User experience – Time for the personal touch

Content, it seems, is no longer king. User experience is high on the agenda as ‘lookers’ seek more a compelling offering. David Bicknell reports

“I spent 40 minutes online trying to book a trip to White Plains, New York, with United Airlines. But the site kept telling me an upgrade wasn’t available. It shouldn’t be as difficult as this to book a flight.”

“I’ve spent four hours researching a single trip to Germany, and I still don’t know if I’ve got the best deal.”

A couple of not-so frequent flyers, you might think, who are not used to booking travel online, and have yet to cut their teeth on travel websites.

Actually, no. These two quotes are from Henry Harteveldt, vice-president and principal analyst for travel at Forrester Research, and Joe Buhler, senior destination marketing analyst at PhoCusWright, two of the world’s leading analysts of the online travel market.

They travel extensively in their work – Harteveldt regularly flies 250,000 miles a year – but even experience it seems is no match for completing a booking on some travel sites.

Experience is certainly the word from the user’s perspective, because there is little doubt that usability has taken over from content as the key issue for travel websites.

“This is certainly the time to focus on improved user experience over content,” says Buhler. “There’s often content/information overkill on travel sites and the user experience is disappointing. The expectations of today’s online travel shopper are higher and need to be met if the industry is to develop at high rates.”

He adds: “It’s no longer enough to just launch a website, promote it with some search initiatives and wait for the bookings to come in. Site performance and ease of use are the success factors. The capability for dynamically handling more complex forms of travel has to become a reality, and not just talk, by some tech shops,” Buhler adds.

Travolution has been campaigning that a concerted effort by travel companies to improve user experience on websites can only benefit their consumers, and the sector as a whole. That is because consumers will want to develop a relationship with a site that makes it easy for them to research, book and enjoy their travel experience.

However, to create that relationship, travel companies must earn customers’ trust, and dissatisfied customers can be fickle. So, travel companies must inevitably understand more about their customers: where and when they like to go, what they’re keen on doing, who they prefer to go with, and what they want to do when they get there.

Some argue that content and user experience are complementary, and that sites should integrate content with relevant offers on the same page to provide customers with easier and quicker ways to get relevant personalised suggestions, instead of having to click through endless pages and sites. This is the service that travel agents provide but where websites have always fallen short.

And, says Forrester, things are in danger of getting worse, because the number of US leisure travel ‘bookers’ – online travellers who use the Internet to both research and buy travel – fell 9% from 2005 to 2007, and the number of ‘lookers’ – those using the web to research trips but who buy from offline points of sale – fell from 21% of trips researched online in 2005 to 16% last year.

“What we’re seeing is certainly an early warning signal: fix the problem, or else,” said Harteveldt in a key report “Are Online Travellers Saying ‘Buh-Bye’ To The Web?” published late last year.

“Although there are many more online travel sites, with many of them deploying software to improve the planning experience, the lookers are telling the industry that they don’t find what’s being offered intuitive, compelling, or relevant,” he adds.

Paul Dawson, head of interactive media at Conchango says organisations looking to improve their users’ experiences should be thinking of going back to basics.

He says: “Analytics are critical to this. You have to have a clear understanding of who your critical customer is. Maybe it’s Sally Skier. What’s her age? What sites does she visit? That helps build up a profile. Then you must consider that customer when you’re adding features to your site. For example, should you put an ancillary product for financial services, such as a BA or Virgin credit card, on your home page? Or at the end of the booking process? You should put it where it’s most useful for Sally Skier, and where she’s most likely to see it.”

Dawson believes online travel sites must have someone who’s responsible for the customer experience and who will be an advocate for that customer.

“You have to have somebody fighting the user’s corner, sticking up for what the user wants. But how many organisations have somebody?” he says. “Often, the internal reaction is ‘That’s cool’ to a feature, when the reaction should be ‘the user wouldn’t like that’. And it shouldn’t just be limited to the web – look at the interaction of all customer channels. There is a tendency not to take a view across channels, usually because the channels are siloed. However, flow between channels is critical.”

