When Copy Gets Too Cute — The User Experience of Snacks

Last week I moved to beautiful, sunny San Diego with my partner for his awesome new job. Our two pampered cats demanded that we load all our earthly goods into a POD, and fly those highfalutin felines across the country in style.

So that’s what we did.

Leaving our sweet DC townhome!

We flew Southwest because it gave us the best deal on checked baggage and pet fees.

(Hold tight, I promise this story has to do with UX.)

I had never flown Southwest before, so was delighted to find that a snack basket was headed my way, even in economy. Score.

But then, in the dark in the middle of a bumpy flight, I discovered a pretty gnarly user experience problem.  This bag of “Plane cookies.”


(Yes, I stashed the cookie bag in my carry on so I could photograph it later. No, YOU’RE a nerd.)

For reference, the text reads:

Plane cookies
Just plain delicious.

This packaging was so unclear, that I actually selected it without being sure of what I was getting. I’ll go over why it’s so bad in just a moment, but first you’ve got to understand where I was coming from.

We begin with the user (of course).

Here were the conditions I experienced when the basket of snacks came by:

  • I’m worried about my cat stuffed beneath the seat in front of me, and the other one who won’t stop howling a few rows back.
  • I’m bone-tired from packing all day and rushing to catch my flight.
  • I’m engrossed in my work, I’m trying to type away as much as possible but my head feels foggy as hell.
  • I’m stuck alone in the window seat, so I’m conscious of not wanting to disturb the people sitting beside me.
  • It’s dark, I can’t see anything but my computer screen.

That was me, but other passengers might have had worse confounding factors. Maybe others on the flight had been delayed or rerouted, maybe they had been traveling for 30+ hours, maybe they didn’t speak English, maybe they had a hearing or visual impairment.

Given these conditions, this snack packaging needs to be darn easy to understand. Here’s how I’d make it better.

Good User Experience Starts with Plane Language (HAHAHAHA.)

Some writer decided that the plane/plain pun was super important. I hate to speak ill of any pun, but this was simply not the time.

There are only two important words on this package.

Cinnamon Cookies

Just stick with what’s essential. Make it dummy-proof. Remember, these cookies are being selected in the dark, under pressure (held over my seat-mate’s lap), alongside several other options. It’s important to make this as simple as possible.

The phrase “plane cookies” followed by “plain delicious” got me all confused. Suddenly I thought these were plain-flavored cookies. Ew, gross. And all that confusion for the sake of a pun?

Not worth it. The usability has got to come first. Stick with Cinnamon Cookies.

And what about images?

Slap a picture of the cookie on this package, and all of a sudden it’s 10X clearer what’s inside. This is even more essential because we’re dealing with 3-4 snack choices in the basket.

To the uninitiated user, blue package =/= cookie. Yellow package =/= cracker. That color-coding is helpful for flight attendants, I’m sure, but it does nothing for the folks trying to figure out what to eat.

Even more important than general usability, a photo on the package would make it a far more inclusive experience. Photos are life-savers for non-English speakers, people with dyslexia, and the hard of hearing (who may have missed the flight attendant’s description).  Making affordances for people with different backgrounds and abilities should be standard practice on an airline that serves everyone.

Um okay…but why should we care about cookie copy user experience?

I get it. This seems completely insignificant. But it’s a million tiny friction points (like this) added together that make flying such a drag these days. It’s the baggage fees plus the pat down plus the lack of leg room plus the bathroom line plus the trouble with these damn snacks.

It’s true that from a business perspective we might decide it’s not worth the package redesign. Saving flight attendants a little time and hassle doesn’t really register on a long haul flight. They’re paid by the flight hour, not by some cookie experience satisfaction metric.

But there are probably customers who come back for the snack selection. Little conveniences carry outsized weight in consumers’ minds in an industry that’s constantly moving toward smaller spaces, more fees, and less humanity.

A little user-centric design amid the chaos wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it? Let’s call it a snack-size win.

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