Good user experience comes from good employee experience

Creating good user experiences (UX) over and over again means creating first good employee experiences. That's the lesson from Southwest airlines.

Adam Richardson
Adam Richardson is the director of product strategy at frog design, where he guides strategy engagements for frog's international roster of clients, envisioning and creating new products, consumer electronics, and digital experiences. Adam combines a background in industrial design, interaction design, and sociology, and spends most of his time on convergent designs that combine hardware, software, service, brand, and retail. He writes and speaks extensively on design, business, culture, and technology, and runs his own Richardsona blog.
Adam Richardson
3 min read

Creating good User Experiences (UX) over and over again means creating first good Employee Experiences (EX - I'm trademarking that!). That's the lesson from Southwest airlines according to an NY Times article about retiring co-founder Herbert Kelleher:

Over the years, whenever reporters would ask him the secret to Southwest's success, Mr. Kelleher had a stock response. "You have to treat your employees like customers," he told Fortune in 2001. "When you treat them right, then they will treat your outside customers right. That has been a powerful competitive weapon for us."...

[W]hen you look at a company like American, with its poisonous employee relations and its glum customer base, and compare it with Southwest, with its happy employees and contented customers, you can't help thinking that Mr. Kelleher was on to something when he put employees first. "There isn't any customer satisfaction without employee satisfaction," said Gordon Bethune, the former chief executive of Continental Airlines, and an old friend of Mr. Kelleher's. "He recognized that good employee relations would affect the bottom line. He knew that having employees who wanted to do a good job would drive revenue and lower costs."

This isn't really surprising for a service company like Southwest, but the same rule applies, I believe, to companies that make products. Employee happiness often comes from walking the walk -- in other words not just making big pronouncements about how much you love your employees (Kelleher wept when talking about his employess in his going-away speech), but in seeing those through in actions big and small. And often it's the small ones that show how you actually mean. It's kind of like what they say about ethics - it's what you do when nobody's looking.

These small touches to how you treat employees are often the most intimate ones, and they communicate how deeply felt the relationship is (or not, as the case may be). Southwest, for example, seems to give its flight staff a great deal of autonomy when it comes to how they intereact with passengers, but bounded by some established guidelines. This has famously led to some staff singing the safety announcements and adding comedic commentary (I once heard one say "There may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there are only four ways off this big bird!"). It also probably led to the more recent episodes of passengers getting walked off planes for risque clothing...just goes to show that what constitutes a "good" UX is different for different people.

While any company can luck out with one-off good experiences, a long term systemic philosophy of treating employees right fosters a mindset that is focused on thinking about the needs of others, which ideally translates into the products the employees create for the company's customers.

Cable TV companies are famously indifferent to user experiences, and my provider, Comcast, recently showcased one example. They finally started allowing previews of on-demand movies, but check out how they managed to mess up the experience:

Adam Richardson

That giant blue box stays on screen for the entire duration of the preview, obscuring a good chunk of it (even more for non-widescreen previews than what you see here). It's really distracting.

You wouldn't see something like this if Southwest ran a cable system.