News | DistributionTravelaer's Chief Experience Officer advocates constant testing as competitive advantageThis article was originally published onBy Martin Cowen | April 11, 2018 This is the latest in a series of articles spun out of [email protected], recorded live over three days at ITB Berlin this March. More clips and interviews to come here, as well as on our YouTube channel.As the Chief Experience Officer for Travelaer, Mike Slone is a man on a mission - and that mission is to try to convince the airlines it works to never lose sight of the customer's digital experience on the airline website.He also believes that execs should maintain an interest in the customer's digital experience on competitors' websites.He sat down with us as part of [email protected] last month and shared his thoughts on how the airline's online search and booking capability has evolved. Put simply - it hasn't. Airlines, he said, are still using the same form element structure for search and booking engines as it was twenty years ago - fill in the boxes, send query off to server, get query back.He noted how Google has stolen a march on the carriers, and can return the results for a search almost instantly on the same page, with real-time availability and pricing.One problem he identified which lies at the heart of the problem around the customer experience is that quite often the people in charge of an airline's digital experience have never actually used the website to buy a ticket.Even if search fields, booking flows and navigation tabs are not being tested internally, there is no reason why an airline should not be testing its site with users. Slone said that there are lots of tools on the market which means it is relatively straightforward and cost-effective for airlines (and by extension any travel business) to test their site with genuine users.It is so easy to do, he said, that airlines should be constantly testing their websites. Small incremental and regular improvements, which tools such as FullStory and Validately can highlight, can be more effective that a high-profile biennual relaunch.And the easy availability of web-based tools also opens the door to competitor analysis. He suggested that airlines could user-test a rival's website to see if the much vaunted new booking path is as big a hit with users as the marketing materials claim it is.For more, watch the [email protected] video below, followed by the transcript.Nick Vivion: First off, what does your title mean?Mike Slone: It means that I'm responsible for crafting amazing product user experiences for travel companies. So, I'm responsible for the vision and the creation of the products that we're building for mostly airlines but the travel industry.And it's not really a common title in like travel tech companies that much. You'd think it would be more kind of common given that we have a lot of users, right?The travel industry, in general, would be much better off if there were more customer-centric oriented leaders in these companies because ultimately, it's the customer experience that's going to lead to more revenue and opportunities for airlines and other travel companies.So, speaking of the airline experience what are some of areas that you see that we can address and that you guys are working to fix in the near term, the urgent stuff?Well, the first thing I tell all airlines we work with is when was the last time you've actually gone to your own website or digital experience and used it? It's surprising that most people that are responsible for their own digital experience and website, they haven't even used it, and so, other things are using tools like FullStory, doing unmoderated user testing so that you can get real customer feedback on what's actually happening on your site and what the common problems people have, and so that you can begin to correct those things.So, it's not always about doing a two-year redesign or rebuilding of an airline platform. It's simply making quick changes to improve the user experience.When you're going and doing the user testing how do you make sure that you're not leading them and you're just basically getting answers you want to hear?I've probably done now hundreds, no more than that, thousands of user test for probably 40, 50 airlines starting in the beginning with Southwest Airlines. What I really learned is that you shouldn't do just user testing once a year or once every two years. You should actually do it all the time. It should be something weekly that you're doing just to get real feedback from your customers.The reason we like unmoderated user testing at Travelaer is because you're essentially leaving the customer in front of their desktop, laptop or mobile device, whatever it is, and you're asking them to complete a task and while they're completing the task, you can see their screen, you can see what they're doing, and typically they're talking out loud and you see where they click, you see their frustrations and it's a real experience. If you're sitting next to someone, they're not going to have the pure emotion or the frustration or they're going to ask you questions, you're going to lead them or something like that.Also, unmoderated user testing, when you have a great user experience or a bad user experience, you can share that with other people in a video and say, "Look. This is what we've learned." It can be time-consuming but I think it's something all airlines and travel companies should be doing seriously, weekly.And it's not something you have to have the two-way glass or this whole thing. Would you recommend just what are some small ways you can get started besides using your website?There's tons of web-based software out there. A company that we work with a lot is called Validately and it's a few hundred euros a month and they'll even do recruiting for you. So, if you want to test in the UK versus the US, you pay a small fee per each of the persons that they use to recruit.You can also ask survey questions in the middle of the task and it's something that's not expensive to do. It used to be, when you have to set up a facility, recruit people weeks in advance, have them come in, pay them some sort of fee for participation. It was a real logistics nightmare.Now, if I wanted to test any airline site to get some feedback on, we can and that's what Travelaer does. The success of the products that we're building and the airlines we're helping comes from understanding everything to do with the airline from the beginning of the user experience all the way through the technology to the API's of the web services at the bottom.Frequently, we'll do unmoderated user tests on airlines that aren't even Travelaer clients. If we see that an airline launches something new, we'll do our own user test on that, unmoderated user test to learn from other people's websites. So, it could be a competitive thing as well. So, an airline could very easily do five unmoderated user test on the airline sites they think are the best, that they could use for themselves.So, a deeper way to learn about your competitors.Exactly.Would you have one or two things that every website needs to have to be successful, or is that like every airline has their own vibe, their own way of creating their website?I think the most successful airline sites are the ones that keep things simple. Unfortunately, the way that airlines typically price using fare classes or fare families, this old sort of legacy technology that we're still sort of stuck with often