Robyn Duda's Bird's Eye View: United Airlines on Innovation and Experience

RDC’s Bird’s Eye View series explores what the future of events truly is by bringing unexpected perspectives to the forefront.

In her latest Bird’s Eye View, experience strategist Robyn Duda chats with United Airlines’ Jorie Sax and Mark Chowaniec, who are leading technology innovation efforts across the company to enhance the customer experience.

They discuss what experience means to them, how internal employee experience has everything to do with external customer experience, and where they get their inspiration.

Watch the full conversation above, or read below:

Robyn Duda: Jorie, Mark, thank you so much for being on this episode of Bird's Eye View. We haven't known each other long, but the first time we all spoke was mildly explosive on the ideation front and crossing over beliefs on how experience really affects everything that we touch.

Do you want to talk a little bit about what you do at United and a little bit about your history, career, how you got to be where you're at on the innovation side of things?

Jorie Sax: Currently at United I’m helping launch a new innovation lab, we call it Airshop. I've been in this role for only about six months, and I'm actually a mere newbie to the airline industry — I’ve been working at United for only about four years. Most people are 20-30 years in because it's such a great industry to be in. But I love to take that jungle gym approach to my career. So for the last 20 years, I've done everything from legal, to sports marketing and sponsorships, to digital marketing and engagement and even dabbled in some compliance for a beer company. And then I came over to the airline space. So it's been predominantly sports, beer and travel, so I've had a fun background, and I want to be a kid as long as I can. So I'm going to ride this wave as long as possible.

RD: I love that. What about you, Mark?

Mark Chowaniec: I just drink beer, I don't work in the beer industry like Jorie. My background — I have a lot of miles on me. Most of my life it’s been in technology, whether it's hardware or software. My background is Product Management, and here at United I do a lot of digital transformation and innovation projects. I don't necessarily have a position at United. I hate the word jack of all trades, but I’m placed in projects that are fairly new, need definition, need research and understanding.  like everything around innovation, where you don't know exactly what the solution is, you need to break things, rebuild, etc. So that's been me. I'm someone who breaks things down, rebuilds them, repurposes them, or looks at a new light on where to go. So that's pretty much been my career, launching new products, whether officially as a product person, or now at United, a digital transformation and innovation support role, leadership role in terms of helping someone with a vision define it, or saying hey, what's new out there, and how can we apply it to our airline?

RD: We mentioned innovation a ton, that’s really your focus at United. Getting to a great experience requires tons of innovation, and I think that's where we all align. I'd love to know and set the stage from your perspective, what's the definition of experience that you all deal with as it relates to customers and across the board when it comes to Airshop and what you're doing?

JS: I take my career history and my personal history into account when I define experience, and I apply it to the work that I do, especially today. For me, an experience is all about evoking emotion through some event. Whether it's a literal event, whether it's a sporting event, or in the airline industry, it could be the travel experience, which is our focus, or the destination that we're going to as travelers. That's really the key focus. When we think about innovation and the way I apply it, it's also about how we get there. Mark created a fantastic model for how we are set up as Airshop, and I'll let him speak to that, but it speaks to how we work together, how we innovate, how we bring in our stakeholders, our resources, how we get to a final end product that ultimately our customers and our employees will enjoy.

MC: I'm not going to say that better in terms of where Jorie went with experiences. I think the little tidbit I have was more on the micro level. It's obvious — every single experience shapes us, or should shape us. Everything that we experience, whether it's staged and purposeful, whether we're going to a wedding, for example, or just little things: how we grew up, how our house was, our home was, the experiences we had with other people, so on and so forth. So each one of those things, we learn from it. If you don’t learn from it, you’re stagnant. So experience at the macro level is just life. It’s the same thing as people who are shocked that things change. All of our lives from the moment you're born — after you start remembering — is an experience. Whether it's you're sick as a kid being in hospital, then you have a certain perception of your experience in the hospital and the doctors, and then as you get older, transferring to work. Each and every thing you do in your career. In terms of my career, as a product person, I've shaped experiences throughout my career. I think I've launched 50 some products in my lifetime, and each one of those products has been, even if it's B2B, it's an experience for someone. Whether it's software I’ve created that others are using, or it's a B2C product that's out there in the market. Even that little thing has packaging, messaging, etc. So in terms of experiences, hopefully that supports what Jorie says. Experiences, we live them every day, but we don't perceive them unless someone says, oh, this is a great experience or production. It doesn’t have to be that grand.

RD: It's not just the big moments. It's all the little moments that happen as well and that whole journey. It’s almost the same as an emotional journey, the experience that you're taking with a brand, both internally and externally. Which leads me to recap some of our previous conversations — what you're working on, the internal side of creating great experience, greatly affects how it's perceived to your customers. Not just the experience you're creating for them, but they're a big part of it. Can you talk a little bit about what you're doing and how focusing on that leads to a much better outcome for everyone?

