Design is about solving problems. But too often, B2B software companies focus more on one-upping the competition, by constantly adding new features instead of meeting their customers’ needs. Product decisions are made by teams of engineers and business folk, rather than designers or user-experience experts.
This makes software ‘sticky’ for all the wrong reasons, with customers needing a lot of training to get set up, and new features meaning even more training. Eventually you end up with a bunch of specialists in that particular program, making it a pain to change provider. And you couldn’t even if you wanted to, because licensing contracts are typically 3+ years with 6-month notice periods. Far too often, this is just the way it is.
User experience isn’t a fundamental part of strategy for a lot of B2B software. But it can be, should be, and it is for us. And in travel, that amounts to simpler, more satisfying retailing experiences.
The development of design-led products
Today, we take the convenience and simplicity of a SaaS software model for granted. But it’s only in the last decade — thanks to high-speed internet — that in-browser delivery has replaced software installation via disc or download.
Within a few years, this change has opened up a world of choice and convenience for consumers. Products can now be accessed instantly and updated regularly, rather than waiting for two years for another release/installation. And as a result, changing provider is now as easy as opening a tab and entering your card details.
But the world of B2B products hasn’t moved as quickly as B2C — because it didn’t have to. The mindset of adding new features persisted, and so did the habit of pushing complexity on to users. However, once B2B disruptors started building SaaS products, customers began to expect that as standard, forcing widescale change.
Design changes in travel
Consumers today are in a much better position to compare products and make the switch. No industry is exempt from this disruption, including travel. In this way, design has shaken up even traditional industries, like retail banking. If you ask people why they prefer Revolut to a traditional high-street bank, they’ll probably say “because it’s faster, cheaper, easier, and more fun to use.” The experience economy has become a competitive arena, and travel is feeling it too.
Although travel desktop booking platforms are highly technical — with complex rules and cryptic interfaces designed to save time — often the UX leaves a lot to be desired. Rich user interfaces are progressing, but usually just mask the same old complex setup with a glossier storefront. And meanwhile, travel API design has continued with only developers from within our industry in mind, making it hard to hire from elsewhere.
In short, a lot of the change has been superficial. Travel still desperately needs better user experiences that save time, enable upsell and cross-sell, and help with complex tasks like comparing offers, evaluating seat maps, and exploring hotel properties. And beyond desktop, travel needs lightweight API design that’s more consistent with other industries.
Travelport has a team of people dedicated to designing and building consumer grade apps, like easyJet’s. This expertise is now at the heart of designing Travelport+ products and improving the experience to give the B2B market a consumer grade experience too. This is helping us create the next generation of simpler, more effective Cloud-based products.
The ingredients for design-thinking
Understanding problems lets you solve problems. But many companies are struggling to get this bit right. At Travelport, we’ve developed a set of design best practice principles from thousands of hours of user research, which help us stay true to solving our customers’ problems above all else.
OBVIOUS OVER SUBTLE
It’s easy to overcomplicate things. Keeping it simple starts with focusing on what’s most important. For example, 70% of the calls that travel agents get are to ask: “can I change my flight?” They waste a lot of time looking for the answer: “yes”, “no”, or “it’ll cost you.” Agents tell us they need to be able to easily find this information above all else, but normally it’s hidden away in complicated rules, terms and conditions. So, we prioritized that need — providing agents with a yes or no answer and some indication of cost — rather than taking the old B2B approach of making the agent figure it out for themselves.
THE RIGHT STUFF, NOT ALL THE STUFF
In travel, there’s lots of choice. One of the biggest challenges consumers and agents face is navigating that choice. The wrong approach is showing every option and forcing the customer to wade through all of it to make a decision. Instead, the focus should be on showing what we know matters most — not guessing what might be most important. It’s about showing the right offers, at the right time, to the right person.
For example, we know from research that agents searching for hotels really just want to see a few bits of critical information in the initial search response. They focus on (1) the lowest price that meets their requirements and (2) the rate status (non-refundable vs refundable). Both pieces of data are critical in the initial set of results, so the agent can then focus on other important criteria, like amenities and location.
CONSISTENT OVER NOVEL
Better user experiences are created through familiar patterns that make customers feel at home using your products. We know there’s a generation of agents who know and love cryptic interfaces — that’s why we’re building our next generation
Smartpoint Cloud to both support existing ways of working and transition everyone to a new world of choice in travel retailing.
We’ve also created a design system to deliver greater consistency across our entire product suite. That means: a set of guidelines and components — like buttons, icons, logos, and colors — that helps us create better user experiences.
Design systems are used by the best brands everywhere, from Salesforce to BBC. If you use any Google apps, or an Android smartphone, you’ll be very familiar with Google’s Material design system, even if you never heard of it. Material design makes Google’s products feel like Google products, even on an iPhone. At Travelport, our Atlas Design System helps us work at scale to quickly build better, more coherent experiences for our customers.
Channeling feedback into design
Because customer needs are constantly changing, you need to get continuous product feedback. That’s how you keep product roadmaps focused on customer needs. But the travel industry has traditionally used slow feedback loops, where software providers build a product, release it, and monitor usage, with a feedback cycle planned every 12 months or so. And that makes these companies less agile.
Consider the earlier example about flight-exchange eligibility. During the pandemic, we dove deeper into customers’ specific needs in this area, and responded with a new solution. Rather than simply moving on to the next feature, we then validated that it worked in practice. It did, and it’s been invaluable during COVID-19.
Product telemetry, on the other hand, lets companies react to change as quickly as possible. We’ve been building products based on customer data we’re capturing, looking beyond research to product analytics and heat maps to improve design. This isn’t revolutionary in B2C, but it’s something B2B companies have been slower to adopt. Tools like Google Analytics and FullStory can help you understand how your product is being used. You learn faster, and therefore improve faster.
Designing simpler travel retailing experiences
Well-designed products enable simpler, better travel retailing. When decision-making is easier, agents don’t have to click between multiple tabs to compare offers. That makes them faster and more efficient. The same goes for platforms that offer greater self-service. But that all requires trust — trust that they’re seeing the right offers, and trust that their software is designed to meet their needs.
B2B software providers need people to continue using their product because they want to, not because it’s too complicated to change. They can do that by focusing on solving customer needs, and making their life easier. Design is the way to do this, and that’s why design-led products are competitive products. In travel, they offer agencies an entirely different kind of value — and the bookings prove it.