My wife, Michelle, and two daughters, Elise and Rayna, just left for Asia. They flew from the U.S. to Beijing, but coming back from Hong Kong, all on Continental. Therefore, during that trip, they need to fly one-way from Beijing to Hong Kong (by the way, travel agents call the Continental itinerary “open jaw”).

After looking at a number of travel and individual airline sites, I decided to try Cathay Pacific. I figured that, as a major “player” in the Asia market, they might have attractive fares, and that I could take care of the reservations easily. Well, I was right about the former but dead wrong about the latter. I encountered numerous problems and issues of web and telephone interactive voice response (IVR) design and usability. I’m going to share my frustrations, because it’s therapeutic for me but more importantly, because I’m hoping you can learn from it. Of course, help desks aren’t generally responsible for web or IVR design. However, you probably would agree that the latter frustrates customers, leading them to call you to handle things they should have been able to handle themselves. In addition, many help desks are “front ended” by an IVR. Therefore, you, as help desk professionals, have a stake in how these systems are designed.

The first principle I share is the following:

Put choices for users at the appropriate level.

By doing so, you make the process more efficient, and can display more and meaningful information.

Here’s how I went about looking for Cathay Pacific flights from Beijing to Hong Kong: first, I selected these cities. Then, I specified a date of travel, number of passengers and direction of flight as one way. On this initial screen, however, I had no option to choose class of service (e.g. first class vs. business class vs. coach).

Now think about how you make decisions about air travel. Do you say, “Well, I’ll fly first class if it’s before 10 a.m., otherwise I’ll fly coach”? Probably not. Your choice of class of service isn’t, in other words, flight-dependent. Rather, you probably say, “I want to travel coach, regardless of when the flight is.” For that reason, it makes more sense to specify class of service at the same level as date of travel.

Air fare depends on the class of service. The way Cathay Pacific does their web site makes it impossible to compare fares for different flights. You can look at only on fare for one flight at a time, because before you can see the fare, you have to specify class of service. On the other hand, if you specify that class first, then you WOULD be able to see all fares for that class for all flights.

Rather than go through each flight and try to remember the fare, a frustrated customer might simply give up and call the support line, adding to its workload and call volume.

I’ll discuss other, even more aggravating issues in future posts.

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