User hap­pi­ness

Tech­nol­ogy plays a ma­jor role in this on­line travel com­pany’s in­no­va­tions which are aimed at pleas­ing users.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Travel - By EVE­LYN LEN star2­travel@thes­tar.com.my

IT IS a para­dox: Travel is get­ting eas­ier, but also more com­pli­cated, to plan.

In the dis­tant past, peo­ple would go through travel agents to book their hol­i­days but as tech­nol­ogy be­came avail­able and grew more so­phis­ti­cated, peo­ple searched for travel in­for­ma­tion and booked their va­ca­tions on web­sites.

To take it a step fur­ther, trav­ellers to­day are in­creas­ingly mov­ing from desk­top to mo­bile apps for their travel needs.

The Asia-Pa­cific re­gion is vi­brant as the travel sec­tor is on an up­ward trend; on­line travel is ex­pected to make up over onethird of the re­gion’s travel spend.

This boom in on­line travel also means that trav­ellers are faced with in­for­ma­tion over­load and over­whelm­ing choices when they carry out searches and book hol­i­days on web­sites. It is not sur­pris­ing that, in the process, many peo­ple aban­don their on­line travel book­ings half­way, usu­ally due to a long book­ing process or a com­pli­cated check­out.

With a port­fo­lio of brands com­pris­ing over 200 travel book­ing sites (such as tri­vago, Ho­tels.com, HomeAway and Egen­cia) – which gen­er­ate some 600 mil­lion site vis­its per month – on­line travel com­pany Ex­pe­dia un­der­stands trav­ellers’ frus­tra­tions, and aims to make web­site searches as smooth and sat­is­fy­ing for their users as pos­si­ble.

There are 10 bil­lion ways to get from one end of the world to an­other, con­sid­er­ing the myr­iad modes of trans­porta­tion and nu­mer­ous routes, and the pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions. Of course, not all the routes are vi­able or on sale. What Ex­pe­dia is aim­ing for is to nar­row the 10 bil­lion ways to the top three, said Ex­pe­dia Group’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of Prod­uct and De­sign, Arthur Chapin, at the April 6 launch of their In­no­va­tion Lab at their re­gional head­quar­ters in Sin­ga­pore.

This is the third such Lab but their first one in Asia that was set up in or­der to un­der­stand Ex­pe­dia web­site and mo­bile app users in this part of the world. (The other two labs are in Seat­tle, the United States, and in Lon­don.)

At the In­no­va­tion (or Us­abil­ity) Lab, the test sub­jects are trav­eller-par­tic­i­pants who are plan­ning a trip. The Lab looks like a liv­ing room, and utilises two main tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties: elec­tromyo­g­ra­phy (EMG) and eye-track­ing tech­nol­ogy.

EMG was added to the us­abil­ity lab just about three to four years ago, an idea sparked by the im­mensely pop­u­lar mo­bile game Candy Crush, which gives play­ers a lot of de­light.

At the launch, me­dia mem­bers met a trav­eller-par­tic­i­pant named Ja­son, who was plan­ning to travel to Ok­i­nawa, Ja­pan.

To get started, se­nior re­searcher Eric Nouri placed five sen­sors on Ja­son’s face. Ja­son also wore a wire­less trans­mit­ter. Then he went to the travel web­site to search for Ok­i­nawa ho­tels.

The sen­sors picked up the tini­est changes in his fa­cial mus­cles and could tell if he was feel­ing de­lighted or frus­trated with his search.

An eye-tracker – which tracks the mi­cro-move­ments of the eyes and sends in­frared sig­nals – showed pre­cisely which points on the web­site Ja­son was look­ing at. (For mo­bile app tests, users wear spe­cial glasses that track eye move­ments.)

Com­bined with real-time ques­tion­ing by Nouri – “What are you think­ing?” or “How do you feel?” – the EMG read­ings re­vealed how Ja­son felt as he nav­i­gated the web­site. The re­sult­ing ac­tions that he took could also be tracked.

