When a cheap deal ends up costing double: UX lessons from the Ryanair app | by Rosie Hoggmascall | May, 2023

Fast-forward to Monday 8 May 2023: I’ve been remote working in France for four weeks and it’s time to book a flight home. Lets have a look at my journey from search → book → fly with Ryanair, and their effective-but-questionable mix of UX, dark CRM and monetisation tactics.

My go-to is SkyScanner (in an incognito tab, of course). I search a few departure airports to London and find a good deal from Poitiers. Skyscanner tells me Ryanair is the ‘best’, ‘cheapest’ and ‘fastest’ flight. Brilliant.

Analysis of the Skyscanner web app UI
Skyscanner is my go-to. Whilst I liked their clean UI (especially on my small phone), I didn’t like they’d deviated from the mental model of what a flight search should be: their departure and arrival text entries differ. As a user, I was flexible on my departure airport (Paris, Nantes, Poitiers), and it took me a hot second to find the ‘FROM’ select each time.

Now, at this point I have the Ryanair app, where all my details are stored. So I head to the app to find the same flight (I didn’t see a pop up redirecting me to app from the Ryanair web view, so I went manually).

The check-in flow is simple, and what I like is the fact that I’m not distracted from getting to the first magic moment: seeing how cheap the flight is.

I’m able to search → see flights without any demands for my extra cash just yet.

Screenshots from the Ryanair app showing the flight search flow
So far so good

There’s a ‘verified by Ryanair’ stamp across this flow, which to be honest I didn’t see. Even now, it doesn’t mean much to me. What’s clear though, is that Ryanair are trying to put us at ease throughout the booking process.

Let’s be honest, flying isn’t exactly stress-free. Coupled with the lack of trust and conspiratorial attitude toward airlines, booking a flight is anxiety-inducing. Personally, I have a TONNE of fears when booking a flight:

  • When searching: Is this flight a good time for me? Will I miss the flight? Am I seeing an inflated flight price? Are they spying on my search history?
  • When booking: Is the flight price going to go up if I don’t buy now? Am I going to end up paying for something I don’t need? Am I going to make a mistake with my passport number or super long second name? H O G G M A S C A L L…
  • On my way to the airport: I wonder how big my bag is, am I going to be charged at the airport? Am I going to show up and the flight is full? Is it going to be delayed? Is my bag going to be lost/broken? Will my glass jar of French pâté smash?

And the list goes on. But despite these fears, the first part of my booking journey in the Ryanair app goes surprisingly well.

When I see my London → Poitiers price of 20.12 EUR, I’m thrilled. It is super cheap for me to get home.

What I like here is the clear UI: I can find a flight quickly without the extra crap, and see the cheap fare I’ve been promised. Up to this point, the UI doesn’t feel sneaky. It feels transparent, clean and easy to navigate (if a bit ugly).

I am shown the price as a discount ‘Value fare’, the red font creating a visual anchor. Though, I think they could do a better job here of anchoring the more expensive price — where does the higher 21.99 EUR fare come from? I’m not convinced.

Screenshots from the Ryanair app showing select flight and choose baggage.

Tapping through to select bags, I see a ‘applies to all passengers’ banner, I imagine to appease me that I am getting the fairest deal and they haven’t been spying on me.

There is a lot of information on the baggage screens. However what I like is:

  • You have all information in one place. It feels transparent. Like Ryanair is trying to help me make the best decision (more on this later)
  • There’s some good UX writing here: ‘must fit under the seat’, ‘10kg cabin bag’ — with these snippets, I’m crystal clear and confident about where my luggage can go
  • The prices are clearly stated as an addition to the base price, and state ‘per person’ to avoid confusion

Where it could be better is with cleaner UI, in my view. Feels old-fashioned and clunky. However I doubt that would impact conversion (but who knows).

I select my value fare, and move onto my details.

Screenshots from the booking flow of the Ryanair app showing how they save my details from last time to make it easy.
Easy step, happy Rosie.

The personal details screen is where my blood pressure rises (I once made a mistake in my name that cost me £50). What I like is the banner copy calming my anxieties that I can change my details up to 48 hours later. Phew.

My details are saved from last time, easy peasy. Easy for a grand total of 20 seconds until the next screen, where the ad-ons begin.

First in the long list of add-ons before I can part with my money is seat selection. Luckily for me, I’m small and can nap anywhere, so I’ve never any need to select my seat when travelling alone.

I’m happy skipping this section, but not before calling out some nifty UI tricks and some nice UX writing of the key benefits.

Screenshots and mini analysis of the seat selection screens of the Ryanair app.
You don’t have to ask me twice. I don’t want your silly seat selection.

Next, I’m hit with a second screen titled ‘random seat allocation’ forcing the users to confirm what feels like an awful choice in Ryanair’s eyes.

There’s a couple of things going on here. The first is Fitts law, which says that the time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target. Essentially, bigger, closer elements are easier to interact with. By having two screens, Ryanair is giving seat selection more real estate to make you give in.

