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Alaska Airlines: Building Apps that Employees Love

Ashley Sefferman  //  September 7, 2017  //  7 min read

Great customer experience starts with great frontline employees. And at times, those great experiences happen in spite of the tools available to employees, not because of the tools available to them.

We hosted Francis Brown, Product Development Manager at Alaska Airlines, as a speaker at our first-ever Customer Love Summit. In his talk, Francis explores why it’s so hard to have good internal products, an shares how Alaska Airlines uses design thinking, agile development, and open dialogue between users and product people to create apps that employees love.

Francis Brown of Alaska Airlines

Specifically, Francis’s talk covers:

  • Reducing the cognitive load for your customers and employees
  • The importance of building apps that employees love, and why this focus can help your holistic app strategy.
  • Why spending time with employees helps you learn about how different people act with your customers.
  • Why the “good enough” mindset constrains the quality of internal tools.

If you prefer to read rather than watch, we’ve included the transcription below the video.


Thanks, Fred, for that introduction. I’m Francis. I will be talking about building apps that employees love. And I wanted to get on the love theme. I know some other folks who use that well, but it’s just a great theme to go with.

A little intro about Alaska Airlines. We are based, an airline based in Seattle. We did start in Alaska in 1932, 85 years ago, so we were one of the longest serving air carriers in the industry. We’re serving 40 million customers a year, 118 cities, and in 5 countries. Over 20,000 employees, about 14,000 of them are frontline employees — pilots, flight attendants, airport agents, ramp agents. We service about 1,200 flights a day.

So I would like to start out with a personal story about working for Alaska Airlines. When I first started working there, as I met people outside of work in social situations, the conversation eventually went to, “What do you do?” And when they found out that I work for Alaska Airlines, it happened enough that I could notice it, people would light up and say, “I love Alaska Airlines.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s great. I love that too.”

So it happened enough times that I started, you know, seeing that it happens a lot. I talked to my co-workers. They see it too. Leadership gives talks. They see it too. And I think it’s inside the Alaska psyche, that this is one of the most invaluable merits that we have with our customers. We have this overwhelming sense of goodwill from our customers. And I call it invaluable because we recognize it, we cherish it, and we know that if we ever lose it, our job is gonna be a lot harder. So, we try to keep that as much as possible.

There’s a lot of factors of why I think people like, love, Alaska. First of all, safety is our number one. Ensure the safety of passengers and of their employees. And a flight never leaves if we don’t think it’s safe. We provide a great product. On-time airline. We provide a good value and a great in-flight experience. But what I think I’d like to talk about more is the excellent customer service. I think this is a really big differentiator. And I think product people can understand this too, because, at the end of the day, is how well do you, can you, give a positive impact to the customer? We do it by creating digital experiences, that customer service agent does it by communicating with a customer.

That brings me the question, how come, from my experience, and from talking with other folks in other companies, why do we not give good internal products to our employees? And, I mean part of it, a lot of it has to do with resources. So every company has limited resources. How much time, money, and people are you willing to spend to create the best product that you can? And what happens a lot is that, for internal products, once it reaches that level of good enough, that’s where it stays. And, for better or for worse, that’s kinda what the employee is stuck with.

For what happened to us at Alaska, some examples of what happened, we have a legacy system, 10, 20, 30-year-old systems that maybe was a good idea when it first started, but right now, it just kinda grew without really bad management. It’s an old, very old code, code-based. So it’s very expensive to maintain. You have a love-hate relationship. You love it because it does the tasks that you need it to do, everybody’s trained in it, but you never know when it’s gonna go down, and that can create a lot of problems.

Third-party products is a solution commonly used across a lot of airlines. And it’s…a vendor creates a product, and the use case was for you, and a hundred of your competitors as well. So everybody pretty much gets the same product, and the same experience, and you don’t really have the opportunity to use your values, your experience, your expertise, to differentiate the product.

We got a little bit trouble with MVP as well, minimum viable product. I like to hear what some people said, “Leadership loved that.” It’s, “Oh, you can get me that out in production that fast?” Well, yeah, but you really need to stick to what it is. So it’s a small feature-set that can, you know, finish a task, or something like that. But you need to think about it more holistically. Otherwise, you have a really bad experience for the employee. What are they doing before they need to do that task? What do they need after they’re doing that tasks? So it’s really important to fulfill the whole experience for the employee.

