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April 03, 2016
Technology | User Experience
Lyle Worthington, CHTP -

Considering how important UX is, it's time to address the topic from a hospitality perspective.

A great deal of ink has been spilled lately (or is it electrons being pushed around now?) on user experience (UX) design in hospitality. As I was researching for this article, I found a lot of missing pieces, and several things that no longer reflect the modern state and user experience expectations. Considering how important UX is (I’ll get to why in a minute), I think it’s time to address the topic from a hospitality perspective.
It might be easier to start with what UX isn’t. UX design isn’t user interface (UI) design. It isn’t graphics or logos, cascading style sheets or themes. It isn’t the coding, database or programming language used. It isn’t marketing campaigns or email formats. You might think it’s about how your applications function to sell your product, but even functionality is just one piece of the puzzle. What you’re selling is another piece. How you offer it is another. How it looks, yet another.
UX is the whole – it’s the sum of all experiences someone has with your company. It begins when they embark on their journey toward finding your product and ends with the follow ups after they’ve left. If everything goes well, it includes every experience along the way to their return to your product.
It’s every system, process and element your guest interacts with that defines their total experience. In the software world, this means deliberate placement of elements drawn on a screen, how they relate to one another, and what happens with every keystroke and mouse (or finger) movement. It’s designing the most efficient and intuitive-feeling movement through a set of tasks that a user is required to complete when using the software.
Some say UX design is art, but it’s just as much science. It’s the science of building the total experience. As such, it should follow the scientific method: Implement a solution based on your research and intuition, study every user interaction, watch users as they test every component, and make decisions based on those outcomes. Repeat this process until you’ve ensured a seamless, consistent experience throughout a user’s entire journey. So much of what you see online and in mobile apps that really wows you, or that just feels natural to you, has already gone through this process.
In 1999, Jakob Nielsen discovered that the average user only reads 25 percent of a website. Seven years later, using eye-tracking technology, he determined that websites are read in an F-shaped pattern. Users first scan the top of the page – the top of the “F” – then down the left side and across again somewhere in the middle.
He figured this out by watching the eye movements of hundreds of people looking at hundreds of websites. He noticed that our eyes dart rapidly around a website. These movements are called saccades. We constantly shift our focus to different points of interest. We do this because the actual portion of our eye that produces a high resolution image is very small. By rapidly changing our focal point, we build a full image in our mind.
If you study the saccades, you can figure out the best placement for critical components of a website, application, email or even printed sign. With the most important elements in the best place, we guide our users through their journey in a way that feels intuitive. We bring them to their next “call to action” – the thing you want them to do, see or click on next. This smooth flow leads to a more pleasant experience, reduces confusion, and increases both conversion and satisfaction. While designing content that follows human eye tracking tendencies may seem like art now, it’s actually an art based on a significant amount of science.
Some believe that good UX design is something the user gets right off the bat, but that isn’t necessarily true either. A perfect example is the “pinch to zoom” function that Apple® made popular when it launched the first iPhone®. People didn’t know they needed to pinch and zoom the first time they picked up an iPhone. They’d never seen that feature before. But after seeing it demonstrated once, it clicked. From that point forward, it made sense. Pinching was how you zoomed things in a multitouch environment.
Why does that work? Because our brains love recognizing patterns. We can all think of a time when we described the size of something as small by pinching our fingers together in the air. The beauty of Apple’s UX wasn’t that everyone grasped the new features immediately. Rather it’s that, after seeing it just once, the motions just made sense to us. So when you describe an interaction as intuitive, in many cases, it is just that it became so after you learned it.

