User Experience (UX) in travel sites

The number of travel websites seems to be increasing more and more, and usability is one of the key factors in choosing among them. So what are the most important aspects in order to achieve good experiences using travel websites?

(“Experiencia de usuario (UX) en sitios de viajes” en español.)

This kind of website is not an exception to the rule that says that there are not any magic tricks to get those good experiences. They are achieved by applying common UX and usability techniques, following standards and best practices, developing different solutions, and, above all, knowing the final users through testing and measuring.

Nevertheless, we can identify some aspects that deserve special attention in this kind of website. Here you are some of them.

Common problems (and how to deal with them)

These are some of the issues which might be troublesome.

Information overload; too many options

In most travel websites the search form is already the main functionality and it’s visible enough. However, some of them include too much information and/or too many options, especially on the home page: search forms, offers, packages, last-minute bargains, etc. ; sometimes it seems like someone has just dropped them on the page, with no obvious structure or grouping into sections. This may require an extra effort by the users to find a starting point to start their navigation; it’s common, for example, to find plenty of beautiful images of idyllic places which may have an aesthetic purpose but don’t help users to find what they’re looking for (unless it turns out they are images of their destinations).

Let’s remember that one of the “commandments” of user experience is that the vocabulary and behaviour of the website must be targeted to users instead of reflecting the internal structure of the company. However, some websites still include some contents and classifications which aren’t obvious at all to end users.

Many websites include content which may be confusing to end users; will they understand what contents will be available under “holidays”, “destinations” or “holiday tours”? What’s the difference between them?

It’s better to avoid designs where everything is trying to stand out and use options which are easy to understand. It’s important for users to identify a clear starting point depending on their needs and their profiles (we talk a little bit more about profiles below).

Missing prices (or not clear enough)

That’s something which is getting better, but there are still websites where price information is unclear: prices are missing, or they hide additional fees until the end of the buying process. Many users already know these practices and they will react in a negative way. So, in this aspect, it’s better to be clear and transparent from the beginning.

Not adapting to user context

Due to their own characteristics, travel websites usually include a lot of information which could be adapted to each user, and particularly to his/her location. For example:

  • showing prices using the user’s local currency
  • using a place near to the location of the user as the starting point of the travel (for example, the closest airport for flights)

Complex date pickers

An input control to select one or more dates is almost indispensable in a travel website; nevertheless, there’s no such thing as an optimal implementation, so they usually become a source of confusion for users. There is no doubt that they’re a functionality that deserve particular attention during design and testing, which should take into account the following recommendations:

  • include logical bounds; for example, not allowing a date previous to today for booking a reservation, or not allowing a return date previous to the departure
  • show the selection in a clear way; make the departure date visible enough when selecting the return date
  • allow entering the date using the keyboard; for some users it’s easier and/or quicker that way (but remember to show the accepted date format somehow)
These planes show the selected dates, but… are 12nd and 17th included? It’s somehow confusing. Moreover, you can’t enter the dates using the keyboard.

Beware of vouchers

Vouchers are a useful marketing tool in many cases, but it’s important to decide when they can be used during the buying process (usually it’s better in the final step), and how they influence users not having one. In some cases they can be even counterproductive, so it’s a good idea to consider some alternatives (for example, offering discounts depending on the authenticated user or where he/she comes from).


Opportunities

Besides avoiding these common problems, there are some aspects which can make a difference (in a positive way) when comparing to competitors.

Consider different user profiles

Some authors identify three different profiles of e-commerce users, which basically are:

  • Browser: browses through different options without a particular objetive; their first purpose isn’t buying, but they might to if they find something interesting.
  • Hunter: has an approximated idea of what she/he wants, but is still looking for the best option (many times, depending on the price); she/he is going to study and compare many alternatives before buying.
  • Buyer: has an exact idea of what he/she needs, and will buy it when he/she finds it.

A good travel website should care for all of these profiles by offering, on one hand, a searcher which allows to enter specific data for buyers, but on the other hand allows “open searches” with very few data which can be refined later depending on the results, for hunters and browsers. The latter will also be benefited from “similar results” to the user’s search (in dates, prices or destines, for example). Moreover, special sales and bargains will be interesting for browsers.

In Kayak you can enter date ranges instead of particular dates, which adapts better to users with flexible requirements. On the other hand, this feature adds complexity to the date selector.

Emotional and social aspects

As marketing experts already know (and is perfectly explained by Susan Weinschenk’s books), including social and/or emotional references affects in a great manner to the decision of buying. In this type of websites, we can use:

  • testimonials and recommendations from other users
  • scarcity (“only 3 available”; “last day”)
Expedia uses both reviews from other users and availability data. This can help users in the decision of buying, but should be done honestly and conveniently, and shouldn’t produce an excessive overload of information.

When using this kind of resources, it’s crucial doing it with honesty and precaution; exaggerating (or even worse, lying) will cause negative effects that will be really hard to fix later.

Fighting shopping-cart abandon

One important point of optimization (also in travel websites) is identifying and avoiding abandoned buying processes. In many cases they will be just caused by users looking for a better price, but they can be also a result of usability problems which we won’t detect unless we perform a detailed study (because in real world, users probably won’t complain; they’ll just leave). Analytics will help us to identify the particular step where the problem lies, and user testing will help us to know why.

Mobile, mobile, mobile

We already know that any e-commerce website should adapt to mobile devices, which will probably represent more than 50% of visits. This is also true for travel websites, with an extra: they will be probably used for last-minute purchases (for example, whey you are already at your destination). In this case, geographical and/or temporal proximity can be a key factor (“I need a nearby hotel for tonight”).

It can be very hard to interact with a website which is not adapted to mobile devices. In this case, selecting a particular field with a finger becomes a real challenge.

In conclusion

Again: there are no magic tricks which guarantee a satisfactory experience using a travel website; nothing replaces research and testing with real users. Nevertheless, we have identified some usual points and problems that should be considered by designers, as well as opportunities than could make the difference between a website and their competitors’ because of the quality of the experience they produce. Something like that can’t be ignored, specially in a market which is crowded with so many alternatives.