An inside look at content and UX at Virgin Atlantic

An inside look at content and UX at Virgin Atlantic

9 minute read

An inside look at content and UX at Virgin Atlantic

9 minute read

Martyn Reding & Alex Sparasci

UX and Content at Virgin Atlantic

An inside look at content and UX at Virgin Atlantic

Robert Mills

Head of Content, GatherContent
Virgin Atlantic's brand personality is well known and consistent across multiple channels. From holiday searches, in-flight menus and loyalty schemes, they have lots of opportunities to communicate with their customers. I spoke to Martyn Reding (Head of Digital Experience) and Alex Sparasci (Content Strategist) about the brand style, how content and UX are connected at Virgin Atlantic, training writers, testing content and their advice on growing a UX discipline.

Can you tell us a bit about your roles at Virgin Atlantic and the content and UX team?

Martyn:

I joined Virgin about two years ago as Head of Digital Experience. My role was primarily put in to provide a single point of view on the user experience because previously it had been relatively dispersed around the business, with different people taking responsibility for different touch points. My role is providing that strategic overview as well as ensuring the quality of everything that's delivered.

Over the past couple of years I've built a new team. We've become more self sustaining and less reliant on agencies and we now have a content team, a design team and a product team that all sit under my group. We cover the entirety of the travel experience. Everything from exploring and researching to the shopping and booking process to anything that happens pre flight, the day you travel and then anyone post travel who wants to reconnect with the brand in a meaningful way. Through our loyalty schemes, credit cards, that brand engagement, etc.

Alex:

There's five of us on the content team and we all have different skill sets within that. There are three different job roles at the moment. There’s my role as Content Strategy Manager, and then we have a UX writer, which is fantastic. I think that's still quite rare in a lot of companies and I would dare say in airlines it's probably even rarer to have somebody in that role. 

Then we have three content producers. They really build the website, they're not coding, but it's more using the building blocks within our CMS to build pages, keep them up to date, work with the business, make sure our content is always accurate and up to date. They also operate on-call. As an airline, we sometimes have requirements to get content off onto the website very fast. An example of this is all the stuff that's going on at the moment with Coronavirus.

Are content and UX separate or connected in the organisation? 

Content sits alongside digital product management and design within the UX team. So user experience online is shaped by the content theme, that design team and the digital product managers.

In terms of all the different people, platforms and channels involved, how do you manage and deliver consistency across all of the output?

Martyn:

Let me answer it from a bigger picture perspective. The thing that we are charged with is the digital touch points.

There's marketing focus, digital display ads, social that doesn't fall under that remit. And then we have to recognise that we're part of a very big global organisation so whatever we do, it has to connect with the overall content being pushed out by the company, which is a huge amount when you take everything from annual reports and investor relations to sustainability policies to flight schedules, to information about disruption at airports, to marketing material to B2C and B2B activities before you even get to the website. For us it's about determining, how do we take the overall message and make the appropriate adjustments and variants for digital?

The best example of that is when you look at the writing style within the marketing activity, the brand tone of voice is always turned up to ten. That's fine when you're on our homepage or maybe a destination page, but when you were in the payment flow or when someone is checking in, the tone has to change. It has to be more instructional, it has to be much more direct and have less flourishes around it. Alex's team are charged with that very difficult task of how do you make it still feel like it's all being within the Virgin Atlantic voice but very different tones that are very appropriate to those moments.

It’s no mean feat! The Virgin Atlantic tone of voice and brand personality is huge. It was established in 1984 and comes with a lot of legacy and heritage. I certainly feel like there's quite a weight of responsibility. There's a long history of all of those things, from the way the menu is written to the way the cabin crew describe things on the plane to the terms that we use around the building to all of it, it all has to stand out because the experience is such a huge part of Virgin Atlantic.

We're not the biggest airline in the world. We don't have a monopoly on routes like some other airlines, when you want to get from point A to point B, you have no choice. We're not at that scale and we're not in a race to the bottom either. So we're not a low cost airline. We're not trying to be as cheap as possible. When we're not competing with scale and you're not competing with price, really the remaining factor in that is the experience. That's why we put so much into it.

