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On Tuesday Pamela Whitby attended an Expedia conference to celebrate the launch of 20 years in business and its new London usability lab. Here she narrates a light-hearted first person account

It was slightly ironic that the session I joined at the Expedia conference earlier this week was the one where Scott Crawford, Vice President, Product Management, was speaking about why travel is an inherently complex technology problem.

My journey getting there had certainly been a complex one!

At the Angel tube stop on the Underground I’d checked the physical map at the station hoping to spot ‘Angel Square’ where the London-based Expedia building is said to be located. It didn’t appear to be in the vicinity so I turned to Google Maps, which told me that it was going to be an 18-minute walk.

Traffic meant Uber wasn’t an option so I began walking, and almost exactly 18-minutes later found myself standing outside Moorfields Eye Hospital near Old Street. It was 9.45 am, I’d missed breakfast, and Angel Square was still nowhere in sight. So I asked a black cabbie if he had any ideas. “It’s right near the Angel tube station,” he told me - which is where I’d just come from! Though his satnav also seemed confused by the postcode, he seemed to know exactly where to go, so I hopped in.  

As it turned out Angel Square is a two-minute walk from the tube and an Expedia exec, at the conference I was now 30 minutes late for, apologetically told me that this is a new postcode; keep up please Google!

Unfortunately I only caught the last five minutes of Crawford’s presentation where he was speaking about how Expedia is approaching developments in Virtual Reality, Facebook Messenger, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and more to solve problems in the customer journey, and n the break, I couldn’t help relaying my hellish journey. “Yes, like I said, it really is a very complex technology problem to solve,” he said.

Getting the user experience on track

The rest of the morning was more ‘big picture’ online travel industry stuff, but after lunch it was my turn to experience the recently launched London Usability Lab, unveiled only this week. A lab in Seattle was the first, but London is being touted as ‘Expedia’s first international lab,’ which will ‘identify global differences to address unique user needs that will, in turn, influence UX design and product decisions’. A third lab is planned for Singapore.

Understanding user behaviour and getting the user experience right is a big and labour intensive task - not to mention a big ask, as we soon found out. It is, however, something that Expedia takes very seriously and invests heavily in.

Seattle-based Expedia User Experience Manager, Tammy Snow, has been brought in to help get the London lab off the ground and is working closely with other researchers from Hotels.com and also HomeAway. In introducing the demo, she outlined what Expedia is doing with this latest electromyography (EMG) and eye-tracking technology, but was quick to point out that the presence of humans in the research process is crucial. We soon saw why.

In the hi-tech London lab, which consists of two meeting-sized rooms that are joined together by a panel of glass, a paid volunteer arrived to be fitted with EMG sensors. Snow, who has been in the UX business for around 20 years, explained that these sensors record tiny changes in the user’s facial muscles.

How it works is that the volunteer sits on the one side of the fish tank, on the other the researcher/s and two large screens. One of these displays two lines - the green and red electromyograms that register delight or frustration respectively - the other how the user is behaving on the Expedia site. The researches use eye-tracking technology, which enables them to get observe exactly where the user is looking and what actions they take as a result. Snow explains each of these EMG studies range between 45 to 60 minutes, and involve between and ten and 12 people.

  

Delight is the key word

And so, began the demonstration. Our recruit was made to feel comfortable with some initial questions about her upcoming trips to Brazil and Japan. She was then asked if she prefers cats or dogs; apparently most people respond to a cute puppy or kitten photograph.

The aim, said Snow, is to get a base line of what registers delight - and a series of images of cute puppies and dogs (our volunteer prefers dogs) seemed to do the trick, with the green electromyogram showing most activity. She was then asked to go to trover.com, an app and website where people share their travel photos, which Expedia recently acquired, and to search her destination. This study is to establish just how delightful photos can be, and the beaches of Brazil definitely seemed to register more delight than slums, when we saw the first real spikes in the red line.

Next step was for the user to go through the usual motions of booking, and here it got a bit, well, tricky when Expedia.com didn’t seem to want to play ball.

“Why not try another site that you might book a holiday on,” prompted Roseann Ferrara, User Experience Research Manager at Hotels.com, who was operating the eye-tracking technology in the demo. To giggles in the audience of journalists, the volunteer entered booking.com, Expedia’s biggest competitor which seemed to be working perfectly.

the presence of human researchers with some understanding of cognitive science is absolutely crucial

“Wow, there are so just so many to choose from,” said the recruit, as she began the process of narrowing her search, looking at lowest price properties first. Unless they are in the category of super-rich, this is where most people start the booking journey, even if they might not necessarily be looking for the cheapest hotel.

At this point there is a muttered: “Should we try H,” from Snow, and a few minutes later, the user is prompted to go to hotels.com, another Expedia brand.

Interestingly the red and green electromyograms, registering frustration and delight respectively, that appeared on the big screen didn’t seem to entirely tally up with what the user was feeling. Much of the time, the red line was relatively flat, the green one highly active.

Snow reiterated the point that this this is why the presence of human researchers with some understanding of cognitive science is absolutely crucial. For example, lip licking, which this volunteer seemed to be doing rather a lot of registers strongly as delight and should be ignored when assessing EMG results.

I wondered if the flat lining red electromyogram is an indication that the recruit hadn’t declared her Botox habit? Earlier, Snow had explained that when recruiting volunteers there are a few requirements including that: the user has discretionary income for travel; has a trip planned so has a vested interest in doing the research; hasn’t had Botox - for obvious reasons; or worked in a field that requires you to suppress emotion.

Jokes aside, this research is an important part of Expedia’s future strategy, which is very much focused on putting user experience first. Depending on what researchers have been asked to look for, sometimes it’s really easy to see where they are hitting a wall, and make a change for the better. But this isn’t always the case.

Although Snow admitted that this particular demo was a dud, user testing of this nature undoubtedly delivers useful insights, that improve the customer booking experience. For example, in one study, researchers noticed that travellers manually noted down prices to compare and find the best deal when searching for their trip. Scratchpad - an intelligent personal assistant – was developed to solve this problem. When customers login and search – no matter which device they use - their searches are saved. Also prices are automatically updated with the latest information eliminating the need to start over.

Yes, it’s a complex problem to solve, but after my Google-prompted walkabout earlier in the day, this can only be a good thing.

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