Rethinking Group Travel: Case Study

A case study on my work as a product manager & designer with startup Planit.

Introduction

When it comes to planning a group holiday, finding common ground can often be a tricky endeavor. From picking the destination to declaring your availability, travel-related users are yearning for a more transparent and collective approach to the group-trip planning process.

Close your eyes for a moment. You’re planning a trip with a group of friends, how do you do it? More often than not, most people would approach this through tools like Whatsapp, Skype, and other means of communication. But what if this could be faster? What if planning a holiday took five minutes instead of two hours of back and forth discussions?

Enter Planit. A young and ambitious startup deadset on disrupting the travel planning industry and making planning group holidays more collaborative, democratic, and most importantly, fun!

Project Overview

As part of the final phase of my UI/UX Design course at Flatiron, I was tasked to assess the startup’s product design and scope through three main objectives:

1 Conduct market and user research to understand competitor processes as well as user needs and experiences

2 Create and test design models that address the research findings via user validation and testing

3 Create low-to-medium-fidelity annotated wireframes of the recommended solutions

My Role — UX Meets Product

As a UX designer with product management experience, the idea of assessing Planit from both a UX and product perspective was incredibly exciting for me. One of the main reasons I decided to pursue a bootcamp in product design in the first place is my belief that managing a product and designing a user experience share many great parallels. This was my opportunity to finally merge them together.

More Than Just Design Tools

To tackle this project, we used a number of different tools, techniques, and approaches to get the most insight out of our work. This includes mockup design software like Sketch, Adobe XD, and Axure, collaborative communication software like Slack, Trello, and Miro, video editing software Final Cut Pro and hands-on approaches like paper prototyping and user interviews/testing.

Market Research

When we were first told that our startup project would be a travel-app, there was a collective groan amongst my team members. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with travel apps but having already approached a travel app design in a previous phase, we knew the travel app space was both saturated and competitive.

Yet, what made this project so interesting from the get-go was that our client and start-up founder had a clear understanding of the market problem. For him, group travel planning was an under-represented solution for young millennial travellers and we first decided to approach this idea by conducting a detailed competitive analysis to better understand the market.

By assessing the value proposition, target audience, marketplace, and features of four direct and indirect travel planning competitors, we formed key takeaways of what each product was doing well, where they could improve, as well as compelling design features. All this together confirmed our hypothesis that group travel planning & voting was an under-represented market solution.

User Research

After having researched the travel planning app space and establishing the market opportunity, it was time to shift our focus towards our potential users. We began first by developing a problem statement to focalise our user research approach.

With our problem statement defined, we then put together three user personas each representing an archetype of a group party member. We had the democratic leader who represented the ideal trip organiser, the go-with-the-flow guy who isn’t too demanding or specific, and team favourite, Stubborn Steve who was exactly the opposite of go-with-the-flow guy. By meshing these three personalities together, we felt better prepared to design a solution that could accommodate a potential clash of personalities.

Moreover, it was time to move past the speculative world of personas and problem statements and design a real user workshop. Workshops are important because they allow product teams to get a real taste for the user thought process and behaviour within a specific and controlled context.

We designed the workshop around a travel-planning scenario, with notecards informing each user of their travel parameters, and plenty of markers and paper for our testers to communicate visually with one another. We added simple rules including a time-limit, card-sharing restrictions, as well as the suggestion to think out loud.

Takeaways from our user workshops:

  • Group used different coloured highlighters to highlight availability on a calendar, then looked at overlaps to decide on dates.
  • Duration was decided once dates had been looked at, and was based on how many days everyone was available at the same time (overlaps).
  • Type of trip was decided as a group decision through a group vote
  • The group drew profiles to match faces with available dates

Usability Testing

With both market and user research established, we started testing the first version of the Planit prototype. We did this by conducting a series of usability tests that assessed a) whether users could complete the given task scenarios, b) how fast they were if they did, and c) how they felt about the navigation, design, and suspected purpose of the prototype. Of course, as with the workshop, all this was recorded OBD and edited on Final Cut to communicate our process as clearly as possible with our client.