You touched on the weight of responsibility and the long history, and with that perhaps comes challenges to deliver consistently and to meet expectations. How important is content for the Virgin Atlantic brand? 

Martyn:

The content team was the first thing that I addressed when I joined the team. Before we had any designers in the building, before we started talking about research and aligning to product roadmaps, the first thing that I did was reorganised the content team, add in the content strategist role and UX writer roles.

There are two vital elements in there. One is that content is the core and it's the unquestionable ingredient to the user experience. People are coming to our touch points for information. They're coming there for content and that's why it's so important that we have a handle on it and have a strategy around it. And two, because at the time it was our primary publishing mechanism, if we wanted to put anything in, if we wanted to launch any changes or anything and move anything around, we were doing it via the content management system. So in terms of when I looked at the team and when I looked at what it needed to achieve and my strategy for forming a user experience team, the first thing I went to was content.

I don't know that you can unpick content and UX, personally. I think if you've got a good user experience and bad content, then you've got a bad user experience.

Alex:

Definitely. You can have a beautiful design without good content, but that's very different to a good user experience.

Martyn:

I think that there's been a lot that has been led out steadily by the adoption of product models and product groups. Look at the way that the GDS team formed and how they shared their blueprint for a product team. The core elements are product manager, developers and then the user experience element, which is always design, always research and always content. They formed that notion of content designers and embedding content strategists and UX writers into product teams.

No design should ever show up with "Lorem ipsum" in it otherwise it's pointless. I've personally sat in user testing sessions and asked people their opinion on this prototype and they've just looked at me and said, "But none of this copy means anything to me." All the way across the design and user experience industry that light bulb has been switching on and people have been understanding that content is intrinsic to UX, it's stuck together.

How do you work together, what is the process? 

Alex:

We work in product teams, they're aligned to different parts of the customer journey, so four different parts of that journey, and the teams work in the classic two week sprint. In the content team we have some time set aside outside of those sprints for ContentOps. That's anything which is under a certain size of issue, fixing a typo or adding an emergency message to the site. Those kinds of things do not need to go through a two weeks sprint process.

There's explore and search, which is where I do a lot of my work and that's from the very top of the funnel when someone starts their flight search. You've then got the team which looks after booking. That includes the search results all the way through to when the customer has paid. You've got manage and travel who are focused on taking you from post booking all the way through a successful flight with us. Then we have a loyalty team and they work across all the other journeys because our loyalty scheme, Flying Club, is intertwined with a little bit of everything. 

In terms of the relationship with your customers and user experience, what methods do you use to ensure that your audience is at the heart of the digital experience? 

Martyn:

We have a lot of opportunity because there's lots of touch points both physical and digital. And I think we're lucky in terms of the brand because it is actually a product, service and a brand that people seem to like talking to and giving feedback on. We're trying to build gathering feedback into more of a routine, but we have the ability to simply go to an airport and observe, to talk to frontline staff, the people who are out in the check-in desks and in the clubhouses.

We have access to our fantastic team of cabin crew who talk to customers all day, every day. Then we have our call centres where we can spend time listening to calls. We also have our loyalty program which has over 2 million members and lots of them are very keen to give feedback. We have a panel of them that we can go to with questions and anything particular we want to ask. Layered on top of that is the feedback through our touch points, customer satisfaction surveys that trigger at particular points within the journey, as well as all the usual channels of social media. Getting points of view from customers is the easier part, the bigger task is trying to make sense of it all.

How do you A/B test content and conduct user testing?

Alex:

For big projects we're more likely to get in front of people in the test lab or talking face to face to people. We do quite a lot of personalisation and A/B testing using Adobe Target. Not every one of those tests is led by the content team but every test involves content in one way or another. It might be a wording change, using different graphics, a different layout, etc. That can be for big things like testing completely new ways of letting customers browse sale content, or something much simpler like moving an element on a page to see if it works better for the customer that way.

Is the Virgin Atlantic style guide part of larger brand guidelines or a design system?

Martyn:

I think it's a bit of a default behaviour for digital teams to become quite insular and focused on themselves or their own structures and technology. A lot of what I've been doing is connecting our teams and different parts of the business. Our tone of voice, our UX writing guide, sits within the entirety of the brand tone of voice. Writers spend a lot of time with the brand team and it's our responsibility, it's our tool to work out how you take that overall brand tone of voice and you translate it into an appropriate writing guide. Alex's team authored the writing guide and continues to stay in the loop with the brand as it evolves through time.