presents a user experience that's not simple. So, some of the best actual websites that even test well are the ones that are the fastest, the simplest. It's sites like Ryanair and easyJet. These sites are super easy to use because they're presenting one price per seat type or one price and then from there, they add all the bundles and different ancillaries that go along with it that you can pay extra for, as opposed to say, showing six fare classes lined up.We've recently finished some of our own surveys and user testing just on this topic and what we found is the reason especially in Europe, more people go to online travel agent sites to book because OTAs have one price per flight. There's complete transparency, as opposed to the airline site where you have six options for one flight.People don't know what a super light is, an eco light, a premium light, a fancy light, fancy premium, premium premium, business whatever, first class. They understand the different seat type but people get super confused on what am I getting with this. We watch people using FullStory and they click out of the booking flow all of the time because of trying to figure out what is included in my fare, am I actually getting an extra bag for this, is this underneath, is this here?So, simplification is key. Simplification and consistency throughout the digital experience, making it easy for people to do things. Post air booking is also very important. When we work with a lot of airlines in Europe, the non-low-cost carriers in particular, you still see 67% of their customers booking elsewhere, on an online travel agency site. So, the first experience that a customer actually has of that airline is when they come to log-in to choose their seat or have to pay for a bag. So, making sure that you build an amazing managed trip experience, so when those 67% of people are going to book with an online travel agent come to your site, you can merchandise and have it very easy for them to do the things they need to do.For the merchandising aspect, how does the search and personalizing of those results make it easy? Is that kind of crucial to this whole being able to sell more to the customer?We've been doing some research now for the past 90 days or so and what we looked at was simply the search widget or the booking widget, and if you look back, I think the first airline to ever book a flight online was Alaska Airlines in like '95, maybe Southwest or Delta around '97, '99.But what you see is this same booking widget, same search widget, 20 years later. No one has improved upon this technology. You've seen Virgin America do some very creative things with the first responsive website, making it much larger. We're way past form elements, and the booking widget that most people are using is simply form elements and you put things and you hit search and you go to another page. There's no reason to do that.Airlines should be modeling their search more of a one-page sort of option like Google Flights or something. If you look at it, you put a few things in and while you're putting things in, you're just getting content back. When you put in Nice to Paris in Google Flights, you get the price soon as you type P-A-R to the destination, you're getting the price. You're not having to leave that experience. Whereas today with airlines, just put everything in and then go somewhere else, it's not right.So again, taking the fundamentals of what's important to an airline or a customer search and getting those things right is actually more important than throwing out all the big buzzwords related to big data, personalization, merchandising. All of these things are great but they don't work unless you have the basics right.But obviously understanding who your customer is, if you can get them to log-in and tie it to a frequent flyer program or some sort of account, make it easy for them to connect with you. It's still amazes me today how many complicated may airlines make it for the customer to log-in. If you go to Amazon, you're always logged in, it seems like. Maybe you have to re-put in your password for a credit card to actually purchase something at the end. If you go to Facebook, when's the last time Facebook logged you out? It just doesn't happen. You go to an airline site and you could be on the home page and then, go to the frequent flyer page and you get logged out between those two.So, airlines need to do a much better job of making sure that their customers are persistently logged in so that you can cater the experience to them. Don't offer them something they've already purchased or they're never going to purchase. But those are some of I think the basics that most airlines still aren't doing.If the user experience is not good, people won't buy anything. Exactly. They go to a website and they leave quickly. Consumers, customers and the travel space, they expect a lot. If you look in every other industry, music, movies, there's been some sort of revolution over the past 20 years ago. Back then, maybe Netflix was around, but usually we'd have to go down to a video store. Now, we can get that movie on our laptops or mobile device and watch anything instantly.Go back to what I just said about the travel industry, in the same year, 1998, you have this booking widget. Jump now 20 years later, you have the same booking widget.It's time for airlines to do something different and it's time for them to really challenge the way that customers are buying their products.Let's round it out with that dynamic feedback loop. I really think that's crucial because you oftentimes find yourself with multiple criteria and you have open tabs to see what happens if I was to fly Paris-Nice and then the next city or something like that. So, is there a technological limitation to do dynamic feedback and that kind of search experience, or is this just something that needs to be redesigned from the ground up? There's no tech limitation on that at all. Frankly, I think for airlines to survive, they're going to have to become more like their own online travel stores. I think some of the airlines that Travelaer has worked with doing consulting projects think I'm crazy when I talk about this. But we know that when someone goes to an airline website, they're not going to go there and book the first time unless they're a loyal customer that's booking a weekly trip or a monthly trip or something like that.But when you're taking a leisure trip or visiting a new city, you're never going to go to one airline site and book it. You're going to leave and go to a meta search or an OTA or something like that. If you are the airline, why not include the other flights from the other airlines on your own website? Why not tell people the price of the four other flights that go on the same route and tell them the elapsed time, point out the advantages of your flight where you can on your own website and try to show that to the customer.The reason that online travel agents, the big ones, are so successful is they invest way more into overall user experience. They learn from their customers and they build technology that they know their customers want. And airlines today are really sort of held back by what the big tech providers are doing.But there's a huge opportunity for airlines to do much, much more than they are today and it starts with listening to your customers and I know if you listen to your customers, you're going to come up with some great ideas and then you just need the flexibility to build those things.