User Experience Challenges in the Travel Industry

Technology plays a big role in the evolution of the Travel Industry. Now, the way travelers plan, purchase and travel is a challenge for travel companies.

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There are many aspects you need to consider to get ahead of the game. Paying attention to your customer, their needs and motivations is a starting point.

As companies grow it is very important to design processes that allows you to keep a user-centered approach when developing solutions.

In this episode of the People & Business podcast we had the opportunity to talk to Bruce Nealson, VP of Design at Sabre. He shared his thoughts on the main user experience challenges companies in the travel industry face. From how to build customer-centered solutions to the technologies that will change the way we travel in the future.

Bruce Nelson

VP of Design at Sabre.
Bruce is the VP of Design at Sabre. He leads a talented team that researches, refines and redesigns UX across Sabre's entire product portfolio.

Sabre is known for customer centered travel solutions. How a corporation as large as Sabre manage to keep a user centered approach?

Bruce: That's a good question.

We do it in several ways. We have at Sabre a design team of about 50 people working on creating user experiences across the portfolio of about 20 products. And that's only a fraction of what Sabre actually puts into the marketplace. But it's what we handle.

Now what we do in practice is we have about 10 of the practitioners which is about maybe a quarter of our workforce are actually UX design researchers.

So these are usability professionals that help us to stay connected with our users. And we do that up-front in UX research and planning user research using the typical methods you'll find out there like interviews, ethnographic research.

So a whole host of methods because really if you look at what we do at Sabre which is create primarily enterprise software. We do some white-labeled B2C software as well for airlines and hotels.

But the majority of what we are doing is enterprise software. And we really need to understand what are those tasks that our users are trying to accomplish with our software, what their context is, what the velocity of the tasks is. What kind of pressures they are under during the day during their jobs. And really what can we do from a design point of view to enhance that experience with these tools they are using day in and day out.

So we actually go in and do a lot of studies with our users in context, in their work environments whether it's trying to develop something for a front desk agent or for a hotel and we'll go out on site and make sure we understand where they are coming from and what they are experiencing with actual guests in front of them.

We also have user groups that will help us co-create for different clients different types of products to validate things to make sure we are being focused on their needs. And then we also do routine usability tests. We have two full scale usability testing labs in our headquarters here in Texas.

And we constantly have a full slate of users across different products coming in.

The other thing we try to do is make sure that we have the process for designing, researching and developing well documented and understood across all the different stakeholders.

So if we are working with a new business team or if we get a new product owner or manager, or even working with development, that they can understand what the user motivation's are. And why we are designing, and how we are designing, how we test and take user feedback into consideration as it's provided to us through its various forms.

So there are a lot of different things that you can use on the ground level. And one of the most important is executive understanding and buy-in.

At Sabre there has been a lot of good support from the top management layers of the organization for user experience. And the importance of that, obviously we are software company, so it rises to the top.

For any organization that is dealing with people, customers or users, the experience you put out there is really vital. It really is the exemplification of the brand on all levels.

And to make sure that the executives can buy into that and understand and promote that. You promote the efforts to deliver superior experiences to the market. It's really something you need to have in place.


What would you recommend for a company that is trying to start implementing this kind of user centered approach? What would be your advice?

Bruce: Well that's a good question. One of the first things is to make sure that the executives and the decision makers understand what you mean by a user centered approach. And making sure that they understand the value of it and why you are doing that.

I teach design innovation courses at a University here in the United States and one of the things that comes up often, because it's attended by people that aren't necessarily following design practices or design thinking and what not, is that they are not sure where to start. And how to make sure that if they are trying new methods, that the rest of the company understands where they are coming from.

One of the most important things is to educate decision-makers and stakeholders on what you are doing, how you are doing it and why you are doing it.

There are a number of ways to do that. You can do that yourself or if you are working with a 3rd party like a design firm or something like that or a contractor you may enlist their help to provide that outside expert's point of view that often carries some weight as well.

The first step is to make sure that they understand it because you can go out and pull together a project team, follow best practices in design thinking and read the books and everything else and can be quite adept at it.

But if all of a sudden you start bringing in users and trying to do iterative prototypes and creating assets like an empathy map and things like that that are your standard assets for the methodologies in the industry, if people don't have context in what you are doing, you may get some push back. And you may get some people that don't necessarily understand what you are trying to accomplish. I think we have all been there in different ways.

If you are in this space, you've probably had that.

So making sure they understand it. And then making sure you've got people that understand it and are participating in the process as well and know the different parts of it, so that you can all speak a similar language. You know what the common objectives are. You know how to define your users properly using [inaudible] personas.

And really keeping the focus on proceeding with how you roll it out at the company.

And then we here had good design practices when I started at Sabre about 8 months ago. And we are continuing to refine those so that as we scale and we get larger and new people come in and out of the team and we have new product owners, that we can easily explain how this process works. And what we are trying to do and what we are trying to accomplish. And how they can benefit from and participate in the process moving ahead.

That just keeps everybody on the same page and make things work more efficiently.