How are writers trained to write in the brand style?

Alex: 

My content team were all here before I was here, so I've only ever seen them at a point where they're great at writing in the Virgin Atlantic tone. They were great at taking me through the central brand style guide and also the UX writer's guide which is used a lot by the designers and by other people in the team.

The central brand team host brand workshops for people who need to learn how to write the Virgin way. I think our tone of voice is quite well known. Most people have seen our adverts or maybe flown in one of our planes or they're aware of even the wider Virgin group's playful personality. I don't think anyone would come into the team having no understanding of it. 

Do you have any advice you think would be worth sharing for people trying to improve their UX offering, hire UX people or bring content and UX together, if it's not already in their organisation?

Alex:

Sometimes, and thankfully not here, the danger is that you see UX as a team who make the experience wonderful and you see that it's somehow in contrast to a team whose job is to make money. Whereas I think the key thing is to remember that excellent user experience drives commercial success. If you get that right, people come back time and time again. The more times people fly with you, the lower that initial cost of acquisition. We need and want people to be loyal to us and so the way of doing that is to just make it a great experience digitally because we know that when people are in our planes, they have a fantastic experience. We're famous for that. So making our UX online fantastic as well, that's incredibly important.

Martyn:

The biggest thing that I've learned is that there is no way for a single person to define and deliver a user experience. It's the sum of lots of different parts and the richer you can make the mixture of those parts, the better, the more interesting the user experience will be. My advice would be that you don't have to start a revolution in your organisation. Just take one project, one small area and make the designer and the content person work in complete tandem and never allow them to separate from what one another's doing. Just do it once and you will see that it is a completely different and richer way of working and way better results and faster and everyone will be happier.

Can you tell us a bit about your roles at Virgin Atlantic and the content and UX team?

Martyn:

I joined Virgin about two years ago as Head of Digital Experience. My role was primarily put in to provide a single point of view on the user experience because previously it had been relatively dispersed around the business, with different people taking responsibility for different touch points. My role is providing that strategic overview as well as ensuring the quality of everything that's delivered.

Over the past couple of years I've built a new team. We've become more self sustaining and less reliant on agencies and we now have a content team, a design team and a product team that all sit under my group. We cover the entirety of the travel experience. Everything from exploring and researching to the shopping and booking process to anything that happens pre flight, the day you travel and then anyone post travel who wants to reconnect with the brand in a meaningful way. Through our loyalty schemes, credit cards, that brand engagement, etc.

Alex:

There's five of us on the content team and we all have different skill sets within that. There are three different job roles at the moment. There’s my role as Content Strategy Manager, and then we have a UX writer, which is fantastic. I think that's still quite rare in a lot of companies and I would dare say in airlines it's probably even rarer to have somebody in that role. 

Then we have three content producers. They really build the website, they're not coding, but it's more using the building blocks within our CMS to build pages, keep them up to date, work with the business, make sure our content is always accurate and up to date. They also operate on-call. As an airline, we sometimes have requirements to get content off onto the website very fast. An example of this is all the stuff that's going on at the moment with Coronavirus.

Are content and UX separate or connected in the organisation? 

Content sits alongside digital product management and design within the UX team. So user experience online is shaped by the content theme, that design team and the digital product managers.

In terms of all the different people, platforms and channels involved, how do you manage and deliver consistency across all of the output?

Martyn:

Let me answer it from a bigger picture perspective. The thing that we are charged with is the digital touch points.

There's marketing focus, digital display ads, social that doesn't fall under that remit. And then we have to recognise that we're part of a very big global organisation so whatever we do, it has to connect with the overall content being pushed out by the company, which is a huge amount when you take everything from annual reports and investor relations to sustainability policies to flight schedules, to information about disruption at airports, to marketing material to B2C and B2B activities before you even get to the website. For us it's about determining, how do we take the overall message and make the appropriate adjustments and variants for digital?

