Fi presents the future of airline websites

Agency Fi has presented its vision for the future of airline websites. As part of an internal research and development project, the agency explained via the site that the vast majority of travellers now use the web to plan travel, but bookings are still rooted in the past.

The company examined major airline sites and found them lacking in terms of information architecture, interaction design and visual design.

The agency concluded on the site: “We believe that unless the airlines take drastic measures to improve their digital experiences, third-party sites like Kayak and Expedia will continue to eat into their profits,” before exploring ways in which airlines could boost user experience.

An emphasis on presentation, discovery, utility, flexibility, social awareness and wider partnerships, was shown to be potentially hugely beneficial to airlines.

Irene Pereyra (IP), global head of UX and strategy at Fi, spoke to .net about why the agency decided to rethink airline websites, what's wrong with existing players, and how technology should be boosting the experience, rather than making it a frustrating one.

.net: Why do you think so many airline sites are so poor from a UX standpoint?
IP: When Alaska Airlines first offered ticket sales online back in 1995, it probably didn't realise it was about to change the entire relationship people have with booking travel, and revolutionise the booking space completely. It was a genius insight because, by 1998, every carrier was trying its hand at selling tickets online. But I don't think user experience was ever at the forefront of this innovation, or even a consideration. It was probably just a way to cut out the expensive travel agents, so airlines could become more competitive in pricing and offers.

Now, some 15 years later, every airline has a website where you can book tickets. Although some are definitely better than others, none of them really stands head-and-shoulders above the competition from a user experience perspective.

.net: Is this, in part, down to huge corporations taking a very long time to right their ship?
IP: Unfortunately, most airline sites are built on quite archaic backend booking systems that prohibit them from doing major overhauls in the user experience. Notice how many airlines all use the same system and follow pretty much the same user flow (or worse, even the same layouts). Most just skin the typical experience to match its particular branding and identity, like it's putting its particular shade of lipstick on a very old and ugly pig — and some are better at it than others.

But branding, design and copy can only do so much. Unless there are severe overhauls in technology, real changes and enhancements on the user experience are still pretty far away. This is shocking when you think of it, because the user experience is so clearly broken, and from a laymen's perspective, not considering technology, so easy to fix.

.net: So what do you see as the current state of play?
IP: Pretty much all airline sites are the same: none of them are responsive, none of them are modern, none of them challenge the current user experience in any way or try to veer away from the ‘norm’. So, on top of everything else, they're also afraid to really stand out and be different. What if people won't like it? What if people won't understand it? What if we lose those sales? The airlines are looking at each other for what to do, and are just copying each other in this endless loop, paralysed by technology and the fear of losing sales.

It's absolutely impossible to be innovative when you are too wrapped up in what everyone else is doing, not to mention that it's actually harmful to the creative process and hinders any kind of innovation. It's like how birds are able to fly in formation. They can fly in formation because they're not looking forward, but are looking at each other. Unfortunately, that's not exactly a breeding ground for innovation or a great new user experience!

.net: Are there any sites in this space that you rate?
IP: I remember when Kayak was first released back in 2004. I was following its public beta quite closely, and it was this kind of amazing new user experience. It really understood the things that matter to people when they are booking travel. It understood that it's not always about what's cheapest, and it also understood that the actual airline is sometimes irrelevant. The filtering system was revolutionary, and I remember thinking I wish I’d created that product!

Kayak is still, in my opinion, the best in the industry right now, and not one single airline rivals it in any way.

A great new booking site I was really excited to see released is Escape Flight. It's modern and user-friendly, and the UI is extremely human. Unfortunately, its capabilities are nowhere near the power of Kayak, and right now it only serves departures from London, which is a big drawback. But I really like how it tried to really think outside the box and capture the imagination of people who are just looking to get away for the weekend. No other site is doing that as well as they are.

.net: Of your own redesign/rethink, what are the aspects you're most proud of and why? How would these aspects assist users if they were implemented on mainstream airline sites?
IP: My absolute favourite part of this internal airline R&D project is the map. I really like the idea of visualising your search and changing itineraries based on interactions, rather than just by typing stuff into input fields. It's really friendly and easy to use because it has this tangible feeling and response to what you're doing.

If you think about it, input fields, radio buttons, checkboxes, were all invented interaction models that aren't really human and are only widely used because we are taught to use them. A child wouldn't just intuitively understand how to fill out a basic form on the internet.

I remember when I got my mother the first-generation iPad. I was amazed at how she just naturally picked up how to use it, especially considering that she never really understood how to use a computer and had a hard time with the mouse and click-and-drag interactions. She managed to change her language settings by herself and just understood how it worked without much coaching.

That moment was quite a big realisation, and I decided to make all browser-based websites we were going to be creating at Fi for fat fingers and in general behave more like iPad apps. was the biggest experiment in this space, and the success of that redesign made us realise how it works so well on so many different levels.

We applied that same kind of thinking to our internal airline research and development project: ‘appify’ the experience; make it tangible and easy to use; give the user immediate satisfaction when they complete an interaction; and create connections between how you think of traveling in the real world and how to book travel in the digital world.

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