And then from there just getting people who are really passionate about it and are really in tune with designing around user inputs and needs and using those to be able to refine your products or your experiences through time is really key.


What are the main usability challenges travel companies face when growing?

Bruce: So as I mentioned earlier, travel companies and the type of software that we develop comes in two ways.

So there is consumer facing applications which in our case we are creating white-label booking sites for airlines and hotels and things like that.

These are the sites that they go to to try to find a room and book that space or trip and what not.

The thing that we are facing in our industry is really the complexity of putting together a trip.

This is a high complexity product with a lot of different moving parts. I think we've all gone through this exercise if you want to travel from point A to point B, so I'd go on a search engine and I start by making an initial request. If I want to go from point A to point B, you have to figure out where the different options around that. What are the different times and fares? Do I have loyalty status?

There are all of these different things that come into play when you are making that decision.

So it's designing an efficient experience that is simple, easy to get through and really change the complexity of the information that's being presented to the user. And making it as easy to understand as possible. And as easy to compare and scan and make decisions in a logical manner that are going to get you really what your ideal combination of options are for that package.

That's on the consumer side. Leading practices in consumer based software and other types of things you see on the big sites, Google, Amazon, big retails, the big banks and things like that.

So you've got those design patterns you are going to want to leverage to make sure that people feel comfortable and familiar.

Now even the more challenging part for Sabre is the enterprise stuff. We create software for travel agents. We create software for ground operations crews, airlines. We create software for customer service reps.

That's a lot of complex information. These applications are not simple. There is multiple different types of task flows and scenarios that you have to accommodate for in those applications as well as the need to accommodate travel disruptions like weather or some other type of disruption that will throw a curveball in the system. And you need to allow people to react to that internally and whatever they are affecting on the other end of the transaction.

So the thing we are trying to do there is take a very complex user experience with a number of different inputs and a lot of data points typically. And make it as simple and easy to understand as possible. And simplify the workflow.

Enterprise software is typically, you are working through a workflow stage. Let's say it's a 10 step process.

Well how can you condense that down into a more efficient workflow?

Use data more pro-actively to try to anticipate what the user will be doing next and knowing that enterprise software is typically a repeatable process.

And use the data to be smart and shorten the process and anticipate what the next step will be to simply the overall experience.

I think that's really the trick. If you look at what we are seeing in some of the more consumer grade software is more effective use of profile data.

Historical interaction data is a little bit more relevant to the interaction versus something that just seems intrusive or not relevant.

And in trying to enhance that.

That's really the usability challenge in making sure people understand what to do next and just streamlining that down as much as you can.

That's really what we deal with on a daily basis.


What technology are you excited to see in the next ten years that you believe will change the way we travel?

Bruce: That's a good question.

Travel is a pretty dynamic space. You've always got different groups that are trying to [inaudible] enhance personalization and really trying to flatten and simplify a very complex experience [inaudible] seeing things all over the place in all different types of companies.

If you look at some of the big themes out there, three that we focus on here at Sabre are conversational interfaces and chatbots.

So really looking at how do we move from a self directed, app driven, very single thread task in app kind of world. And using one app at a time to accomplish one different thing, to trying to put those things together on our own. To something that is much more conversational, is much more driven by artificial intelligence and a combination of APIs in the background.

Like what we are seeing emerging now in its early forms, simple requests into a 'chat bot' type experience where they do the thinking for you and they recognize your question and they pull in the data from a number of different sources.

They figure out how to synthesize that as simply as possible for you and present back relevant actual data.

That's really where a lot of things are moving. We are beta testing with a number of different ways to apply that across our portfolio. And that's always challenging and it's a lot harder than you think it is, especially when you get into trying to teach systems different rules and the whole artificial intelligence.. They call it a corpus, how you train the brain of what you are actually interacting with and making that more relevant, more user focused and smarter at the end of the day.

That's one huge thing.

And then we look at machine learning Internet of Things, IoT and what not in some of our software, more around airlines and to a certain degree to hotels.

There are different themes that are emerging on this front where people are installing more sensors, gathering more data. And to the extent that we can leverage and use that as data points and inputs that are relevant to our software products.

We are keeping an eye on that because that's obviously a fast moving field and considering the breadth of the types of solutions we put in the marketplace, it's obviously somewhere that we need to be.

The other one that we are looking at a little bit more seriously is augmented reality. A lot of people talk about virtual but augmented reality where we are actually putting data layers on top of existing environments.

We think that's a little bit more actionable in our space. And so we are looking at some different types of applications for different use cases where that may be the case. And we'll see where the big players come with new capabilities. I know Apple is looking pretty seriously at AR. And obviously Google and some of the other players are rapidly advancing on that.

So we'll see where it goes. We are keeping pilot projects across all of these different things.

Those are the major areas we look at. There are other things out there like blockchain that we keep an eye on and that we are considering different types of use cases and scenarios as that may affect our business.

But the three that I mentioned are our primary focus right now.

There is a lot of change in the space and it's actually a pretty exciting place to work in, the whole travel industry.

Especially for people like myself who have traveled all around the world and like to do things like that.

It kind of fits into our passion. It is really dynamic.

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