The best example of that is when you look at the writing style within the marketing activity, the brand tone of voice is always turned up to ten. That's fine when you're on our homepage or maybe a destination page, but when you were in the payment flow or when someone is checking in, the tone has to change. It has to be more instructional, it has to be much more direct and have less flourishes around it. Alex's team are charged with that very difficult task of how do you make it still feel like it's all being within the Virgin Atlantic voice but very different tones that are very appropriate to those moments.

It’s no mean feat! The Virgin Atlantic tone of voice and brand personality is huge. It was established in 1984 and comes with a lot of legacy and heritage. I certainly feel like there's quite a weight of responsibility. There's a long history of all of those things, from the way the menu is written to the way the cabin crew describe things on the plane to the terms that we use around the building to all of it, it all has to stand out because the experience is such a huge part of Virgin Atlantic.

We're not the biggest airline in the world. We don't have a monopoly on routes like some other airlines, when you want to get from point A to point B, you have no choice. We're not at that scale and we're not in a race to the bottom either. So we're not a low cost airline. We're not trying to be as cheap as possible. When we're not competing with scale and you're not competing with price, really the remaining factor in that is the experience. That's why we put so much into it.

You touched on the weight of responsibility and the long history, and with that perhaps comes challenges to deliver consistently and to meet expectations. How important is content for the Virgin Atlantic brand? 

Martyn:

The content team was the first thing that I addressed when I joined the team. Before we had any designers in the building, before we started talking about research and aligning to product roadmaps, the first thing that I did was reorganised the content team, add in the content strategist role and UX writer roles.

There are two vital elements in there. One is that content is the core and it's the unquestionable ingredient to the user experience. People are coming to our touch points for information. They're coming there for content and that's why it's so important that we have a handle on it and have a strategy around it. And two, because at the time it was our primary publishing mechanism, if we wanted to put anything in, if we wanted to launch any changes or anything and move anything around, we were doing it via the content management system. So in terms of when I looked at the team and when I looked at what it needed to achieve and my strategy for forming a user experience team, the first thing I went to was content.

I don't know that you can unpick content and UX, personally. I think if you've got a good user experience and bad content, then you've got a bad user experience.

Alex:

Definitely. You can have a beautiful design without good content, but that's very different to a good user experience.

Martyn:

I think that there's been a lot that has been led out steadily by the adoption of product models and product groups. Look at the way that the GDS team formed and how they shared their blueprint for a product team. The core elements are product manager, developers and then the user experience element, which is always design, always research and always content. They formed that notion of content designers and embedding content strategists and UX writers into product teams.

No design should ever show up with "Lorem ipsum" in it otherwise it's pointless. I've personally sat in user testing sessions and asked people their opinion on this prototype and they've just looked at me and said, "But none of this copy means anything to me." All the way across the design and user experience industry that light bulb has been switching on and people have been understanding that content is intrinsic to UX, it's stuck together.

How do you work together, what is the process? 

Alex:

We work in product teams, they're aligned to different parts of the customer journey, so four different parts of that journey, and the teams work in the classic two week sprint. In the content team we have some time set aside outside of those sprints for ContentOps. That's anything which is under a certain size of issue, fixing a typo or adding an emergency message to the site. Those kinds of things do not need to go through a two weeks sprint process.

There's explore and search, which is where I do a lot of my work and that's from the very top of the funnel when someone starts their flight search. You've then got the team which looks after booking. That includes the search results all the way through to when the customer has paid. You've got manage and travel who are focused on taking you from post booking all the way through a successful flight with us. Then we have a loyalty team and they work across all the other journeys because our loyalty scheme, Flying Club, is intertwined with a little bit of everything. 

In terms of the relationship with your customers and user experience, what methods do you use to ensure that your audience is at the heart of the digital experience? 

Martyn:

We have a lot of opportunity because there's lots of touch points both physical and digital. And I think we're lucky in terms of the brand because it is actually a product, service and a brand that people seem to like talking to and giving feedback on. We're trying to build gathering feedback into more of a routine, but we have the ability to simply go to an airport and observe, to talk to frontline staff, the people who are out in the check-in desks and in the clubhouses.