Alan Josephs, managing director of Ebookers, concurs that user experience has become a critical area.

“User experience is more important than content. In my opinion, the shift to user experience is critical because it is the user experience that enables you to get closer to the booking. This has been our focus for a while.”

And he says sites have to determine which part of the overall process they are going to focus on. In Ebookers’ case, it’s the latter part.

“We want to get close to the booking, and so we’re not going to put so much focus into providing local information, for example, on Thailand. People don’t come to Ebookers to get country information. But in making a hotel booking with us, there is information we will provide to offer a good user experience, such as whether you can get a cot, how many people you can get in a room, information to help meal planning, etc. We want you, the customer, to have enough information so you will make the booking,” says Josephs.

“In terms of user experience, I think if you understand the customer, you know that little things make a difference – such as maps to help you know where hotels are in a city.

“Many of our customers want to fly out on a specific day and back on another day. But if they travelled a day or so earlier, they may be able to get a better price. So we offer them a plus or minus three days option, it provides a better user experience.”

He adds: “And there is a lot more that can be done: we need to define things in the customer’s language, not in the travel industry’s language.”

Marty Carroll, director of consulting at usability specialist Foviance, whose work with MyTravel helped lead to a 20% improvement in online booking conversion levels, says a lot of companies continue to pay lip service to user experience, when they should see the bigger picture.

He says: “The key issues are engagement and retention. The more you keep people engaged, the more likely they are to come back.”

Carroll says more sophisticated sites understand their customers so well that the look of their sites changes to meet different types of visitors throughout the day.

“We’ve found that people are less willing to book during the day, but they will do so when they get home. So a site can be optimised for browsing during the day, and then offer an optimised booking-focused site for task-oriented customers in the evening, when anyone booking a trip wants it to be quick and efficient.”

Alister Beveridge, formerly IT director at Cosmos and now vice-president of application development at GTA by Travelport, whose brands include and, says there are times when you cannot do everything the usability experts want.

He adds: “We talked intensely, with lots of ideas, and usability experts took a long hard look at our business. You can have what you like technology-wise, but how much do you actually have to spend? In many cases, it’s not the look and feel, it’s the workflow. Simplicity, look and feel, navigation and performance are key usability issues. When you click on a button, you want something to happen.”

Harteveldt says technical issues too can make it a challenge for organisations to improve their experience for users.

“It is not uncommon in a $1billion a year travel company to find its customer data being held across upto six different databases: financial, research, priority, loyalty, country-based systems and those involving third parties. Companies have to work very hard to extract all this information, and may not have it stored in a single database.”

But that still doesn’t excuse the lack of usability.

Harteveldt adds: “If two people who have experience and are adept at using this technology both suffer problems, then that must show how the industry is failing to provide what we need as travellers.

“Going forward, the objective must be to understand how the traveller thinks. This is a fundamental issue of e-business and something we collectively have to tackle in working with our technology providers.”

In delivering an effective user experience, Conchango’s Dawson concludes that sites should ensure they are capable of delivering innovation through agility.

“Agility is key, and sites should consider adopting an agile development methodology, which means being aware of things you need to do, and doing them every two weeks as part of a clockwork development process.

“There aren’t too many organisations that are both user centric and agile. But those that adopt user-focused changes, get ongoing customer-validation and improve with agile development are well on the way to being innovative, competitive, user friendly, and memorable.” 