Everything that makes up a great UX is critical to your business success. Why? Because a seamless, intuitive user experience is no longer a differentiator, it is a requirement. A bad user experience can be a deal breaker. In our industry, we understand this concept as it relates to traditional hospitality components. We ensure food quality, replace mattresses and linens in rooms, and invest heavily in training front of house employees. What you need to understand is that the technology your guests interact with is becoming just as important. That means we should invest in guest-facing technology that provides the same quality experience as the other elements we’ve already mastered.
Our guests are being trained that software and hardware should just work. It’s supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be integrated with other applications, and that integration should be invisible. The complexity should be hidden, both from software users and the people who implement the programs. It must be always up, always fast and immediately intuitive. Any sluggishness, instability or outage is viewed with frustration and seen as a sign of poor design. More important, your customers see it as a lack of investment on your part in something they care about.
Older generations grew up without technology, or became used to software going down or being slow and cumbersome. But Jason Dorsey of The Center for Generational Kinetics ( said the expectations across all generations are increasing steadily. Younger generations now influence the older generations at a rate and on a scale never before seen in generational research. The difference, he said, is that younger users don’t see reliability, speed and modern design as an increasing expectation. Rather, it’s the only expectation they’ve ever had. Anything less is viewed as a negative experience.
As guests from every generation become more reliant on technology, any experience with aging or poorly designed technology impacts their total experience. And it changes their overall perception of a brand. Millennials, often don’t give less-than-stellar brands a second chance. A bad website or mobile app probably won’t even get a first chance. Millennials aren’t just influencing their elders who are your current customers. They’re now overtaking older generations as the largest demographic of travel and recreation spenders. Many believe millennials aren’t loyal, but they are. They’re still shopping for the brand that best represents them. “Once they pick a brand to represent them, they stick with it and tell everyone about it on Instagram,” Dorsey said.
Here’s another interesting bit of research to come out of GenHQ: Millennials are considered the “tech-savvy” generation, but they aren’t really all that savvy. Instead, they’re tech dependent. They expect it to be there, to be modern and especially, to be intuitive. They’re used to choice, variety and the simplicity of plug-and-play. They get new phones every year, new software updates weekly, and the upgrades are seamless. Everything just works. Everything is easy. New apps are available daily, and the ones that are poorly designed drop in popularity as better-made variants pick up steam. The importance of this can’t be overstated – these are all elements of good UX. It’s clear that good UX wins market share with the younger generations (and older generations, too). See page 18, and the article written by Larry Hall.

In hospitality, the total user experience is a sum of the guest’s complete personal experience. That includes every employee interaction they have. Logically, then, the employee’s experience has a direct impact on the guest experience.
This incredibly important consideration is often overlooked when a company decides to refresh software, upgrade hardware or invest in newer and more modern technologies. Bad UX design in an application your employees use doesn’t just impact their productivity and morale. It also impacts your guests when your staffers have to explain why things aren’t working well or apologize excessively.
 Consider a guest’s check-in experience if they’re greeted by an employee who’s focused more on a computer than on them. It influences what they think about you, your service, your product and your company.
It’s easy to blame legacy applications and the complexity of the hospitality industry for getting us into this position. Our guests and people from outside industries don’t care why we are where we are. Frankly, neither do people inside our industry – and that includes your employees. The reality is that we’re in this situation because we haven’t stepped back, looked at the total experience, and then invested appropriately. We need to focus on the total experience. To do so means being willing to invest in understanding UX design, pushing our existing vendors to focus on improving the UX in their applications and taking chances on newer, more agile third-party software companies.
As the software vendors in our space continue to merge and acquire others, the competition decreases. When one firm has a huge market share, it’s hard for newer, more innovative companies to establish themselves. And the larger a company gets, sometimes the more difficult it gets for them to do new, creative things. The solution is either a total disruption from a new software product, or the development of complementary technologies via an active and engaged third-party developer community. One perfect example, the hospitality industry has already been hit by one major disrupting software – Airbnb. It credits heavy investment in UX as the main element in its rocketing popularity.

