The following post is a collaboration from TIG Global’s User Experience group. The post was a featured article on Hotel Marketing.
Here in the User Experience group at TIG Global, we think a lot about the booking widget, that humble but crucial element of almost every hotel website. We’re constantly trying to evolve it from an unhelpful, error-prone way to start your hotel reservation into a smooth, logical and intuitive process. Along the way, we’ve seen a number of steps on the evolutionary path, and have a clear idea of what the new generation of booking widget should look like.
The Jurassic Era
The earliest days of the booking widget were a scary time. Entering dates often meant using three drop down lists to populate Month, Day and Year separately. Website visitors might have to go through that process twice to complete their arrival and departure dates, or they might be asked to figure out how many nights they were staying and input with yet another drop down list. That was all finished off with an ominous button ordering them to “SUBMIT.”
Those unfriendly patterns violated a fundamental user experience rule: “Don’t make site visitors do the work you don’t want to do yourself”. All those drop downs were forcing site visitors to provide the information a computer needed in the format it required. Computers really like to have information in the smallest chunks they can get, but site visitors are not computers—and they don’t think about information the way computers do, and they don’t like doing six actions when one will do. The smart move would have been to do a little extra programming so visitors could enter dates in a single pass. There’s a cost to doing the programming right, but at least that price is paid only once—not doing it right makes every customer pay the price, every time.
The Age of Enlightenment
Over time, general web design improved and the booking widget benefited. Site visitors were given the option of entering dates in fewer steps, often to the point of free text entry, where they could enter dates in the format they were most comfortable with. Instead of requiring the visitor’s “submission,” more polite and informative buttons asked them to “Book Now” or “Make a Reservation.”
Things were not all sunshine, however. Free text entry of arrival and departure dates actually created more problems than it solved. There were fundamental conceptual problems, where a mismatch could occur between the intent of the visitor and the needs of the computer. The information provided was open to interpretation, and conflict arose. For example, think of the difference between US-style dates and European dates—does 1/2/05 mean January 2, 2005, or February 1, 2005? It is crucial to properly interpret the information entered, or a frustrating trial and error formatting exercise results. It helped a little to provide example text for the format required, such as “mm/dd/yy,” but that violated the principle of not making users do all the work. A better solution was needed.
There remained another significant anti-user pattern in the typical booking widget: Forcing visitors to enter their arrival date, and then calculate how many nights they are staying. Not only did this make the users do the math, when the computer could easily do the calculation from arrival and departure dates, it also missed the boat on the visitor’s mental model of a “hotel stay”.
Put simply, your mental model is how you think the process works. In the case of hotel stays, the hotelier’s mental model is informed by the fact that nights are the de-facto sales unit. Hotel guests, however, think very differently. Their vacation plans are centered on when they will arrive somewhere, when they have to leave, and what they’ll do in the daytime. The number of nights they are staying is not typically top of mind. Making them translate from their mental model of days as a unit of measurement to nights is extra work—work that opens the door to errors in calculation.
In fact, a survey we conducted at TIG Global recently showed that site visitors prefer booking widgets that allow entry of arrival and departure date more than three-to-one over widgets that require calculating the number of nights. When asked about their preference, those tested responded almost universally that the calculation of nights was not natural to them, and that they feared making a mistake.
Today we’re happy to see that booking widgets are in a pretty solid place. A survey of major hotel websites confirms that the dominant standard is now respecting the time and preferences of visitors, and conforming to their mental model, letting them quickly and accurately set arrival and departure dates.
Small pop-up calendars are now the standard for date entry. Not only does allowing visitors to select their date from a calendar eliminate chances for formatting problems, it is a big help to visitors who are more familiar with “next weekend” than their actual travel dates. The ability to see that the date you are selecting is a Friday, and that it is next Friday as intended, not only reduces error, it increases the visitor’s sense of mastery of, and confidence in, the process.
But as in so many things, taking care of one issue exposes the more complex ones it was obscuring. As the layers of friction are removed from getting dates entered, significant hassles with the next two steps of booking are potentially exposed.
Far too many hotel websites, upon collecting stay dates and basic room details in a widget, send users off to a separate booking interface that looks almost nothing like the page from which they started. All too often, that page also lacks good cues about how to go back, should they desire. Even worse, it’s common for these booking interfaces to completely forget the visitor’s information if he or she does go back to the main hotel pages. These poor integrations between hotel sites and booking engines erode customer trust and confidence in the legitimacy and security of the booking engine. Low trust results in low online conversion, often prompting abandonment or resorting to calling a reservation agent on the phone.
Let’s suppose, though, that our customer is committed enough to work through the trust issues. If he or she is trying to book a room on a popular weekend, there’s every chance that after all that work, there won’t be any room available. This potential false start is nearly unavoidable, as booking-widget calendars typically provide no information whatsoever about availability. Should this false start occur, the visitor will be frustrated with having to choose new dates or a new hotel, and depending on the quality of the booking engine integration, may mean having to start the booking process over again. Where integration is poor, seeking more information about other room types means abandoning the booking process and going back to the main site. That means losing any information already entered. At this point, the cost of going back through the process is pretty high—possibly high enough that it seems more attractive to try another hotel.
Hotels have become ever more adept at getting our visitors into the booking process, only to let them down with the process itself.
At TIG Global, we think the future of online booking is a bright, friendly place, and we want to lead our clients there. In our enterprise engagements, we are working on a custom booking process that solves the remaining problems we’ve found.
We make sure that our booking engine process is carefully integrated with the rest of the website so the transition to it is seamless and natural. There’s no jarring moment of “this isn’t the site I started on.” It’s easy to slip back and forth between the booking process and the rest of the site’s rich information, all without being logged out of your user account or having to re-enter your stay dates and details.
In an effort to eliminate the false starts encountered using current booking widgets, we offer smarter calendars. Our calendars not only allow easy, one-step selection of stay dates and basic reservation details, they show much deeper information, such as dates that are unavailable. The calendars can also be configured to display important messages such as periods when availability will be tight, when maintenance might be going on, or any other messages that could be helpful when choosing stay dates. Other information our calendars can display includes periods when rates are lowest, or dates with minimum stay restrictions.
We believe that lowering the chance of making an error and reducing the cost of correcting an error will greatly enhance the usability of our websites. We prevent errors by providing visitors with as much information about availability as possible before they’ve committed to specific dates. We reduce the cost of the rare instances of date or room unavailability by making sure that backtracking for more information or changing a selection doesn’t mean starting over from scratch.
It’s important to every hotel to have a booking process that improves the visitor’s experience and increases the likelihood of completed reservations, and we believe our vision for the evolution of the online booking widget and booking engine is a key to that.
Interested in ramping up your online strategy? Check out the full suite of TIG Global interactive marketing tools, send us an email, or give us a call +1 301.841.4700(US) | +44 (0)20 3004 9468(UK).