UX Solutions for Hotel Websites – Improving the Hotel Booking Experience
Before the Internet took over travel bookings, people used the services of travel agents to plan their holidays. With travel agents, customers could discuss their desires, needs, and priorities, and expect a proposition specifically tailored to meet those need. Nowadays, although the vast majority of travellers book their holidays/business trips online and achieve this on their own, they are looking for the same level of flexibility and personalisation in hotel websites as they would sat face-to-face with an agent.
“The travel industry understands that in order to be competitive it needs to offer a customer-centric process; it needs to keep track of who its customers are, what they are interested in, and continually learn from customer behaviour.” (source)
In our first article we looked at how four main hotel chain websites were addressing the core needs of users who are looking for the perfect hotel booking experience, taking into account the ease of searching by destination, price, facilities and reviews. Following on from this, we concluded that the key to having a good hotel website is to provide flexibility at every level of the booking process, be it for business or leisure travellers. There are various ways in which a brand can inject flexibility into its user journey and here we aim to review those journeys, whilst also giving best practice solutions.
1. Letting the user choose the browsing method
Above: Accorhotels.com provides users with a variety of search methods (“By Destination”, “By Hotel brand”, “By Theme”, etc)
An increasingly common good practice is to present users with various searching methods, thus letting them browse hotels based on what they prioritise most, be it location, activities, dates, or price.
For users flexible on location, looking for a specific type of holiday, many brands offer a “Surprise Me!” search feature. It can come in various forms such as a suggestion board, in a Pinterest layout style, or an alternative search form based on what users want to do rather than where they want to go for example.
For example Tablethotels.com use a “Get Inspired” tab, Accorhotels.com use an “Inspire Me!” tab whilst Hilton hotels ask what kind of holiday do you want to book.
For users flexible on dates, looking for the best value, it’s useful to let them indicate their flexibility from the beginning – one way to do this is to provide a price calendar for hotels, so they can browse by price. Premier Inn do this well.
Searching interfaces forcing users to provide dates to access a comprehensive hotel list make finding the best prices over a specific period tedious. Indeed, users would have to always go back to the start and try the same search over and over again, with different dates, in order to find the best price.
2. Letting the user decide how to refine the search results
At this stage, making every user happy boils down to letting users refine their search results according to their preferences. Users looking for specific facilities (e.g. Wi-Fi, gym, car park, meeting rooms, etc) will appreciate being able to refine their results accordingly. Users looking for the cheapest rates will value being able to give their preferred price range. Displaying results on a map will also help users prioritising location to make a decision.
It is fair to say that users will be willing to make compromises, for example, letting go of a specific location for a cheaper room. Such decisions can only be made when all the relevant information is available to users in a quick, digestible way. In the above situation, for example, an interactive map allowing users to get a quick overview of hotels in the area would help (see example below).
3. Letting the user pick the reviews he wants to read
We see hotel websites providing users with a couple of handpicked reviews, most of the time based on TripAdvisor ratings. It has been shown that, on average, users will look at 6 to 12 reviews before making a decision, so it is important to let users freely and easily navigate through (enough) reviews (source). Providing at least 10-15 reviews should be a good starting point (ex: Hilton) but, more generally, users may prefer being able to search through all reviews of a given hotel and thus a link to the TripAdvisor reviews would be the best approach. For example, hotel chains like Ibis or Novotel, have added the following to any given hotel page.
In this example, the user gets a quick idea of the overall rating, and can be taken to the exhaustive list of reviews by clicking on “Read reviews”.
4. Not flooding the user with too many options
Although we have established that users are looking for flexibility, it is important not to go to the opposite extreme, and risk getting the user lost with cognitive overload! Indeed, in a study where a researcher from Columbia was giving out either 6 or 24 free jam samples, it showed that too many options resulted in fewer sales. Of the group that could sample 24 flavours, only 3% purchased, when 30% of the group sampling 6 flavours did (source).
When a given action can be performed in a variety of ways, a brand should identify the method that will be the most relevant to the biggest share of its users and position it on its website as such – making this key decision driver the default choice is one way to achieve this. For example, if tracking of a website reveals that most visitors value reviews more than anything else, ideally the result list is sorted by rating, while still allowing for different presentations.
On Splendia, the default is to sort results by ratings, but clicking on “Sort by Price” or on “View Map” will change the display accordingly.
Case Study: Why could Airbnb overtake the online booking market?
All of the problems and solutions we mentioned above are distributed between various websites. However there is a solution that tackles most online booking challenges in a very user-friendly fashion – AirBnb
“By any measure, Airbnb’s growth has been stunning since the company was founded in 2008. It now has more than a million rooms available (…) — more places to sleep than hotel giants like Marriott and Hilton.” (Source)
“The rooms available in 2014 jumped from 300,000 in February to a million in December, while the largest hotel company in Europe measured by rooms, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), had about 698,000 rooms in its portfolio. Airbnb offers more rooms than many of the largest hotel groups in the world – Hilton, InterContinental and Marriott – which each maintain just under 700,000 rooms.” (Source)
AirBnb’s growth has many factors to it; however one of the key differentiators the service offers is an exceptional User Experience. AirBnb’s famous design team are driven by the user-centred philosophy to deliver streamlined interaction flows and great emotional appeal.
What AirBnb offers to the users is not only a relatively affordable way to spend their holidays but they are building a community and a whole lifestyle around the concept of getting to know remote places, cultures and people. They are making sure that all the functionalities for both the host and the guest are seamless. Their advantage over major hotel chains is the communication between the two parties – the guests receive many useful tips regarding their trip, easy ways to communicate and review their host, the area they’re staying in etc. Simply, the service gives you all information you could wish for in a timely and segmented manner – no lengthy emails and PDF tickets.
Having analysed the functional side of the site, we can turn to the emotional triggers. One of the major technological changes AirBnb implemented in the last couple of years were the video headers – carefully designed clips from various places they offer, showing different moods and different types of experiences you could relate to. This single feature allowed them to incorporate an even more personal touch to the clockwork interface. The tech purists may disagree, but we consider the Airbnb video header to be responsible for popularising this design pattern across the web.
Furthermore, connecting the community, offering a more personal experience and enabling all of the functional needs is what makes AirBnb so successful in their field. If the hotel chains want to fight back, they need to invest heavily in the digital experience they’re providing, as it’s the most popular method of booking rooms. If they fail to do so, AirBnb and similar ones will continue to grow, transforming the whole industry.
Why do different ways of booking a room become more and more popular?
The simple answer is that there is an ever growing need for a more personalised and customised booked experience. Each user is driven by their own individual needs and it is the ability of the booking sites to meet and satisfy these needs in the quickest and most effective way possible. As the way we travel changes – e.g. replacing hotel stays with AirBnB style rentals – so too does the way we look to make our travel booking decisions.
Online room booking is a complicated process – on both functional and emotional levels. There are many barriers that need to be taken down in order to allow the users to satisfy their needs. They are not always sure what they want, of course – that’s why they need to have as much flexibility as possible on the one hand and some suggestions to help make decisions on the other. It all needs to be packaged in a seamless user interface, which gets refined over and over again, driven by qualitative and quantitative insights on user activity. AirBnb started the revolution. Who do you think will follow?