If you’ve seen one travel website, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Type in the dates you’re travelling and your destination, find a flight and hotel.
Customers are so used to this set-up, it would actually be a challenge to fundamentally change the user experience without confusing people, says Seth Brody, vice president and general manager for hotels and packaging at Orbitz Worldwide.
The online travel agency has spent the past two years upgrading its site with Rich Internet Application (RIA) technology, and designers face the challenge of providing a more interactive user experience without overwhelming customers with new functionality.
“There is a tax to pay for introducing too many of these types of functionalities to your customers,” Brody said at the Gartner Web Innovation Summit in Las Vegas last month, where he was a presenter. “I don’t think we have fundamentally changed the searching experience yet. That’s something that needs to be explored. All online travel agencies are sort of generic in the way they ask users to interact with their site.”
But that doesn’t mean Orbitz hasn’t been successful. Sales increases related to website upgrades have increased profits per visitor by 3.5%.
Orbitz’s “neighborhood matrix” project allows users to mouse over images or text and get more information in pop-ups, without waiting for the page to reload. If you’re shopping for a hotel room, you can view a map to drill down to specific neighbourhoods. Mouse over a neighbourhood and you’ll see what tourist attractions it has. Mouse over a hotel and you’ll see prices and star ratings.
Users don’t have to spend as much time scrolling down to find hotel information either, since a redesign created a single view of pricing and inventory by neighbourhood and star level horizontally across the screen.
“It’s much easier for [users] to get the information they need without having to navigate from one place to another,” Brody said. “Whereas most of our competitors present just a list of options for users in Las Vegas, we now [show] the types of things you’d want to see. Say you were staying at Caesars Palace, we’ll show you the shows and attractions.”
The 3.5% increase in profits per website visitor is a big deal at Orbitz, Brody said.
“Being able to move the needle that much through simple user interface changes, one it’s a testament to the scale of the business, and two, how important it is to continually evolve, to keep up with what users are expecting,” he said.
The website has evolved incrementally over the past couple years, with no wholesale changes in user experience other than efforts “to expand that neighbourhood matrix concept to more and more markets overseas,” Brody said.
Massive changes to the way people search for travel accommodations will take a while, Brody said, not only because customers are used to one way of searching but also because RIA technology poses challenges in handling data.
“When you talk about handling the volume of traffic we have, being able to quickly and accurately reflect rates and availability in real time for users, you have to weigh that against the type of user experiences you’re going to design,” Brody said.
“Introducing a lot of rich web interfaces creates a lot of challenges in terms of organising the data ... [but] small changes in how you organise that data makes a big difference.”