Last Thursday, Orbitz released a brand-new iPhone app which raises the bar for ease of use for mobile travel booking. Their new version 2.0 is a clean-sheet effort centered around offering the complete shopping and booking experience for flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars natively in the app. Their previous offering—like most of the alternatives available on Apple’s App Store — relied on an embedded mobile web experience to perform much of the heavy lifting.
Native apps enjoy technical advantages over mobile web sites, at least until HTML5 matures, and Orbitz’s new offering does a good job exploiting them. The app, for example, can use your current location to jump-start searches and will launch a full-screen slideshow of property pictures if you rotate into landscape while viewing a hotel. For improved speed and reliability, it connects directly with Orbitz’s SOA infrastructure rather than relying on embedded or scraped web pages for content.
But the technology is just a supporting character in the story. As an online travel agent (OTA), Orbitz doesn’t hear the “ka-ching” until the trip is booked, so making that experience easier and faster was job one. We were fortunate to have had an early look at the app, including a very enlightening day in a usability lab with the Orbitz team and our colleagues at C+R Research. Together we watched as ordinary smartphone users put the new app, and its competition, through its paces by shopping for a realistic vacation scenario. The test was blind, so participants didn’t know Orbitz was the sponsor, but the results were definitive. Participants on average were able to book their trips twice as fast using the new Orbitz app, a result which has attracted some media attention, though certainly not as much as this week’s Mac vs. PC pricing kerfuffle. The new Orbitz app also topped iPhone booking experiences from OTAs Expedia, Priceline, and Travelocity, and metasearch leader Kayak when scored with Atmosphere’s Mobile Travel Booking Evaluation framework.
Mobile booking matters
Travelers are ready to do more than just research their options on smartphones. Atmosphere’s research shows that more than a third of smartphone-toting leisure travelers want to use them to book flights, hotel stays, or rental cars, with over a quarter interested in booking all three (see Figure 1). And this number will only grow. For its part, Orbitz saw 6 million consumers shopping with mobile devices last month, more than double the number from a year ago.
- Figure 1: More than a third of leisure travelers with smartphones would use them to book flights, rental cars, or hotels. More than a quarter would book all three.
Get out of the way
The opportunity is clear, but how can travel sellers take advantage? If you’re fortunate enough to have customers trying to give you their money, get out of their way. Don’t waste their time and don’t make them jump through hoops. Device and network limitations are real, but pale in comparison to the challenge of competing demands for mobile users’ attention. We use mobile devices while multitasking, stealing time during meetings, meals, and our commute.
Here are three tips for building a better mobile booking experience:
Eliminate duplication of effort, especially data entry. Smartphones—even with dedicated, hardware keyboards—are simply not optimized for data entry. Leverage what you know about your customer to minimize the burden. Make it easy to sign in to existing web accounts and persist this login between application sessions. Pull in all relevant contact, billing, and credit card information whenever possible. Customers understand the need for security, and may be willing to enter a credit card CCV security code for each transaction. But requiring re-entry of billing address, credit card number, and expiration date for each transaction makes your app seem broken, not secure.
Do you have holes in your customer database? TSA now requires birth date and gender for each airline passenger. If your profiles are missing this information, think of this as an opportunity to fill in the gaps. And speaking of gaps, consider the first-time customer who may have found you through your mobile app. Can you create profiles for new customers on-the-fly based on information entered through your app?
Customers can’t book what they can’t find, so don’t short-change the search experience. While it’s important to offer sorting and filtering of search results, beware presenting filtering options which lure users into zero-result dead ends. Even the apps we reviewed which offered the best search experiences—those from Kayak and Orbitz—still allowed for the occasional dead end, and that doesn’t help anyone.
Pay attention so you can make smart assumptions. If you were working with a travel agent to select flights for a vacation in a couple of months, and then asked for some hotel ideas, how would you react if all the suggestions were for vacancies in your home town for tonight? Unfortunately, this is par for the course among the mobile apps we reviewed. Even Orbitz’s app, which did the best job carrying over flight destinations and dates to hotel and car searches insisted on defaulting to two hotel guests.
While searching for last-minute bookings and nearby deals are important scenarios to support, it’s all about context. If someone starts with a hotel or car rental search, being able to leverage the device’s geographic location can be a helpful timesaver.
Finally, your customers are increasingly multichannel, so why should you limit your view with mobile-only blinders? Use whatever insights you can you glean from web search and booking histories to offer helpful defaults.
Own it. Mobile is no longer a bleeding-edge, “some day” technology. Real consumers are spending real money booking travel through smartphones, and this is just the beginning. Whether or not mobile bookings will rival or surpass web bookings, mobile needs to be treated as a first-class citizen while planning strategic and IT investment priorities. For a growing portion of your customers, your mobile experience will become their primary customer experience. Embrace it and own it.
One of the things which impressed me about Orbitz’s mobile group is how closely the technical team worked with their business-oriented colleagues. There’s simply no substitute for frequent, personal contact between software developers and their business partners. And while you shouldn’t necessarily rule out the use of outsourcing partners for your mobile development efforts—after all, this alignment is one of the principal goals of agile software development—sometimes it just makes sense to have a core team available on staff… and local.
But perhaps the most important part of owning the solution is playing to your strengths. Despite all the contention and uncertainty around travel distribution, especially airline inventory, OTAs enjoy one clear advantage: they control all the pieces of the booking experience, so they should be able to provide the most consistent mobile booking experience. Similarly, with its considerable domain expertise, it should be no surprise that Kayak’s iPhone app sets the standard for search interfaces. But its reliance on travel supplier sites for bookings leads to an inconsistent (at best) booking experience. Only Kayak’s hotel booking process matches the OTAs for ease and consistency—because they built their own hotel booking engine.
Room for improvement
No product is perfect, and even Orbitz’s top-scoring app has room for improvement. But the real eye-opener is just how much room for improvement exists for the typical booking app. Search dead-ends, quirky navigation, embedded web pages (sometimes not even of mobile-optimized sites), and the required re-entry of billing addresses and credit card numbers are the rule, not the exception.
Welcome to the land of low-hanging fruit. Let us know if you need help getting started picking it.