It may seem like a great deal of work, but the good news is that much of it has already been done for you. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are libraries out there for transitions, animations, interactions (like click, swipe, pinch), notifications and infinite scrolling that are free to use and easy to incorporate into websites, single page Web applications, apps and native mobile.
Spend your time optimizing the elements your users will interact with. Focus on integrations, maximizing screen real estate, reliability and speed. Understand that information is constantly being thrust at them from many different sources. In this world of seemingly infinite distraction, people need calls to action and notification to address one thing while they’re working on another. They should be able to take that action in the fewest number of steps possible. Use nudges in your application or website that grab a user’s focus and prompt them to take an action or make a change. Take a look at Facebook’s website to see how attention grabbing the bright red notification at the top right of the page is, or OTA sites that compel you to book quickly because “12 other people are looking at this property right now.”
Where do you begin? Start by mapping out a user’s journey with your company or product. Look at every piece of technology they might see or interact with and ask if that experience projects the type of image you want. Don’t chart just one user’s journey; track every type of user’s journeys. This could be a tech-savvy business traveler, a first-time traveler to a new city, or a family on its tenth vacation to your property. They’ll share some expectations, but each will have a different experience. Understanding those differences helps you customize your interaction with them. 
The first step is discovery. This is where the guest finds you and forms his first impression of your product. It can come from Web searches, OTA searches, apps, social media, online review sites or an another human. Perhaps he already knows about you from a previous stay, but when he maps out a possible return trip, he goes through the discovery process again. How you present yourself each time a potential guest begins looking weighs on his decision until he becomes a regular/loyalist and skips the discovery step.
I prefer doing this exercise on a whiteboard. See image to the side.
When you complete this exercise, you’ll find that one clunky piece of technology or one missing or poorly designed interface in the middle of a journey can negate the investment you’ve made in other areas. For example, we know that travelers want fast, reliable Wi-Fi. They want it to be free and available everywhere on property. So we invest in extra bandwidth and properly distributed access points. But if we install a Web portal that’s slow to load, looks like a ‘90s era website and requires guests to enter obscure codes or personal information to connect, it’s over. No matter how fast and great the Internet experience is after that, they’re left with a bad impression. It gets worse each time the guest tries to log in.
Or, we invest in nice large TVs and then install a content system that takes several seconds to change the channel. Or, we work hard to create a mobile app, then make it an HTML website wrapper to save money across mobile devices. These non-native apps don’t have the same user experience. They feel cheap and slow, and mobile users can tell the difference. To put it in traditional hotel terms, each of these examples is the equivalent of putting in a new comfortable mattress, then covering it with a sleeping bag and calling it a day.
If you’re building an application, website or some other guest-facing technology, plan to invest in UX design throughout the product’s entire life cycle – not just at the start. Create the user journeys, map user interactions, and use those to create guidelines for your designers and programmers. During build, invest in user acceptance testing to see what’s working and what isn’t. Update your design and repeat.
A/B testing is a great way to determine what designs and layouts are most effective for websites and promotions. It can also help with software applications. Here’s how it works: You present two different versions of the same thing to randomly selected people, then measure their interactions to determine the winner. This might be counting the number of clicks and signups a promotional email generates.
For an application, you could measure how long it takes someone to get through certain steps or to notice – and react to – a call to action.
Apple is famous for putting its developers behind two-way mirrors so they can watch people interact with its products. Anything that’s cumbersome, or takes too long to figure out, goes back to the drawing board. The developers have to start over. Want to modernize your technology for current and future generations? Bring in a 16-year-old and observe him as he hits every step along your user journey. Get his opinion and act on it. And if you’re afraid he won't tell you what he’s really thinking, just look at his face. Have you talked to a 16-year-old lately? There’s no scale of one to 10. It’s either OK or the absolute worst thing they’ve ever seen and the person who designed it should be fired immediately and cast out in shame.

