I recently read an article by the Nielsen Normal Group about Southwest’s new website design. It voiced several concerns related towards a decreased user experience and functionality for the sake of the design.
Here’s the argument: the new design is clean and promotions aren’t cluttering the page. But the clean, compelling design means that the search button is pushed further down the page, the navigation links are easily overlooked without a banner and the small font. Nielsen Norman Group writer, Kathryn Whitenton explains,
“The image on the new Southwest design is captivating, but devoting this much emphasis to any single design element necessarily means that users are less likely to notice other elements — some of which may serve more important goals.”
And we agree: good design looks good and works well.
Before we count Southwest’s new site out, let’s take a look at some other factors that may explain the “why” behind Southwest’s new website design.
Often, airline websites are cluttered with promotions and clunky in appearance. Southwest was ready to offer their customers a simpler and more visually appealing experience.
Take a look at a competitor site (that perhaps many of you have frustratingly navigated through). You’ll see that the main call to action—search for flights—is aligned to the left of the page. Your eye isn’t drawn to booking flights, but is lost amidst all of the clutter.
On the Southwest page, your action is clear and simple. It’s centrally located and distinct, allowing the user experience to be easy and headache-free. You’re not left wondering where to begin, or which promotions to pay attention to. Southwest ensures you know exactly what to do—search and book a flight.
In September, Southwest launched its new logo, and with that, its website. Wall Street Journal explains that the year-long process, that included collaboration with five branding and advertising companies, resulted in a similar, yet distinct, re-design of their previous branding.
We have to commend Southwest for its consistency across mediums—by simplifying their logo, they recognized the need to simplify their website as well.
Debbie Millman, Chair of the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, describes to Forbes her thoughts on the new Southwest brand,
“It is bold and engaging. It tells a fast story. It is definitely a warmer, more friendly presentation for the brand.”
The logo needed to reflect those same characteristics: bold, engaging, warm. Most importantly, it needed to tell the “fast story.”
Take a look at the Southwest web page again—the emphasis of the photo is bold. Focusing the photograph on an individual makes it feel warmer and more personal than the classic airline beach shot. The simplicity of the page allows for a straightforward user experience, reflective of the simpler logo Southwest has designed.
The qualms presented by the Neilsen Norman Group, along with others, fail to recognize the purpose—the “why” behind the “what.” Perhaps the navigation links are smaller and less distinct. This means, though, that the flight search box is more prominent. And, ultimately, that’s Southwest’s primary goal for the user: book your next flight.
Southwest appears to have recognized the vital importance of user-experience and brand consistency. Contrary to what some might believe, you don’t have to sacrifice the design for the function, or vice versa.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said,
“Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”
And Southwest just nailed it.