Flex and travel – Moving in rich territory

Rich Internet Applications are now adding improved functionality – and taking user satisfaction to a new level. Kevin May talks to Monochrome about how RIA will transform the industry.

If there currently is – to use a well-worn phrase – a Holy Grail of online travel, it is perhaps the one that says the user should have just a handful of stages between selecting and making a booking.

Design and usability experts – as well as the marketers who have to explain why their expensive ad campaigns, which often revel in how easy online booking is, are failing to push conversions upwards – now argue the process should be completed in five to seven steps.

In the early days, transactional sites almost prided themselves on sending consumers through as many pages as possible – Terms and Conditions, credit-card confirmation, Check Your Selection – such was the notion that the longer a user was kept interacting with the site, the more affinity they would have with a brand.

But now, for better or worse, ease of use and speed are everything – especially as an alternative is often just a few searches away on Google or Yahoo!.

However, some might argue that this is a contradiction as users are now becoming increasingly at ease with using the Internet to seek out and book more complicated holidays, or are demanding more information about the services on offer before parting with their money.

But after waiting around for a few years on the desktops of developers, until broadband connections in the home and workplace reach a kind of watershed, cutting-edge technology appears to be coming to the rescue.

Much of the Internet software powering the Web 2.0 functionality creeping into e-commerce sites can be pigeonholed under the umbrella term, Rich Internet Application.

However, coming up fast behind technology such as Ajax, used so successfully by the likes of US meta-search companies Sidestep and Kayak, are formidable pieces of kit developed by Adobe and Microsoft, called Flex and Expression, respectively.

Immersed in the development of Flex for the travel industry is Monochrome, a UK-based software and web design house that has created sites for Alton Towers and the Advantage Travel group, and is developing a product for a large hotel chain. It is also in talks with an impressive range of other travel firms.

Flex technology, when applied to the various interactive processes of a travel website, whether that is the search and booking process or community elements, will allow the user to navigate between functionality without the need for
time-consuming page reloads and
potential ‘drop-offs’.

For example, the current staggered search and booking method will be replaced by a single on-screen module contained within a site that allows users to toggle between the various constituent parts that go from browsing products to completing a transaction.

The system, says Monochrome chief executive Adrian Munn, who co-founded the company in 1999 with new media director Jason Brown, is similar to a ‘conversation’ with an agent or call-centre representative.

If the user is unsure about an element they have added to their ‘package’ – whether that is a holiday, flight itinerary or hotel booking – they will be able to easily steer back through their choices and make changes.

The power of the technology kicks in by allowing the user to browse through their options within a single page on-screen, without the need to click the back button or find another area of the website.

Broadband connections, which have thrust the use of video into the mainstream for travel websites, have also given Flex the ability to drag multimedia into the booking process without upsetting what Munn calls the “natural flow” of the online experience.

Demonstration sites developed by Monochrome illustrate how the user could be in the process of choosing holiday accommodation, by adding or subtracting various elements such as activities or meal options, at the same time as viewing a video of facilities and services.

Most industry figures that have seen some of the advanced RIA technology in action, such as Flex, agree that the possibilities for travel websites are incredibly exciting.

“Given the right platform, this kind of technology may go a long way to adding that final ‘something’ to many travel websites.

“And let’s face it, most have been missing it since day one – the ability to make the booking experience seamless and inclusive for the user,” concedes a hugely influential player at one of leading UK online travel brands.

But while other sectors have dipped their toes in the Flex and wider RIA water, travel appears to be still waiting nervously at the edge.

Munn points to RoadRunner (RR.com), a news and entertainment portal from the US media giant Time Warner, as one of the best examples of RIA he has seen so far on the web.

Projects Monochrome has worked on include systems for Premier Foods, Leisure Recruit and Thales, all of which have included elements of RIA and Flex.

But travel appears slow to respond. Sarova Hotels, alongside Alton Towers, has started the process with Monochrome.

The Youth Hostel Association of Australia has added elements of RIA into its trip-planning tool, boosting traffic since its launch by 30%, and the Broadmoor Hotel in the US has built a RIA-heavy booking system.

Many in the travel industry would admit the net wave of systems on the web need to be equally more intuitive and robust.

Indeed research by SciVisum in July 2006 revealed 47% of online shoppers across all markets refused to give a website a second chance because or a system crash. A complicated registration process and inability to amend orders was enough to enrage 45% of other users.

Munn now believes the travel industry is slowly waking up to opportunities associated with RIA, and Flex in particular. “We are starting to get traction from the travel industry, although nobody really big wants to be the early adopter” he says, accusing some of often having a “sheep-like” mentality to trying out technology.

“In some ways the industry is reluctant to change or adapt to new ways of engaging with the consumer. But RIA is here to stay,” Munn says.

“If you can take the consumer from engagement to completion far quicker, with more enjoyment, and with the opportunity to up-sell along the way, then this technology will become widespread very, very soon.”

Rich Internet Applications in action

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