I travel a lot, so I end up spending more time on travel booking sites than I’d like. When you’re planning for a trip there’s just so much on your mind. You’ve got to figure out your schedule, who’s going to pick you up at the airport, what the weather’s going to be like, and you have to make plans with people at your destination. All of these things have some bearing on the flight you need to book. If you’re like me, you wait until the last minute to book your flight because it’s just such a hassle to figure it all out. It’s a lot of stress. When I go to book a flight, I just want to find one that is going to inflict the least amount of pain.
But travel sites don’t get this. They think the source of everyone’s stress is price. They search every carrier and every site for the best deals. That’s cool and all, but I’d pay and extra $50 bucks to not have a 2 hour layover in Detroit, or have to wake up at the butt crack of dawn to get to the airport on time. Deal searching has become the commodity feature of every travel site, and as such they are mostly indistinguishable from one another. That’s a dangerous position for a company to take in a market. They’d be better off zagging while all of their competitors are zigging. That’s the approach travel site newcomer, Hipmunk (figure 1), has taken. Hipmunk fixes the online travel booking problem in two key ways.
Map Time Data to My Mental Model
Travel sites present flight search results in a rather traditional data table format. Row upon row of flight options stack up in the page (figure 2), each with departure and arrival times and the flight duration. Though all of the relevant data you need to make a decision about a purchase is present, it’s not presented in a way that our brains can easily digest. We understand time in a linear, landscape format, but times are shown as data points (ie. 9:27AM to 11:13AM). If we were looking at a single time data point, that isn’t a problem. It’s the mass comparison that makes this format cumbersome for a shopper.
Hipmunk solves the problem with a deft interface design approach. They simply layout travel options the same way that our brains map them, in a parallel landscape format (figure 3). Now you can grasp your options at a glance without repeatedly scrolling through flights trying to form meaningful comparisons.
Filter Options on Agony
Hipmunk gets that flying sucks. In fact sucky is the new flight status quo. You’re flying? Oh, well that’s going to suck. So when you search for a flight the signal of quality the search algorithms should be filtering on is “least pain”.
Hipmunk is the first travel site to search based on “agony” (figure 4). What flight will be the least painful? Sure, you don’t want it to cost your first born, but if the price is not outrageous, chances are most people are going to take that option.
Agony is a rather subjective filtering criteria. Currently, Hipmunk calculates agony based on criteria like how early you’ll have to get up and how long you’ll have to be on a plane. During their recent presentation at Jason Calacanis‘ LAUNCH conference in San Francisco at which I was a judge, the Hipmunk folks promised a more advanced agony filter is in their roadmap.
The Take Away
There are still big problems to be solved on the Web in very well established markets. Solving these problems in new and innovative ways can bring big bucks too. Hipmunk recently received $4.2 million in funding to keep solving these problems in the travel industry. As a user experience designer, what I like about the Hipmunk story is that the opportunities they’re capitalizing on come from meeting user needs, and creating simple, well designed solutions to old problems. Design is still as important as ever.