overhead. We don’t need to hire extra ground staff or put up hardware to read passports. All we need to do is to analyse:

  • What is the simplest interface to reach this
  • How can we improve the experience for more advanced users and those on more advanced hardware?

Progressive enhancement is not about adding more work to your product. It is about protecting the main use case of your product and then enhance it with new functionality as it becomes available.

Google is a great example of that. Turn off JavaScript and you still get a form to enter information in and you get a search result page with ads on it. This is how you find things and Google makes money. Anything else they added over time makes it more convenient for you but is not needed. It also offers them more opportunities to show you more ads and point at other services.

Maker of web things. Ponderer of new technology. Lover of simplicity. Portfolio: http://christianheilmann.comhttp://developer-evangelism.com

Maker of web things. Ponderer of new technology. Lover of simplicity. Portfolio: http://christianheilmann.com — http://developer-evangelism.com