What we discovered from our usability testing was a series of problems within both the design and the identity of the prototype. Only 30% of users were able to finish the set of tasks and most left the prototype feeling confused over it’s flow, interface, and purpose. With so much feedback, we scrutinised the audio recordings and used Miro to affinity map comments and critiques into six key categories.

From there, we selected three main categories of the six that we felt had the greatest amount of usability problems and concluded with three main takeaways:

By focusing our design ideation around a) simplifying the user interface, b) defining the user journey, and c) establishing a simpler way to navigate, we were confident with the amount of insight uncovered to begin designing. But before we could even lift a pencil, it was paramount that we establish the MVP first.

Defining the MVP

One of the biggest challenges we encountered throughout the project was working with our client to establish the minimum viable product or MVP. In other words, what are the least amount of features we can focalise and test around to gain the maximum amount of validated learning. The image below is a favorite of mine when it comes to explaining what an MVP is because it communicates the importance of building something with a testable purpose in mind.

What does this diagram mean?

The ‘not like this’ example doesn’t have an MVP because it is being built with the preconceived notion of what it will become, which is a car. It doesn’t feel organic and is more waterfall by nature. More importantly, at no point throughout the process are these iterations actually testable products. They are simply puzzle pieces that cannot work alone.

In stark contrast, the ‘like this’ example shows the evolution of an actual minimum viable product. In the first stage, the skateboard is built with the purpose of allowing people to travel faster then if they were by foot. It has two sets of wheels, a wooden board to stand on, and most importantly, these features together can be tested for the purpose of achieving faster travel.

While the skateboard does indeed achieve the purpose of faster travel, user testing showed that it could be difficult to control. So in the next iteration, the product team recommends adding a handle bar. Again, the iteration is tested with users and a new insight is found: users want to sit down while traveling as standing doesn’t really work for long journeys. Thus, the product team goes back to the drawing board and coordinates with the engineering team to add a seat, chain, and pedals for the third iteration, and the process repeats.

At no point during any of the stages of the second example did the product team have a firm idea of what the final product would become. With each testable iteration, you are keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t. These decisions are ultimately dictated by the product goal (or problem statement) and hopefully with each new iteration, the product gets closer to solving the actual problem and thus providing a better solution.

To establish Planit’s MVP, we first ran the Whole Product Game Workshop with our client. Inspired by Ted Levitt’s “Whole Product Model”, the workshop helps categorise aspects of products based on customer expectations in order to help uncover forms of differentiation. By using this visual technique, we uncovered which opportunities were the most important to attract and keep customers.

We began by asking our client to write ideas on sticky notes related to each circle, and then to post the ideas on the chart. What we quickly noticed was that most of his ideas were outside the inner circles. In other words, the founder of Planit had a lot of ideas on how he could help his users plan a holiday but no core feature to test and base this idea around. We encouraged him to think about which features would drive the purpose of the product rather then those that would make it ‘cool’ or ‘fun’.

That’s me running the workshop (left) with my client Lobsang (right)

By running this workshop, we were able to discount certain ideas, that although fun and creative, bared no significance to actually solving the group travel planning problem. Ideas like having a heat map, split payments, and preference tracking were shifted to the outside of the circle as potential features while the travel dashboard, country ranking, and availability voting was shifted to the fundamental inner-circle. In doing so, we successfully refined the product scope and thus outlined the product’s true MVP.

Designing the User Flow

A week after the workshop, we returned to our client with the designated user flow of the product focusing on the MVP features we outlined. We presented how the product could be simplified to two class of users (host and guest) and how the designated flow could focus on certain travel preference inputs which would then be displayed collectively on the dashboard.