We have access to our fantastic team of cabin crew who talk to customers all day, every day. Then we have our call centres where we can spend time listening to calls. We also have our loyalty program which has over 2 million members and lots of them are very keen to give feedback. We have a panel of them that we can go to with questions and anything particular we want to ask. Layered on top of that is the feedback through our touch points, customer satisfaction surveys that trigger at particular points within the journey, as well as all the usual channels of social media. Getting points of view from customers is the easier part, the bigger task is trying to make sense of it all.

How do you A/B test content and conduct user testing?

Alex:

For big projects we're more likely to get in front of people in the test lab or talking face to face to people. We do quite a lot of personalisation and A/B testing using Adobe Target. Not every one of those tests is led by the content team but every test involves content in one way or another. It might be a wording change, using different graphics, a different layout, etc. That can be for big things like testing completely new ways of letting customers browse sale content, or something much simpler like moving an element on a page to see if it works better for the customer that way.

Is the Virgin Atlantic style guide part of larger brand guidelines or a design system?

Martyn:

I think it's a bit of a default behaviour for digital teams to become quite insular and focused on themselves or their own structures and technology. A lot of what I've been doing is connecting our teams and different parts of the business. Our tone of voice, our UX writing guide, sits within the entirety of the brand tone of voice. Writers spend a lot of time with the brand team and it's our responsibility, it's our tool to work out how you take that overall brand tone of voice and you translate it into an appropriate writing guide. Alex's team authored the writing guide and continues to stay in the loop with the brand as it evolves through time.

How are writers trained to write in the brand style?

Alex: 

My content team were all here before I was here, so I've only ever seen them at a point where they're great at writing in the Virgin Atlantic tone. They were great at taking me through the central brand style guide and also the UX writer's guide which is used a lot by the designers and by other people in the team.

The central brand team host brand workshops for people who need to learn how to write the Virgin way. I think our tone of voice is quite well known. Most people have seen our adverts or maybe flown in one of our planes or they're aware of even the wider Virgin group's playful personality. I don't think anyone would come into the team having no understanding of it. 

Do you have any advice you think would be worth sharing for people trying to improve their UX offering, hire UX people or bring content and UX together, if it's not already in their organisation?

Alex:

Sometimes, and thankfully not here, the danger is that you see UX as a team who make the experience wonderful and you see that it's somehow in contrast to a team whose job is to make money. Whereas I think the key thing is to remember that excellent user experience drives commercial success. If you get that right, people come back time and time again. The more times people fly with you, the lower that initial cost of acquisition. We need and want people to be loyal to us and so the way of doing that is to just make it a great experience digitally because we know that when people are in our planes, they have a fantastic experience. We're famous for that. So making our UX online fantastic as well, that's incredibly important.

Martyn:

The biggest thing that I've learned is that there is no way for a single person to define and deliver a user experience. It's the sum of lots of different parts and the richer you can make the mixture of those parts, the better, the more interesting the user experience will be. My advice would be that you don't have to start a revolution in your organisation. Just take one project, one small area and make the designer and the content person work in complete tandem and never allow them to separate from what one another's doing. Just do it once and you will see that it is a completely different and richer way of working and way better results and faster and everyone will be happier.

Martyn Reding & Alex Sparasci

UX and Content at Virgin Atlantic

Martyn Reding is the Head of Digital Experience at Virgin Atlantic. He runs the content, design and product teams. Between revelling in airline puns he sets the user experience strategy for all of Virgin Atlantic’s digital touchpoints. From website to app and from chatbots to inflight entertainment. Prior to joining the airline world Martyn spent 15 years building and running award winning teams for clients such as Microsoft, BBC, Penguin and IKEA.

Alex Sparasci heads up the content team and is the content strategist at the world’s coolest airline - Virgin Atlantic. In his own words, he is “all about content”. He plans, builds and edits content that meets user needs and drives business strategy. Alex has 11 years of content experience, starting with writing brochures (remember them!) at Crystal Ski before leading web content projects at a selection of TUI brands including Sunsail, Sovereign, Citalia and Hayes & Jarvis. He spent 18 months in charge of content, social and PR at holiday rental startup Snaptrip before touching down at Virgin Atlantic in August 2018.

No items found.

About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and regular contributor to industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, 24 Ways,WebTuts+, UX Matters , UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and ContentOps at leading industry events.

Related posts you might like