Pictured: Left James Bates, right Alex Glancy
For the last 18 months Brighton based digital design consultancy Clearleft and tour operator Virgin Holidays have worked together to put user-centred design at the heart of the travel firm’s business.
Lee Hayhurst spoke to the two main protagonists in the joint venture about the experience of onboarding a radical new ethos and design culture into an established tour operating business.
James Bates, creative director, Clearleft
“At the start of our engagement Virgin Holidays asked us to help them deliver a programme of improvements to their web products and help them build a sustainable culture of design within the organisation. It was not something they had experience in doing.
“We were asked to show them what it looks like when you put design at the heart of what you do.”
Bates said initially Clearleft looked at how design sat within the organisation, from leadership down to the people delivering digital products.
“We worked to establish a bunch of standard routines and habits like critique, and making sure design is really aligned to business objectives. We started testing with customers and validating the things we designed.
“Previously, design was largely operating in isolation, designers were responding to the needs of development teams building parts of applications. Designers were further down the ladder, responsible for delivering stuff.
“There was room for a more integrated approach to product design and development. What was missing was how you think further ahead: ‘What about the future of the product? What does it look like six or 12 months from now?’ We needed to create a space for that innovation.
“When we arrived, we found that design was very much part of the delivery; it was another step that they had to go through, and it wasn’t instrumental to shaping requirements or uncovering new opportunities. That was our first job, to sort that out, and to make the process as effective and efficient as it can be.”
Having embedded designers into development teams, Clearleft then helped Virgin Holidays to run its first ‘design sprint’ – short bursts of activity aimed at tackling key business problems.
Sprints have been pioneered by the big technology giants like Google to overcome the slow and often cumbersome way large corporates develop and innovate, with the process condensed into a week during which a prototype is built and tested.
“That’s what we suggested we do with Virgin Holidays in relation to a couple of the bigger challenges that they had on their development roadmap,” said Bates. “This worked as we were able to show to the Virgin Holidays leadership team that they could see results really quickly.
“We also managed to get the right people in the room at the right time. We hosted it in our offices in Brighton; getting people out of their daily work environment and to remove day-to-day distractions is really useful for innovation.”
The area the team opted to focus on was ‘experiences’, how a tour operator like Virgin Holidays can stand out by better selling the experience of going on one of its holidays.
Specifically Virgin Holidays wanted insight into how to crack the problem all travel companies have online – search, specifically how do you create an experience for the consumer to shop for something they don’t know what they want before they land on your site?
“In five days you are not going to solve a thorny problem like this so the team had the option of doing one of two things; we could dive really deeply into one particular aspect of that customer journey, or keep it more broad. We decided to stay shallow and cover a really broad part of the consumer journey and describe a vision of that future customer experience.
“We helped Virgin Holidays deliver a range of things that are visible. One of the first we tackled was being able to create bookable multi-destination holidays; they also wanted to integrate their cruise product into the core part of the Virgin Holidays business and make it bookable online; and we have worked with them to launch a new holiday companion app that’s useful when you are on your holiday.
“But what we were mainly able to do was ensure user-centered design was utilised earlier on in the process and was able to help shape what that experience should be like.”
Alex Glancy, head of creative, Virgin Holidays
For Virgin Holidays the work with Clearleft has put in place processes that have started to enable it to put design at the forefront of the process of answering challenges the business has.
Glancy said: “Part of the broader context is that there is a movement in design to more and more user-centered design, design as a way of solving problems rather than just how something looks.
“A lot of the trends in business around lean management and agile delivery in software teams is driven by the same impetus.
“It’s no longer ‘We think we know the answer to a problem and we will go off and build something expensive and make big bets’.
“It’s ‘We will go off and speak to users and go through a more iterative process and build what people want’. It’s less of a big bet assumption and more a test and learn process. That’s just the way design works.
“Aligned to that is growth of design in organisations. The idea of having in-house design teams is much more popular now than it ever has been. It used to be something you went out to agencies to do.
“But the role of in-house teams has grown a ton in the 12 years I have been doing it. The result is that companies need to learn how to do design, how to build those teams and change the way they work so they are more responsive and iterative.
“It’s just about being smarter. It’s something you see most clearly in the big technology companies and challengers like Airbnb who are coming out of the technology landscape and changing travel.
“Ask booking.com. It’s a natural function of the way that the web has taken over because every company now needs to run quite a sophisticated website.
“You do not have a choice but to build your own software and to do that cost effectively you need to bring that design capability into your own organisation. It’s hard, it’s a foreign concept to a lot of business leaders, it’s a relatively young function.
“Design can be a little bit mysterious and I think sometimes designers make it that way. That’s not the way it should work anymore. It’s relevant all through the business. It’s more about problem solving.
“That’s the value for us of working with Clearleft because, in a really smart way, they have made it their model to not just be a place where you can outsource the work, to just have another agency.
“They feel that they can help more people by helping them become design organisations. This is definitely the beginning of a radical change.
“The website has been an important channel for years, and we have an ecommerce team and a technology team, but the role of design was really overlooked.
“If that’s the case you are building on a much more functional level, not for what the consumer actually needs or that’s right for your brand, that’s going to deliver that Virgin Holidays experience.
“As the business has matured it’s become clearer and clearer you can’t go on that way. The web has become such an important channel you need to build something that works for the customer, the business and the brand. It’s hard work and it’s expensive but it’s important you get that right.”
Virgin Holidays operates a number of high street stores including flagship properties in Bluewater and on High Street Kensington, and has concessions in Debenhams and House of Fraser stores.
Glancy said the intention is to use design to get across the brand’s personality as it does face to face and replicate that in-store experience online as closely as possible. A challenge all travel firms face, which Virgin Holidays is trying to tackle, is when you talk to a travel agent you don’t have to start by telling them when and where you want to go, as you have to do on most websites.
“One of the good things about being Virgin, and the challenges, is people have high expectations of you. They think it should be more personal, more fun, more open and warm.
“In store our agents will ask you questions about why you’re going on holiday and what you want to do, and you can go off in any number of directions. So online, it’s about trying to make search more open, letting you look for holidays based on the what and the why. It’s still work in progress. It’s something we will work towards. It’s an obvious opportunity for us.
“One of the problems with the travel industry is it sits on top of some quite old technology. Everyone has to live with it. But that’s actually where design becomes so important.
“If you cannot fix the core technology, then the question becomes, how can we come up with an elegant, intelligent solution to deal with the constraints and make the best possible experience?
“That’s why design is so important, why user experience is so important. A holiday in the end is an experience; you are not actually taking something tangible away with you.
“Travel is fundamentally an experience business, and the user’s experience of your website is a critical part of that.”