Nouri was on the look­out for pat­terns, to see which im­ages Ja­son found de­light­ful – or an­noy­ing. Based on his find­ings, tweaks would be made to the web­site’s lay­out at a later time.

Ja­son was one of thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants who have come through the In­no­va­tion Lab.

While each per­son has a unique ex­pe­ri­ence when book­ing a trip, col­lec­tively the data gives tremen­dous in­sight into trav­ellers’ be­hav­iours and re­veals travel trends.

The test re­sults were used for pro­file devel­op­ment and to im­prove on­line travel shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ences, said Nouri. For ex­am­ple, Ja­panese users like to know how close a ho­tel is to a train sta­tion.

“We put peo­ple at the cen­tre of our re­search ef­forts. Each piece of data we cap­ture is ac­tu­ally a per­son mak­ing a de­ci­sion about travel. The Lab brings us the abil­ity to bet­ter un­der­stand why peo­ple make those de­ci­sions,” said Chapin.

In an in­ter­view at their Sin­ga­pore of­fice, Ex­pe­dia Asia CEO Jonty Neal said that Ex­pe­dia, which has been in Asia for over 10 years now, is see­ing a great amount of growth in the Asia travel mar­ket­place.

“Asia is the fastest-grow­ing mar­ket, grow­ing at four times the rate of North Amer­ica and two to twoand-a-half times the rate of Europe,” he said, com­par­ing the mar­kets. “And ex­ist­ing cus­tomers are mov­ing off­line to on­line space.”

Ex­pe­dia is to­tally com­mit­ted to solv­ing chal­lenges in the book­ing process – to the tune of US$1.2bil (RM5.29bil) spent on tech­nol­ogy, last year alone. In their Labs, they gather a huge amount of data, from which they glean in­sights that en­able them to con­tin­u­ously im­prove their web­site and mo­bile app.

En­gi­neers and re­searchers make up a big sec­tion of Ex­pe­dia’s 20,000-strong work­force, world­wide. They make ob­ser­va­tions in the user labs, come up with hy­pothe­ses, carry out tests, and con­tin­u­ously learn. In their te­s­tand-learn culture, fail­ure is deemed a pos­i­tive thing as one learns from it.

They then trans­late new­found data into web­site tweaks as quickly as pos­si­ble, said Neal.

He added that they aim to go from be­ing a search-and-book site to be­ing a travel com­pan­ion where a trav­eller can find in­for­ma­tion on such things as flight de­lays, board­ing gates, lo­cal tours at desti­na­tions, and more.

“We in­tro­duce one to two changes to our site every day,” said Ex­pe­dia, Inc pres­i­dent and CEO Dara Khos­row­shahi. “We want to be there for our con­sumers.

“We see them want­ing stuff less and less, and ex­pe­ri­ences more and more. They are look­ing for ter­rific ex­pe­ri­ences.”

“Peo­ple are get­ting more ad­ven­tur­ous. The younger – mil­len­nial – cus­tomers are in­flu­enced by so­cial me­dia. Now they want to go where their friends have gone,” said Neal.

On the home front, Malaysians are mostly trav­el­ling do­mes­ti­cally, due to the cur­rency ex­change, as well as to re­gional desti­na­tions such as Bali, Sin­ga­pore and Ja­pan. There is a flow of tourists ex­plor­ing South Korea and Tai­wan, but travel to Europe and the United States is rel­a­tively low, ac­cord­ing to Neal. And core cities like Tokyo, Bangkok and Taipei re­main pop­u­lar.

Chapin (left), Mar­shall (third from left), Neal (third from right) and Khos­row­shahi (fourth from right) with other Ex­pe­dia ex­ec­u­tives at the launch of the In­no­va­tion Lab in Sin­ga­pore.

The eye-tracker tracks the move­ments of the eyes as the user nav­i­gates the travel web­site. — EVE­LYN LEN/The Star

The lines at the bot­tom of the screen show the de­light or frus­tra­tion ex­pe­ri­enced by the test sub­ject while nav­i­gat­ing Ex­pe­dia’s travel web­site. — EVE­LYN LEN/ The Star

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