United Airlines just gave tech companies a lesson in pleasing customers

With apps, it's not always about the multitude of features. It's about finding the one that could really delight customers.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Thierry Monasse / Getty Images

Pleasing people isn't always easy.

It's tempting to give them so much that they have to be moved by the sheer volume of your offering.

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The truth, though, is a little different.

Finding one thing that melts a heart -- or, at least, makes that heart warm to your thoughtfulness -- can be far more winning. Even if that thing is a very little thing, indeed.

Which brings me to United Airlines.

While United was recently witnessing negative headline after really negative headline, it made a little change to its app that I feel sure customers will (ultimately) treat as a pleasant surprise.

The idea is simple. The airline is now going to alert customers when the seat they really wanted to occupy -- but was unavailable -- suddenly becomes free.

You'll tell me this is mundane.

But how many times have you booked a plane ticket and discovered that the seat you really wanted had a big X through it on the seat map?

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Many people have particular predilections for sitting precisely where they want to sit. Aisle or window. Near the front or over the wing.

So when United alerts you that your preferred seat is available, I will also automatically reserve that seat for you -- up to 12 hours before departure.

United describes its attitude like this: "With up to three million users interacting with the United mobile app daily, United is continuing to bring helpful features to its app, and this is just the latest new app feature that gives customers more options and makes travel a breeze."

Travel is rarely a breeze these days, but every time a company uses technology to solve even the tiniest customer problem -- or offers a new service that's sure to delight -- I find myself swooning a bit.

This is a lesson for tech companies.

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Too often, tech companies believe that filling a gadget or an app with a multitude of features makes that gadget or app somehow more exciting.

When the likelihood is that, for most people, it makes it more confusing and many of the features feel simply superfluous and even actively annoying. 

Too often, tech companies want to insert features that amuse or even delight those who created those features, but mean nothing to a real human being who's trying simply to get on with their lives, find infinite small pleasures in their day, and avoid as much pain as possible.

If the internal response to an app idea is: "How cool is that?", it may not be as cool an idea as you think. However, iff the response is: "Customers are really going to like this," then you might have something worth pursuing.

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Tech isn't there to make your life a breeze, but it is there to make your life just a tiny bit better every time you use it.

Clearly, United Airlines has a few problems -- some exacerbated by its association with Boeing -- but hosannas to the United Airlines employee who suggested this idea and actually got it done.

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