CUA of the Month – January, 2009

E-Business Team
"The difference between our approach now and the way we used to do things is like night and day."
E-Business Team
AAA Mid-Atlantic

The Road Map to Usability AAA Mid-Atlantic's E-Business Team Puts User Experience in the Fast Lane

by Doug Gorney

With nearly four million members, AAA Mid-Atlantic is among AAA's largest clubs. That means their website is like a busy freeway interchange. Used each month by hundreds of thousands of members and non-members alike, the site features details about everything from roadside assistance and membership benefits to car insurance, loans, and travel packages. As a critical information hub, managed by AAA Mid-Atlantic's E-Business team, it needs to provide an exceptional user experience. But like drivers without maps, users were getting lost on the site.

Members complained that the site wasn't organized or presented as well as it could be – and that told the E-Business team why they weren't getting the performance they wanted from the site. Membership applications and product sales from the site were below expectations.

E-Business Managing Director Scott Gamble said the site gave him a wake-up call the moment he arrived at AAA Mid-Atlantic. "This was one of the first projects I worked on," he says. Right away, he began to understand member complaints and disappointing site metrics. "The site was structured on internal needs only, not on user needs or requirements."

Road Work Ahead – Identifying Usability Gaps

Kim Snedaker, Manager of E-Business Services, led the effort to seek out design firms and usability specialists who could help AAA Mid-Atlantic get back on the road to usability. Happily, she says, she came across HFI. Right away, she says, "Enlightenment began to dawn."

HFI's user experience design specialists worked with AAA Mid-Atlantic to evaluate and redesign their site. Test users reported being overwhelmed by an excess of information.

"It's too jumbled," said one. "There's nothing to catch my attention." The information design was chockablock, Scott found, because "business interests, both strategic and tactical were competitive with regard to their turf on the site."

Kim agrees. "When the business owners came to us, everything was in terms of the Home page – everyone wanted a piece of 'prime' real estate. So it wasn't surprising that the Home page got crowded with too much information. There was a real silo mentality – topics, content, and organization of the site focused on what we thought, rather than what our members and prospects thought. There was a tremendous amount of 'AAA-speak' on the site."

Owning the Vehicle – Meeting E-business Goals with CUA Training

Once they began to work with HFI, Scott and Kim realized two things. First, they wanted to put the user experience at the core of AAA Mid-Atlantic's e-business operations. Second, unless their whole team owned the principles of user-centered design, they would never be able to arrive at that goal. So as they worked with HFI on the website redesign, Scott and Kim went through Certified Usability Analyst training along with almost everyone in their 17-person department.

With CUA training under their seatbelts, the E-Business team was able to look at their site in a whole new way as they collaborated with HFI.

"The training really helped us see how users interacted with the site," says Kim. "As a small but important example, consider our old SAVINGS tab. We called it Savings because the internal name of the program is Show Your Card & Save, and it's referred to internally as Savings. But when we conducted our research, users defined this as Discounts – and more importantly Discounts for Members. Now that shows the importance of labeling. It also shows the importance of having data feed your design."

"As such," Kim adds, "we've changed the label from Savings to Discounts for Members. In our second round of validation testing, when we spoke to users about this label and asked what they would expect to see there, they indicated that, in fact, they expect to see 'All of My Discounts,' the aggregated discounts their AAA membership provides them on auto insurance, travel, etc. Users think much more holistically."

So far the new site design, driven by key marketing objectives and user perceptions, is outperforming the original design in many areas. Members and non-members are finding what they are looking for – user testing revealed a 99% success rate, compared to the original 54% – leading to increases in traffic to key pages like membership and auto insurance, resulting in more online leads, and increased consumer awareness about the breadth of AAA's product offerings.

The Long and Winding Road to Usability

Scott, Kim and their team understand that user-centered design is more like a road than a destination. "It's an evolving site," says Scott. "Rome was not built in a day. We are approaching the new website in a systematic, phased fashion that gives us an opportunity to succeed by building on preceding phases. Now we're implementing persuasive Web 2.0 features like social networking for the AAA community."

Kim says that many of their ongoing design initiatives are centered around persuasion, emotion, and trust (PET design™). "It's important to engage our members in an ongoing fashion," says Kim. "We've reorganized the site and begun the process of restyling our content with an emotional appeal – rewriting it from a perspective of being in our users' shoes."

The E-Business team is happy about how CUA training has already begun to impact AAA Mid-Atlantic.

"It has provided a different perspective," says Scott. "The difference between our approach now and the way we used to do things is like night and day. Now, when we engage a business line on any project or initiative, they understand that we will deliver a solution to their business objectives by utilizing a user-centered approach…looking at a more balanced approach between the user experience and perspective and our own internal business needs."

"It's nothing short of a culture change," agrees Kim. "Over time, hopefully, we'll have institutionalized usability so well that every area of the organization will be thinking that way on its own."

Spencer Gerrol, HFI's Executive Director, says that since undergoing CUA training, AAA Mid-Atlantic's E-Business team are not just practitioners of user-centered design, they are becoming real leaders in the field. "They can become teachers of the value of usability," he says.

Scott modestly says, "What we wanted to do was work with HFI at every step, not just follow along. We wanted to really be involved in the process. HFI were great mentors, but because we had taken CUA training we weren't going to be beholden to them either – we were going to apply these principles ourselves. We've put tools in our toolbox, now let's apply them in an ongoing, evolutionary way."

Certainly seems as if CUA training has put AAA Mid-Atlantic's E-Business team in the driver's seat.

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to

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Reviewed: 18 Mar 2014

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