22 December 2010

Exploring User Centred Design on Travel Websites

 

Over these last few days, the United Kingdom and many parts of Europe have been affected by snow and ice. To begin with this, the snow and ice brought some enjoyment to those who hadn’t seen so much of it for a long time. However, it has also had a massive impact on airports, airlines, train and other travel operators.

Already in 2010, we have witnessed how airlines deal with unusual natural incidents. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland resulted in airlines having to deal with mass disruption. The travelling public have a certain tolerance to incidents like the impact of volcanic eruptions or snow and ice, and it is at these times that the customer service approach and methods used by travel operators are really pushed to the limit.

With the web, travelling has become much easier to organise and manage, and the need to interface with travel operators by ‘phone or in person has been much diminished.

News reports in the United Kingdom in the past days have focussed on the ‘lack of information’ being provided by the authorities and travel operators. Call centres have been swamped with calls, unable to cope with demand, and websites have been similarly inundated with people seeking alternative passage, to rebook or to have their costs refunded.

User Centred Design

As someone who is passionate about User Centred Design and User Experience here at Storm ID, as well as someone who travels quite regularly and has been caught up in disruptions from time to time, I thought it would be interesting to look at how travel operators communicate news and information to their customers during episodes which see high traffic volumes to their websites, to see if there is any consistency in approach as to how they present such information.

In a non-scientific, very subjective way, I have taken a selection of websites that I have used myself and looked at how they present breaking information on their home pages. I’ve not looked in to what lies behind the messages and links from the home pages, or at least I’m not commenting on them here, as customer self-help systems that are in place are a real mixed bag of poor user experience. Perhaps that can be a feature of a future post.

Travellers have also been turning to Twitter and Facebook pages to vent their frustration or seek information where they cannot get it from call centres or because the functionality in ‘manage my booking’ sections on websites cannot deal with what people want to do. It is interesting to see how social media teams in some companies are fielding positive and negative tweets and comments, and how some just seem to have given up!

British Airways

ba.com

The British Airways website carries an announcement entitled ‘Severe weather causing flight disruption’. The announcement sits in a panel bordered in red. The call to action is ‘More information’. Also, this one link is only accessible from the home page.

Interestingly, the leaderboard advertisement for British Airways American Express card is given hierarchical preference over the severe weather announcement.

Verdict: 5/10

British Midland International

flybmi.com

The British Midland International website carries a ticker announcement underneath the hero panel. The announcement is in red and is treated as a standard news item with the text reading ‘Latest News: Weather update 22 December 2010 at 0900’.

The fact that this information is positioned below the marketing messages in the hero panel suggests that there is little understanding of the need to elevate the importance of the message to assist those passengers looking for information. In addition, the text itself is confusing. If the user wants weather updates, would they not look at a weather website? The text might work better if it read something like ‘Latest News: Latest update on BMI flights affected by snow and ice’. Also, this one link is only accessible from the home page.

Verdict: 2/10

Ryanair

ryanair.com

The Ryanair website carries a link in the ‘News Updates’ panel on the home page and it reads ‘Weather disruptions – 22 Dec’. It is followed by two further messages, including ‘Ryanair reports UFO to Aviation Authorities’ which looks serious until you click through and see that it’s a humerous story about a flight from Oslo that allegedly spotted Santa Claus out for a test run on his sleigh!

The link to the information about disruptions is only accessible from the home page.

Verdict: 2/10

Lufthansa

lufthansa.com

The Lufthansa website does carry information on its home page but it’s not immediately obvious that it is related to disruptions arising from adverse weather because the copy is so weak. Even though it’s the first article in the centre panel of the page, no effort has been made to make this stand out. At the time of writing, it was also out of date, mentioning that Lufthansa would be ‘offering significantly more flights on Tuesday, 21 December’ which was yesterday. Not much help if you’re looking for information about today or tomorrow.

Verdict: 2/10

KLM

klm.com

The KLM website injects a panel between the primary navigation and the main body of the home page, drawing direction attention to the issue in an unambiguous fashion. It makes us of large text, red border, exclamation mark icon and clear copy with strong calls to action. It reads ‘Flight disruptions due to weather conditions in Europe’ with links on the home page, through to ‘latest news’, ‘rebook options’ as well as ‘refunds and delayed baggage’.

Verdict: 8/10

Eurostar

eurostar.com

The Eurostar website has included an information panel which sits above the main marketing hero panel. Recognition is made of the fact that many people are visiting the website at the moment for clear information on travel options. Whilst the text is quite dense, it does have a time stamp, indicating that the information has currency, and provides a link for further information. What it doesn’t do is seek to use colour to attract attention.

Verdict: 6/10

easyJet

easyjet.com

The easyJet website has included an image immediately underneath its logo, using the colour blue, set against its corporate orange colour to attract attention. The image includes the copy ‘Latest travel information’ and includes a yellow and black warning triangle.

Verdict: 4/10

Scotrail

scotrail.co.uk

Closer to home, the ScotRail website has given over its entire home page to communicate in detail, information about the current disruption. You are reassured that you’ve arrived at the right page, as the logo is retained. In fact, it’s the only image on the page. Red is used to draw attention to the heading ‘Weather-related service disruption’.

Verdict: 8/10

Air France

airfrance.co.uk

The Air France website carries two pieces of information on the home page. The first is a ticker which sits between the primary navigation and the main body. It carries a rather strange message/call to action of ‘Commercial instructions related to the bad weather conditions in Europe’. Then over on the right hand side of the page, red is used to draw attention to the heading which reads ‘Weather disruption’ which is supported by a red warning triangle icon, some relevant copy and a link for further information.

Verdict: 4/10

Conclusions

It’s interesting to see the differences in approach. For sites like these, I wonder how much consideration is given at the concept or design development stage to envisage how the user interface should flex to meet the needs of the user. In some of the cases outlined above, it looks like very little thought indeed.

To use the same language as the travel operators themselves, ‘there are lessons to be learned for the future’. This equally applies to how they communicate critical information via their websites

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  • John Hughes

    What is also interesting is that by reducing the information available to travellers, the knock-on effect is that the various websites are less "current" than ones that keep their information up-to-the-minute.

    Additionally, a reluctance to keep travellers/customers informed is likely to be reflected in social space, with less use of Twitter etc.

    Sites that treat their customers well get better social reputation online. Those that don't, otherwise.

    All of these things have a long term implication on the SEO of the websites – those sites that are active and improve their social reputation will benefit themselves in the long run, as well as their customers now.

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