The user experience is always changing. That means your focus on UX design won’t fit into the traditional “invest and rest” model. You can treat an asset purchase like a computer that way – buy the equipment and expect it to last three to four years. So you invest, then you rest. The problem with consumer-facing and now even employee-facing technology – is that the market never rests. It’s always changing and evolving.
You now see small thumbnails of videos in Google searches because they discovered a graphic could break the F-shaped pattern and draw a reader’s focus to that image before they ever read the link. You see far more graphics-driven websites now and less text. The most effective sites are the ones that require the user to make fewer eye movements to find their first call to action. When major sites like Twitter and Facebook create or adopt new elements, your users are going to expect them everywhere, ASAP.
If we invest and rest on guest-facing technology, we immediately fall behind. We’ll wind up looking old or out of touch. In our industry, with competition from sharing economy companies like Airbnb, we can’t afford to push away any type of traveler. As Cindy Estis Green of Kalibri Labs said, we don’t create new customers; the best we can hope to do is convince existing travelers to choose our product over our competitors. We do that by focusing on our guests: giving them what they expect – a customized and optimized total experience.
I’ve heard hospitality professionals say we need to get out of the IT business. The truth is we need to change the way we think about IT in our business. The companies who are getting it right invest in their technology. They keep it up to date, make sure interacting with it is seamless, and constantly analyze how well it works. They invest in technology because they understand it’s a core component of their business – not merely a cost of doing business. Our technology should enhance our guests’ experiences, not take away from it, because above all else, WE’RE IN THE BUSINESS OF CREATING EXPERIENCES.

Lyle Worthington, CHTP, is an industry adviser, CIO, and international business and technology consultant focused on solving problems most don't know they have. He can be reached at

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How do you get named Apple’s Top Travel App of 2015?

It helps to have a great concept that is extremely useful, but it takes a great user experience and intuitive user interface to turn that great concept into an even better app. Lead product designer for Hopper, Pantelis Korovilas understands how critical UX design is to the success of an app, and invested heavily in creating an app that is intuitive, while encouraging users to sign up and return. The Hopper app analyzes billions of flight prices daily to predict how they are going to change and the best times to fly, and “watches” flights to notify you when to buy tickets. The app will watch flight prices until they hit their expected “good deal” range, and then sends a push notification that you should hop back on the app and book your flight.
But what happens if the user doesn’t turn on push notifications? This is one of the elements of UX design – if your app doesn’t properly encourage people to allow notifications, then the main benefit of using your app is lost, and getting back to that point is cumbersome. Hopper recognized this problem and watched as users went through several different versions of the app onboarding process. They noticed that forcing people into accepting notifications too soon pushed them away. By adding a simple “not now” to the notifications screen during the onboarding, users were allowed to get more familiar with the app, and, more importantly, trust Hopper before allowing push notifications. “And trust takes time,” Pantellis said, “Our willingness to allow users to take a look around, before being forced into deciding whether to do so or not, helped establish just enough of it.”


HotelQuickly Immediate, Last-minute, On-demand Service

Travel is a highly competitive industry. As a startup, one way to enter this space successfully is by targeting a niche market that is underserved. One of these niches is the mobile-only segment, as more and more people are using smartphones as their primary device to plan and schedule trips. However, most of the transactions on smartphones are for on-demand services, or in the case of hotel bookings, for last-minute hotel bookings. Mobile means immediate, last minute, on demand.

“Filling this niche gets users to install our (HotelQuickly) app, but then we have to make sure that they enjoy the experience and remember us next time they find themselves in need of a last-minute accommodation,” said Christian Mischler, co-founder, COO and CMO of HotelQuickly. “And this is exactly the reason why UX is tremendously important to our business success. You'll never get a second chance to make a first impression. If the first impression is negative or fails to deliver a 'wow' effect with the user, they will forget about the app, or might even delete it completely from the phone. But, if we manage to stand out by delivering a better experience than what the traveler might be used to, then that person keeps us in the back of their mind, and it is easy for us to (re-)engage with them in the future. We do that via retargeting, through social media, and via content marketing – again with the same focus on the great user experience that sets us apart from competing services.”

When HotelQuickly releases a new design or a new feature, the company organizes user acceptance tests to learn how users engage with the app. Continuously collecting feedback from travelers helps the company to determine what users like, what they find confusing, or what features are missing. “We like to be at the forefront of innovation (e.g., we were the first travel app in Asia to release an Apple Watch® app), and through our innovations, we are constantly improving our app and delivering a superior user experience.”

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