It's not often that you'll hear a representative from an airline acknowledge that 'customers didn't like us' but that was exactly how Vladimir Atanasov, lead developer Android at Ryanair opened his presentation at the recent Couchbase Connect after the obligatory 'biggest, best' corporate slides.
Non-US readers will perhaps be unfamiliar with Ryanair, the Dublin based low cost carrier that pioneered no frills point-to-point flying in Europe. Over the years, its reputation went from one of being admired as the underdog that forced incumbent carriers to re-assess operations and pricing to an increasingly poor reputation for price gouging and appalling customer service in the pursuit of profit at all costs.
This from November 2014 during a year when the company was attempting to not only provide a much needed facelift to its online system but also repair its tarnished image:
According to a survey by brand simplicity firm Siegel+Gale of over 12,000 customers in eight countries, Ryanair was named the second worst-ranked brand, based on ease of customer use of a company’s products, services, interactions and communications. Common complaints were a badly-designed website, customer service that weighs against the customer and poor mobile apps that make it hard to download boarding passes.
According to Atanasov, the company was forced into revamping its mobile application and website. Customer complaints were overwhelming. Part of the problem is that the old version required good connectivity. As he pointed out during the presentation:
When your connection is slower than my grandfather with ankle weights, some apps can behave erratically
The answer was to re-evaluate its entire online presence and switch to a mobile first approach but one that would allow for occasions when connectivity was either poor or non-existent. This means Ryanair needed a solution that would handle online/offline synch out of the box. This was achieved using a combination of Couchbase technologies including Couchbase Server, Sync Gateway and Couchbase Lite.
Couchbase is an open source NoSQL (Not only SQL) database, considered one of the leaders alongside MongoDB and Cassandra. We are seeing a lot of open source projects in businesses where there are processes tied to documents rather than to transactions. I was curious to understand why Ryanair would take what has, in the past, been considered a risk in implementing open source.
As an architect, I want to get at tools at the lowest cost possible, preferably free. The usual model for open source is to download for free, poke about to see what it can do and if it looks like it will fit then buy a commercial support package. But also, with open source you get the benefit of a community of developers who have solved problems or are solving problems you might come up against. Couchbase has a community of 70,000 - that's good enough for me.
The results speak for themselves. The reaction among users was much more positive, but equally, the solution removed one of the biggest headaches arising from connectivity and document conflict.
The connectivity thing is really important. We are saving 80GB of network to mobile traffic per day, the app is much more responsive and customers are able to complete the booking process in under two minutes on average. It was five minutes. When it worked.
Looking forward, Ryanair is considering the addition of a recommendation engine and more personalized experience for users while at the same time continuing to bear down on simplicity.
We can add services like hotel or car rental booking into the mobile app without worrying about the impact on the customer experience. Like others we're considering the impact of wearables and whether we should design for those. That's in the future. For now, we're happy that we've got something customers like and that was easy for us to implement.
Of course all that is well and good but will it be enough to mollify irate customers? In January 2015, Ryanair was fined €550,000 for poor customer service. And when you can change your name and get a fresh passport for much less than the cost of a name change on a Ryanair flight then I'd say there's a way to go.
But at least the company's developers have made significant progress with a technology that meets an important need. I recently checked out the mobile app and was pleasantly surprised to find the app delivers as Atanasov claims. And for that, we should congratulate the team for making a solid choice.
Bonus points: Atanasov's presentation via Slideshare:
Disclosure: Couchbase covered most of my travel and expense for attending Couchbase Connect