IBM Sabre - User Experience Nightmare

Recently I was watching a video about the IBM Sabre system As I was watching the video they were talking about the Sabre reservation system. The speaker said "60 years later we can't do any better". This remark made me cringe.

Now before you think I'm going to start IBM bashing, I'm not going there. IBM has a long successful history of bringing technology to the masses. They deserve to be applauded for this accomplishment.

The remark made me cringe because it reminded me of a major fault in most enterprise software that has existed and will continue to exist for a long time. The fact is that enterprise software is often bought by upper management and used by staff that have little feedback in the matter. Enterprise software is often purchased to solve 'big problems'. If the software can solve the major problems, upper management doesn't really care about much else. What often gets sacrificed in this relationship is the usability of the enterprise system. The Sabre traveling booking system is a fantastic example of this.

Have you seen the main UI for this system? Here is a screen showing available flights between Cleveland and Orlando.

Sabre Flight listing

Here is a breakdown description of what the lines mean.


There are some incredibly basic UI improvements that could be done here. I'm not going to suggest the use web technologies, Iphone inspired UI or anything like that. This UI would be significantly improved through use of a TABLE and color coding. How hard would that be?

Look at the code the agent needs to type in to get the listing: 112NOVCLEMCO7A. The Sabre system relies on the travel agent memorizing and operating with numerous short command phrases to search and book flights. They don't use the nice web interfaces that consumers have book through travel sites like,

Perhaps you might be thinking that my complaining is needless and amounts to just another obvious usability rant. These types of UIs lead to errors and eventually cost the company money.

Recently I actually felt a little of the pain they go through. Recently while booking a flight to LA. I found a deal online and
decided to go down to the local travel agent to buy the ticket. The travel agent couldn't find the flight within Sabre that I had found online. Eventually a more senior agent needed to be called in to salvage the situation.

Another reason that I wrote this post is that this is definitely not the first time I've seen such horrific UIs present in
enterprise systems. As recent as 2008, I was part of a new warehouse project, for one of Canada's largest retailers. They installed a 'new' version of the Warehouse Management System (WMS). It was a 30 year old C/C++ app, with the UI similar to Sabre.

There is one positive take away for entrepreneurial software developers. In the enterprise space there are treasure troves of simple problems that companies are willing to pay good money to solve. A friend of mine offers Analytics Canvas, a desktop BI tool that works with Google Analytics data. He had a good sales lead from a large company that spends alot on Google Adwords and was having problems processing the data. One the main benefits of his tool was that it could convert currency. Yes, you read that right, they are willing to spend a good chunk of change so they can convert currency.

I hope in the near future that this situation changes and that UI advancements found on the consumer side make their way to enterprise software.

Thank you for your time.

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