So why do travel companies consistently fail to deliver what the internet user wants when searching for a holiday online?
A survey conducted in the spring of 2010 by Frommers, the travel guide publishers, has shown the most common complaints users make of travel websites. While usability issues like navigation problems are mentioned, the biggest complaint is about the lack of useful content, particularly insufficient pictures and destination information.
So why does this information mis-match occur?
Primarily, online travel companies are failing to identify that when browsing for a holiday, an internet user wants to be sold not a product, but an experience.
They want to know that the holiday will be rewarding and enjoyable and, of course, they will judge how rewarding and enjoyable it is, in their own, highly individual, terms.
To really meet user requirements, online travel companies must help the customer learn about what the holiday will entail – what the hotel looks like, what things are there to do, how far the hotel is to the beach – and to do this in an engaging and informative way.
Indeed, it may well be appropriate to assume that the user doesn’t know exactly where they want to go.
Instead, rather than help us on this journey, online travel firms often start from the pretext that both the destination and the date of travel decisions have already been made and the sole purpose of the visit is to select a hotel for an acceptable price.
Yet destination is not always the primary driver behind the initial holiday decision.
Many sun-lovers would be as happy going to either Turkey or Greece, but are forced into making an early decision, purely because of the online booking systems.
Figure One shows the Cosmos website which displays an error page when searching for ‘Any destination’. To compound the problem, the error message doesn’t explain that a destination must be selected to begin the holiday search.
Think how different the experience of visiting a travel company website might be if a step change was made.
Instead of a processional march towards check-out, a potential customer might explore new destinations, educate themselves about what can be done in resort and be more, not less, likely to follow through and make a booking.
If sufficient information can be provided so the customer is confident that the holiday will be a success, a key barrier preventing booking will have been overcome.
Now, it’s true some tour operators have begun to recognise this and have begun to improve the information they provide.
Thomson provides a wealth of hotel information, including photographs, a video tour, a map of the local area, details of activities and user-generated reviews.
While the content is extremely rich and should be commended, the layout of the page is such that users are not required to scroll through the content, as there is a call to action ‘Select flights’ at the top of the page.
Guiding users past, not into the content, could result in an unsuitable hotel or destination being selected, leading to a dissatisfied customer.
While this content is very informative, it does little to persuade the customer to purchase this holiday. Those who are ready to buy are given no compelling reason to do so now. There is no indication, for example, that places are limited.
A message such as “just four rooms left in this hotel” creates an impression of high demand and scarcity, which can result in higher completed transactions.
The user-generated reviews are particularly well-implemented though, with reviews by Thomson’s own customers sitting alongside those from Trip Advisor.
We have a built-in distrust of company sales and marketing material, believing it to be biased or plain untrue. Customer feedback through Trip Advisor is a very valuable way of generating trust.
Contrast the Thomson reviews with that of Thomas Cook shown in Figure Three. Here, injudicious wording (“Sorry, we do not currently have any approved reviews for this hotel.
We are constantly moderating reviews so please check again soon”) casts doubt on the independence of the reviews on the whole website, with users potentially worried that poor reviews have been moderated or deleted.
All of these issues occur in the review & selection phase of the customer journey.
Considering that the booking process itself involves forms, options , upgrades and other potential usability difficulties, there typically is plenty of room for improvement on many travel sites online.
While the leading tour operators are beginning to recognise that users are interested in experiencing the holiday before they even leave the UK, implementing this in a user-centred way still offers scope for improvement.
Making a step change to allow users to search in a multi-faceted way, by destination, departure date and type of holiday as a minimum is an important starting point as is providing compelling content which really gets customers in the holiday mood.
However, the successful travel website needs to persuade customers that they are making the right choice and then make the entire booking process as usable as possible.
This is a challenge but one the industry should embrace to really sell holidays well online.
User Vision offers a range of services including training to representatives of the travel industry.
Our training helps delegates understand the commercial benefits of improved user experience and how to overcome common usability barriers through usability design principles in the design of navigation, homepages, the booking process, page layouts, forms and messaging.