Secondly, and more importantly, this is an example of Confirmshaming. In their article about Ryanair’s web flow, Ben Davies-Romano calls out Ryanair for its deceptive patterns in UX, Confirmshaming being a big culprit, where the airline uses copy that shows its “directly doubting” your decisions.

Screenshots from the Ryanair app of a second baggae selections screen

This Confirmshaming continues into yet another bag selection. As if my first bag selection wasn’t informed enough. As if I didn’t know the risks of making my mind up myself.

Here Ryanair uses the scarcity principle ‘likely to sell out’ to try and get me to book now. Though people will think they can upgrade later (and they can).

I’m also told that if I bring a bag to the gate, it will be put in the hold for a fee of 69.99 EUR. I don’t know what’s scarier, the huge fine or the fact my bag my go in the hold and never come out again, lost in the ether.

Screenshot of the app copy showing the fine at the gate for when you bring too many bags

Realistically, we all try to hide our smallest bag under a coat or shove it in the first bag at the gate. I’ve also never seen anyone have their bags confiscated into the hold and fined at the gate. Hollow threats Ryanair, hollow threats.

I’m finally through to the last add-ons. It feels like a breath of fresh air to be in a larger part of the app navigation, instead of the claustrophobic, full-screen, Confirmshaming flow.

The last screen is payment. But not before the third guilt-trip of the flow.

I was shocked to find that I couldn’t purchase. I checked that I’d agreed to the T&Cs (which I had), and was left confused for a few seconds by the error-message. What I disliked is that this message isn’t personalised, and made me go scrolling through the checkout flow — with its tiny copy — for my error.

Turns out I hadn’t selected the no-insurance option. Another example of Confirmshaming. Ryanair make me confirm that I’m being reckless, that I’m not making a smart move with their UX writing: ‘Don’t protect my trip’. Of course I want to protect my trip, just not with Ryanair.

At last, feeling considerably more stressed than when I started. I book.

The day before my flight, I get an email to check-in.

“Check in online for your flight”, with a green banner in the header, which screams to me that its time to check in.

I get to the app (manually, as there was no deep link). Unaware its not actually time to check in. I follow through the flow, increasingly confused.

The language ‘Planning ahead? Get your boarding pass, pick the seat you want and get ready to fly’ insinuates that if you don’t pick your seat, you’re not planning ahead.

Screenshots from the Ryanair app of the false check in flow, showing upsell of insurance, select seat and some commentary.

Then it hits me. In a tiny font, hidden in a banner with way too much text, I learn that I can only check in 24 hours before the flight. I check the time, I count back… its 27 hours before the flight.

Ryanair purposefully send a fake ‘check-in open’ email less than 3 hours from the real check-in is open.

It’s only till halfway through the flow that I learn this is a monetised flow. A back-handed trick, where they also take the opportunity to sell me insurance for the third time.

What’s worse, is that I don’t get an email when check-in is actually open.

Ryanair want you to forget, and pay the price at the airport. A Dark CRM flow if I ever saw one.

The next day…

I check in on my phone on my way there, and I’m asked a fourth time about insurance and a fourth time about baggage.

In the end, I caved.

I bought baggage.

I was in France, I bought pate, honey, olive oil, salt and more. I needed some checked-in luggage.

But it wasn’t because Ryanair pushed me to, it was because of my own personal needs as a user on holiday.

What I thought was a £17 flight, turned into a £39 flight. Still not bad.

Ryanair certainly know how to nudge users to where they want, even if it is on the darker side of UX at times. Despite the ethically-dubious parts, there are some areas we can learn from.

What was good:

  • Strong UX writing. Using layman language from the users’s perspective when it comes to benefits and fears of key add ones.
  • Clean UI (initially): Unlike Skyscanner, Ryanair keeps the same search-for-flight UI as we are all used to. We have a mental model for certain products, and its best to stick to them at times.
  • Calmed (some) of my anxieties: Before the flow, I didn’t know I could edit my details 48 hours after my booking. I also liked how they save my details so I’m less stressed about spelling errors in my passport number.

Areas for improvement:

  • Too much confirm shaming: I didn’t mind it so much on the baggage section, as that is genuinely an area where I needed to decide and wanted help to do so. But I don’t need to be shamed for my decisions.
  • Lack of personalised offers: what would make me feel very heard, is if they offered something I actually want. A meal deal, an alcoholic drink when I sit down. Some sort of lounge experience beforehand. Those are the add-ons I’d actually buy.
  • Lack of personalised error messaging: I did not appreciate the confusion I felt on the checkout screen. When people want to give you their money: just let them. It’s a risky place to meddle.
  • Very dark CRM flow: sending a false check-in email and then failing to tell me about the real check in. Maybe this led to users paying. Who knows. But over time, you erode trust with your audience. I’d advise against dark UK in the name of profit.

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