JS: A successful company always starts with the people inside. And that's not just the people that are doing the work, but the people that are in between you and your end user, which for us is the customers and the travelers. Mark and I spend a lot of time not just with each other, although that's wonderful as well, but we spend a lot of time with our employees. Learning, understanding what their experience is, and bringing them along that journey. And that's beyond our stakeholders, that truly is our frontline employees, because ultimately, they're delivering the service and the experience that our customers have. For us, it begins with our own ideas, trying to push the envelope where we can internally, building empathy, and uniting people behind what our vision is. Some understand it, see it, some get a little bit fearful or scared of new and change. But then it's about bringing them along that journey, and ultimately, if our own employees don't buy into it, don't have a really good experience within the experience, and ultimately understand what the purpose is and feel good about the end result, then the customers won't either. It really starts with that internal experience that they have with us, and then ultimately making sure that whatever we're designing for the customer is something that works for the employees that are ultimately going to be delivering that and representing us and United.

MC: I can piggyback on that. Give you a specific example. Jorie and I are working on gate innovation. If you see Jorie’s background, that’s a nice picture of our future gates. You look at digital signage — part of the experience was internally looking at what our agents need, what we can do to support our agents. So the signage actually started more of, let's look at it as an operational tool internally, because yes, it's customer facing, but what are the key problems? Some of the things that we wanted to solve is, agents are like, “People keep coming to us asking me when the flights leaving, etc., and it’s literally right there [on the screen].” Part of it is, what's the problem? Is it visibility, awareness, how we’re structuring the content? So the signage started with an internal focus of operation — how we can make our operations better, reduce the stress on our agents, and have simple questions like, When's my flight leaving? Is this the right gate? — Have that available for our customers to self-serve, and through the process created a better customer experience. Now, where we have a final product, we actually have a patent on our signage going forward, we reduce some of the questions, we've made our agents more effective because they're really there to serve our customers with greater needs than telling you if you're at the gate. It’s not that they don't want to talk to you, but our signage should be able to alleviate some of those mundane questions that are out there, that customers should be seeing. And it’s our fault that they weren’t seeing it. Now, we’re refining the signage that we have, and it’s now serving customers a better experience, they’re calmer, they know when their flight’s leaving, they know they’re in the right gate. Because frankly, when you enter an airport, you could be the smartest person in the world, but you literally become a little bit dumb. You're like, Woah what's happening. Everyone becomes this afraid child. Where do I go? What do I do? So that's just one example of, I'm starting internally but also focusing on the overall external experience.

RD: I always talk about how navigation is the number one thing in experience. If they can't find you, they don't start their journey with you, whether it's on a website, whether it's in person, wherever it is. If they can't find you, you already start off with someone who’s a skeptic. Their mindset changes from maybe enthusiastic to pissed off really fast.

What was the internal process, if you can share? Was there an issue with the gate agents that you recognized? How did that feedback come about to lead toward some of this innovation from internal standpoint?

MC: Jorie has the greater visibility into how this all started with our agents’ problems, and our agents are very vocal.

JS: And we love them for that. Because if anybody knows, when you're trying to innovate and create, if you don't have opinions, you're not going to get anywhere. Mark loves to promote healthy tension, and I think it's the best phrase for it. It's so true, and we had a lot of that, and I think it was good. It got us to a fantastic final state behind me, which is now live in O’Hare and coming to a United Airlines hub near you. The project that Mark and I really worked on together, Gate-nnovation, really started with a look at the entire gate experience. The gate is the area where our customers spend the most amount of time, next to onboard, for the majority of flights. Because of that, it's really critical to customer satisfaction and the travel journey. Starting at that point, we looked at the gate and we realized there's so much that we could do to improve. It's not just a one problem solution that we're trying to develop. It really was from the bottom up, and literally from the carpets and the flooring, through the seating, through where the employees stand, the equipment that they have available to them, how they interact with customers, to what customers need from the digital signage to access to the agents, and then, through the boarding process. We looked at it and realized there's a lot to take on here.

It was about breaking it down into four key pillars. And that was from the design of the gates and the setup and the environment, to information delivery, the signage, to customer service, to then agent roles. Because that is so pivotal in the delivery of customer service. Once we broke it down to more simplistic terms, it was easier to digest and understand, what are the problems within the problems, and what do we need to do and how do we need to act and think differently within each. Because it wasn't going to be a sweeping solution that was going to apply for all. It took six months of creating a living lab in Cleveland, three gates, live environment, where we iterated. And we iterated to the point where one flight, we might have a chair that is on the right side of the gate, and next flight we might move it entirely to the other side, or completely off the floor. Or digital signage, we might completely change the content, have somebody working on design, get feedback right there from customers and agents, and iterate. The live environment really helped us. Obviously there are there negatives to doing that when you don't have a safe space in order to test and learn. But the live environment actually kept it going more rapidly, because there are so many flights and so many customers and so many agents, and we were on the ground doing that, and it was it was fantastic. It got us to a really great, comprehensive end product with an entirely new gate standard that I don't think we would have been able to do in a six-month situation if we didn't do it that way.

