Sunday, October 14, 2007

Online Travel Products Suffering From Bad User Experience: A Cheaptickets.com Case Study

User experience design is a place where you can innovate and exceed customer expectations, sometimes where they didn't even know they needed it. There are times where just meeting expectations is a huge design success. It seems that travel websites can't even do that. Forrester Research just released a study that shows that people are turning to the web 9% less in the last two years for research and purchase for travel.

Recently, a friend of mine travelled to Italy to enjoy a stay at a villa for a multi-family vacation. She purchased her family's airline tickets on Cheaptickets.com months in advance. Like most people, she leads a robust life with work and family. By taking out her credit card and purchasing the tickets online, that meant she had checked off one thing off her long list of things-to-do before the trip. She printed out the online receipt and tucked it away for when she had to travel. She has travelled many times and purchasing tickets via web or traditional methods means something to her in her airline-ticket-purchasing mental model.

On the day she was to leave, it was a typical travel-day scenario. She was in a hurry to make sure everyone was all packed and ready to go and that work was in good shape for her to leave for a couple weeks. One thing she didn't have to deal with in her head was her airline tickets. She had taken care of that so long ago, right? Unfortunately, as she arrived at the airport she was dismayed to find out that the pages she printed out from the website were worthless. She had thought this would be her "eTicket" to get her on board. She bought the tickets from cheaptickets.com, so the airline could do nothing to help her. Things got uglier from there. The support from cheaptickets.com was awful. She was lucky to not miss her flight because the airline let her purchase replacements tickets for the flight. More money and pain, but at least got her family where they needed to go to begin their vacation.

The real ugliness happened as she tried to fly out of Italy. Throughout her trip she tried to work with Cheaptickets.com to resolve this. They took no ownership and consistently ran her around with no answers. When the day came to leave Italia, she ultimately had to re-purchase all the tickets again. I'm leaving out a lot of the painful details, but it ultimately this cost her a lot of time, pain and tears. Not something you want to associate with a vacation, which is why people usually purchase airline tickets.

This story resonates with everyone involved and those who learn of this story when it is shared. It was not like getting scammed on an item on eBay. It impacted the entire family and possibly could have ruined the vacation itself.

How can online travel companies not realize this? They are not just supplying a means for people to make a simple purchase such as you do on Amazon. The touchpoints here go well beyond the item being purchased. They impact things when people are away from their computer, home and even their country. I agree with what Henry H. Harteveldt says about his report from Forrester:


"They must proactively destroy — and then rebuild — their products to be more practical to sell online and humanize the digital experience that they offer on
their Web sites."


Here's a link to the study (Be prepared to shell out $279)

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