Divergent Designs

Once the MVP was outlined, we could finally begin designing and testing divergent concepts and ideas with our users. While there are many ways to approach divergent designing, we found two incredibly helpful techniques that allowed us to quickly test and iterate based on our user feedback.

Paper Prototyping

You can ask any of my classmates or teachers at Flatiron, I have always been smitten by the concept of paper prototyping. I first learned about the design approach during my Product Management course at General Assembly. At the time, I was designing a fantasy football draft app that I had not yet fully envisioned so my teacher recommended I approach the design & testing phase by crafting a paper mockup that would allow malleable and on-the-fly iteration.

For Planit, I knew that our client and users loved the idea of an interactive map to select travel destinations. Yet, with so many different ways to approach map design, paper prototyping could be a springboard for ideation. As you’ll see in the video directly below, I used cardboard, paper, and a sharpie to create movable elements on a fixed map frame.

By testing this prototype of the country ranking process, I allowed users to get hands on with the different elements of the frame. This meant a more intuitive and hands on testing process where users could show exactly how they would feel the process should be. When you have a user test where the level of interactive fidelity is so high, you really get the purest form of feedback:

  • “It felt more natural to drag the countries to remove them rather than pressing X”
  • “What if I don’t remember the country name? Can I search for it directly?”
  • “Sometimes tapping countries in the order I want to switch them would feel better then removing them directly first”

Axure Prototyping

Moreover, as the ambitious team we are, we decided to learn how to use Axure. Throughout the course, we were shown how Axure along with its seemingly complicated variables and conditions allows designers to create a prototype experience that is unparalleled to other forms of mockup design. By actually learning to use it, we were able to create the feel of actual computer interaction and test it within our product concept.

Although simplistic, the true power behind this Axure mockup was being able to provide a high fidelity interactive experience to our tested users. The low-fidelity mockup above gave us a greater insight in how we should design a browser based product. This included:

  • Draggable elements via mouse
  • Keyboard input for searching countries
  • Inputting the number ranking directly

Final Product & Recommended Solutions

Here we are. After researching the market, testing our users, identifying the MVP, and testing our concept designs, we were finally ready to begin working on what would become our first prototype or Planit 2.0. We decided to use Adobe XD as it allowed our team the greatest speed and facility to begin creating. We divided the mockups into four different flows:

  • Web Host Flow + Dashboard
  • Web Guest Flow + Dashboard
  • Mobile Guest Flow
  • Innovative Dashboard Concept

In the video below, you will find a walkthrough video I recorded and edited to explain our design decisions and the general user flow of each section. What you will find here is the product of weeks of investigation, design, user testing, and implementation. The design decisions we took would have never been possible had we not gone back and forth through the iterative design processes. What resulted was a great improvement to the original prototype, a better understanding of what group travel solution could look like, and a happy client who is looking forward to bringing the product eventually to market.

Recommendations

We recommend our client focus most on improving country ranking, date availability, and dashboard display. We believe those three features are the core of what it takes to encourage group travel decision-making in a fair and transparent process. We also recommend our client look into mobile solutions which is a big reason why we designed and tested mobile mockups. Last but not least, we delivered annotated wireframes that should help our client pass on the work to an engineering team should he deem the project ready for development.

However, we didn’t want to stop there. By creating an innovative dashboard concept, we wanted to show our client that the future of the potential product has indeed great potential. Whether it’s recommending flights, allowing users to create custom profiles, or adding interactivity such as emoji status updates, there is still so much to be tested and improved. Like the skateboard that would become car, we believe this product requires more rounds of testing and iteration before it can be ready for market.

At least now, I can hand-off the project knowing the wheels are finally rolling in the right direction. From idea to product, the future of group-related travel has a new shining light.

Our final zoom call — a happy client makes a happy project!

Thanks alot for reading! You can find more information about me as well as more case studies on my website. Also, feel free to check out my other articles on my medium blog, I love to explore gaming, psychology, and the future of tech.

UX & Product | Guitarist | Tech enthusiast