Waterfall project management is something that we were doing a lot as well. Large projects, a lot of upfront analysis, development, training, testing, deployment. By the time it got to the end, you may have forgotten what the original intention of the project was. Requirements by committee, like, you know, what was the problem that we’re trying solve, and why do we have this big, gargantuan, monster?

For Alaska Airlines, we’re trying to attack a different way. We made a decision to focus on mobile. I’ll get to the ROI a little bit later. But really is, we believe that mobile can significantly change the operations, the customer experience, the employee experience, and overall, profits. Our mission is to create simple, reliable, mobile experiences that empower people to improve the operation. Right now, we’re focusing on pilots, flight attendants, and airport agents.

So, as an example, if you’re the Pilot Product Manager, you’ll be hanging out in the cockpit, talking to the captain and the first officer, flying over Southeast Alaska on a beautiful sunny day. I am very envious of that job. I work at…my focus is airport agents. But this is the kinda things that we’re doing. We’re spending a lot of time with the employees, and we’re figuring out how can we solve the common problems that they have.

So the how and the why of what we’re doing this thing is that we think that we can significantly change the operations by giving, by empowering the employee with better tools. We use a bit of design thinking, which we would look at holistically, what is the issue, what is the problem that we’re trying to solve? And we look at it from the business side, and we look at it from the user side. And really, from the intersection of that, you really have the opportunities of designing a great product.

On the business side, if you could…if a flight could depart one minute early, you could save a lot of money, like airport real estate, labor, fuel, for example. Multiply that by 1,200 flights a day, over a year, you’re saving quite a bit of money. For the user, how can you reduce the cognitive load for the user, so that he can absorb information, interpret it, take action, and so, leads to a less stressful environment, and that he can focus more on the customer? Which is really, we didn’t really hire people to bang on the keyboard. We hired people to talk to, engage to the customers.

Now you may be familiar with the product feedback loop, where you have an idea, you build it out, and then when you ship it out, you listen, and you learn to how your user is using the product. And a lot of times, you know, they may be using it in a completely different way, a lot of other ways, you know that you have to work to do. And, for us, we really felt like we needed to focus on that top left piece, and for a couple of reasons. One, it’s just part of good product management. You have to understand how they’re using your product, and that can influence your road map.

The other part that we’re doing is Alaska is pretty much undergoing a large culture change as well, like very high level, with the purchase of Virgin America, where things are changing. But also, we’re changing the way that people do their jobs, and they’ve been doing that job for a very long time. Some agents, some flight attendants, 30, 40 years. And we’re asking them to drop the desktop computer, drop that printed out piece of paper, and pick up a mobile device. So it’s really important for us to really establish a connection and a relationship with the user.

And this is where we came in, and Apptentive is helping us out. We’re using Message Center in our internal apps, and it was really…the real intention was to create a dialogue with the user, giving us, the product people, the ability to quickly answer back, and let them know that we’re listening to them, and that we’re here to help them out.

And at the end of that, it’s about trust, because we’re asking them to completely do things differently. You’re dealing with people’s vacations. You’re dealing with people’s kids when they’re flying by themselves. You’re dealing with weight and balance issues. So if we ever give a product to the employee, it better not mess up, or they’re gonna get the phone call, and then eventually, we’ll get the phone call as well.

So another positive benefit to the Message Center is that we got this great feedback. And what I really liked about it is that we could use that internally with the conversation within the company, with our teammates, but also with leadership. I think everybody likes to know that you’re going the right direction. So as we present it to leadership, we can say, “Hey, look at this. Everybody’s really liking this. I think we were going down the right direction.” So it was a great benefit and it’s a great way to get that experience.

I would like to ask you, I’d like to challenge you actually, if possible, spend time with your employees, with your frontline employees. If it’s in a warehouse, if it’s in a call center, if it’s in a store, spend some time over there. Shadow them, interview them, work a shift if it’s possible. Because I really think that we can have some great experiences by hanging out with the frontline employees. You’re gonna learn new things. You’re gonna hear great stories. Ask, “How does your consumer application interact with the employee systems. Is it a good experience? Do you miss a lot of things?” So I think that you can grow a lot of things out of there. And eventually, you can build a company that both employees and customers will love.

Thank you.

About Ashley Sefferman

Ashley Sefferman is Head of Content at Apptentive. A digital communication and content strategy enthusiast, she writes about multichannel engagement strategies, customer communication, and making the digital world a better place for people. Follow Ashley on Twitter at @ashseff.
View all posts by Ashley Sefferman >

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