A plan for user experience

David Jarvis, user experience manager at First Choice, recommends these actions to improve your customers’ experience:

  • Identify your customers
  • Create personas, focusing on the one person you need to convert
  • Benchmarking. Use a web analysis tool and do user test research using people who fit your personas
  • Define some key performance indicators, such as the number of sales, how many people drop out of your site, your conversion rate. Think about the value of ‘turnstiles’ in your website 
  • Prioritise what’s important to you on the basis of your benchmark results
  • Find external and internal people to do user experience work for you
  • Start making the changes, identify your priorities and make them clear 
  • Develop your team. You should have an internal team and know how you’re positioning that team within the organisation
  • Put in place a strategy for what you are going to do on user experience if unexpected things crop up, such as the launch of a new ‘must have’ mobile phone. Get a clear idea of what things will look like 12 months down the line
  • Measure the success of what you’ve achieved. Is it working?

Improving customers’ journey

Forrester suggests ways that travel companies should re-examine their e-business, channel and product management strategies to improve the user’s experience. These include:

1. Ensuring that their underlying technology platforms support the required degree of flexibility and merchandising capability to sell online.

2. Opimising their products for online selling. “Travel sellers must accept an unpleasant truth: that they need to proactively destroy and rebuild products, price structures, and terms and conditions to be more relevant to the self-service nature of the web and other digital channels that travellers use.”

3. Selling the way people want. To re-engage today’s online travellers, sellers must take the necessary steps to re-index the content stored within their property management systems, central reservations systems, and global distribution systems. This will take a substantial amount of time, money, and effort – but most worthwhile ventures do.

4. Embracing cross-channel interactive help. You must make the customer feel comfortable about using your digital channels. Travel firms must accept the fact their website may be a booking point for some purchases and a point of research and support for others, and should apply interactive help, such as online chat and click-to-call applications.

Site experiences

David Jarvis, user experience manager, First Choice:

“You have to ask yourself, if you can’t access the content, what is the point of the content? A travel website is a shop and if you’re in a shop, you need to make it easy for people to find stuff and to be able to buy it. So you have to understand your customers and understand the model of how they want to do business with you.

“One of the key areas is that there are often gaps between what people want to do, and what they can do. For example, in the early part of the year, travellers have vague requests about their next summer holiday, and they’re not sure where they want to go. For a family, many websites won’t tell you the locations within a two-hour flying timeframe. But that is what the user requires; it’s all part of the user experience. So, content people need to understand why and how their content is going to be used.

“Usability testing doesn’t have to be complicated, and you can do it in a short time if you want to. Often organisations don’t take a long enough view, and fail to see what’s adding value. I like Steve Jobs’ quote that to arrive at a very elegant and simple solution you have to peel more layers off the onion. But most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there. Why wouldn’t you make a website that’s easy to use? It’s not a difficult idea to grasp. The more tricky question is how you organise yourself as a business to deliver it.”

Russell Gould, director of e-commerce, Thomas Cook Group:

“When I joined MyTravel, we did a number of pieces of work on usability, working with organisations such as Foviance. We did a usability study, and we took a closer look at sites outside the travel industry that were the best in their field, such as the BBC for content, John Lewis for presentation, and eBay for transactions. And then we put it all together like this:

“We completely altered the booking engine itself, looking at the smallest things, such as how to request dates through to how to present information on quotes. For example, when a customer gets to the booking stage, they often wonder if they’ve booked the right hotel, so showing an image of the hotel they’re actually booking gives them confidence in making that booking.

“We completely redesigned the statement navigation of the website and moved to a top navigation and three column capability, with deals on the left-hand side, inspirational stuff in the middle, and search on the right-hand side. Most people put search on the left-hand side, but as search is the most used item on the page, if you put it on the left-hand side, people never get to the other side of the page. What we’re doing is following left to right reading practice.

“We enhanced the content, which simply comes back to providing consumers with all they need to make a decision that’s right for them, trying to prevent them having to go somewhere else to get more information, because then you’ve lost them.

“We got back to basics about selling, and putting the right selling and closing messages in context of when the consumer wants to buy. e.g. ‘offer only available today’.

“The difficulty though, is to get everyone to find the time to make these changes, and often the hardest thing is persuading the IT guys it is the right step to take.”

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