RD: How long did you run that prototype for?  

JS: We had four different phases of the project. And in hindsight, I probably wouldn't have done it this way, but we wanted to manage change to our agents and to our regularly flying customers. So each of those four segmented areas of the project, we introduced at different points in time. The reason was really more from a measurement standpoint on top of the change management, because we didn't want to have too many variables happening at one time. Every four to six weeks, we introduced a new phase. But during that time, we were still iterating the previous phase. Because ultimately, when you introduce a new variable, everything that you've done previously also has to be revisited and iterated on. So it was  truly an agile cycle throughout the six months that we were live in Cleveland, to the to the point where we realized, things are stable, we have solid metrics on what's worked and what hasn't, and what we want to expand, and ultimately we took it to O'Hare right before Covid.

RD: That's awesome. And to see it come to life — that's why I love what I do. You get to see ideation come to life, and then people actually interact with it, so that must feel really good.

JS: Absolutely. And a lot of what we did has carried through to other projects beyond just the ones that we worked on. We hear about it often, between one customer facing project to another employee facing project, that it all took a life of its own, and there's three or four lives now that each of these have taken on, whether it's digital signage to our self-service kiosks, and new and improved tools that we've been able to deliver just from this one project alone. I'm sure COVID had a little bit to do with that, but I also think we were touching on some new things that we didn't really anticipate learning and exploring that have really transformed United.

RD: That's the exciting part of the process, the things that you uncover that you didn't know you would. It never ends, there’s always something else. I think innovation and experience are so closely tied, and I’ve talked to so many people about that. The internal and external facing stuff is so critical for them to be connected.

Where do both of you get your inspiration from?

MC: I know some people are inspired by others, or seeing something etc. There's inspiration all throughout nature. I think for me, I grew up in a way where people a lot of people said no. I think part of that now, made me not necessarily stubborn, but I don't take no for an answer. And also, I look at something and my mind automatically goes to not just doing different for different’s sake, but it’s like looking at something and saying hey, this is a really difficult way to do something, is there a better way of doing this or an easier way? I think my natural tendency is to not go through walls, but figure out, is there a way to cut the wall? Should we build a door? Always inquisitive. Always never taking no for an answer. I think it’s just my personality. And we're needed. Every Yin needs a Yang. I think that's where Jorie and I work together very well. I'll break things down but I'll break things down on purpose, tear it down and I’ll look how to rebuild it, I'll look and I'll ask different questions and not take no for an answer. Jorie knows, I don't like taking no for an answer. When it comes to that, it's just the motivation I've always had. It's innate. I think some people are born with it, I think for me, partially it could be nurture, the way I was raised. Not just being discounted, but also having support in other areas of my life when I was younger. There's not one thing that inspires me, I think there's a group of things that inspire, whether it's an event — I mean, not to bring up bad moments, but literally world events. You see Ukrainian people fighting against a very large army. That's inspiring. That's like, Hey, we're going to lose our country in two days, which most people thought. It's almost a month later, and people are still fighting for what they believe. That's inspiring. So there's several things. There's not one thing. If you think one thing's going to inspire you throughout our life then I think people have blinders on.

JS: I think Mark hit the nail on the head when it comes to innovation and inspiration comes from so many different places as long as you're open to it, and you're aware. Part of that is just over time, we have a tendency to block ourselves from thinking that the impossible as possible. And I think what Mark and I have in common, and so many innovators, is the inquisitive nature. We want to learn, we want to understand. I can't stand surface talk, I'll be the first to admit it. I want to go right to getting to know people. We used to play question games, two truths and a lie. We want to get to the heart of who the human is. And that's really inspiring to me. I get my energy from other people. And the reason why Mark and I work so well together is because he starts off with something that I probably would never conceive of. And then I love to either spin it, add to it, shape it, and then I want to figure out how we can make that a reality. There are times when he has such amazing ideas, but it's not going to happen the way we would love for it to happen. But I turn that creativity in a box. I'm not afraid of that. There are some visionaries and creatives that don't even see the box. I like the box, because I like to know what's going to happen when I start pushing against it, and you don't really know if something's going to break, and some of that sometimes you can't take back. So for me, I always see that, but that doesn't mean that that needs to stop you from being creative or inspired or innovative. For some it does, but for me it doesn’t.

MC: I don’t like boxes, I’m claustrophobic.

RD: I love that. One idea that we had was just a flight for people and their dogs.

MC: I’ll sponsor that flight.

RD: Jorie, Mark, thank you so much for being here.


Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.


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