Virgin America's redesigned booking system delights users

Ben Moss.
June 04, 2014
Virgin America's redesigned booking system delights users.

thumbnailThere are some tasks that are so tedious to complete online that we always put them off until the last minute: whether you’re filing your taxes or buying groceries, the number of “required field”s is always too high.

One process that’s particularly awkward is booking flights; a problem that numerous airlines have tried, and failed, to improve. The latest attempt has been made by Virgin America, and with a dash of wit and some strategic planning they’ve managed to produce a really engaging solution.

Along with some common sense UX—the current price of your flight being clearly positioned in the top right corner is obvious, but welcome—there are some brave choices. For example, I’m delighted to see drop shadow on the buttons; it’s a great example of designers rejecting the puritanical approach of flat design, whilst embracing its simplicity.


The area in which Virgin America deserves the most plaudits is for having the courage to try something new. The Virgin brand has always prided itself on doing things a little differently, and the fresh approach has been ideal in this case.

The aim, apart from booking tickets for the airline, has been to make the booking process fun. And it is fun, the first time you use it. Whether it remains so, or whether the cutesy approach starts to wear thin after a dozen visits we’ll have to wait and see.

One fun detail is the comments that pop-up when you select different detinations: New York’s JFK apparently “has everything but parking”, whereas at Los Cabos in Mexico “the beaches are complimentary”. The only criticism I have of this is that the comments disappear too quickly, if you’re not expecting them, they’re gone before you’ve noticed they were ever there.

However, I’m not so sure booking a flight should be fun. Sure, booking a vacation is fun, but people travel for all kinds of reason. Should travelling to a funeral be fun? Should booking a sales trip be fun? Should visiting a friend in hospital be fun? When I book a flight, what I principally want is simplicity; it’s a chore I want to get out of the way quickly.


The typeface the team have elected to use is Gotham. I, like many designers, was extremely excited when Hoefler & Co. (née Hoefler Frere-Jones) first made it available for web use. However, the rush to deploy it is starting to lead to a degree of over-use. There are even people asking if Gotham is the new Helvetica—clearly not, but it’s interesting the question is being asked.

One poor decision is the tracking, notably on the departure city text it’s -3px, which feels far too tight. If additional space was required Gotham provides condensed versions which would have been a better option.

The project is also a great example of cross-device design. Yes, it works on desktop and mobile, but it will also work well on a finger-smeared, badly lit, poorly maintained kiosk in a busy airport.

Where it won’t work well, or indeed at all, is in IE8. The airline has decided to drop Microsoft’s much maligned browser, and if you visit the site using IE8 you’ll be prompted to upgrade your browser. It’s not that surprising given that even Microsoft has deprecated Windows XP, and IE8 is one of most uncooperative browsers you’re ever likely to meet. Still, graceful degradation is a sound practice, and a site of this scale really should have some kind of catch-all solution.


The reason the Virgin America booking site has been so well received is that beneath the superficial fun, they’ve designed a simple booking system that breaks the process down into bite-sized chunks. If the fun approach doesn’t poll well with consumers, it will be a simple process to strip off the cutesy avatars and dry comments, leaving Virgin America with a very sound product.

We can only hope the Virgin Galactic booking process will be as enjoyable.

Ben Moss

Ben Moss has designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. When he’s not in front of a screen he’s probably out trail-running.

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