Are travel companies burying their heads in the sand when it comes to user experience and accessibility?
As statistics show that more consumers than ever are booking holidays online, the travel sector is one which needs to pay particular attention to its digital offering. Currently, the majority of travel companies have their own websites; yet, in a world where we’re trying to appeal to both tech-natives and those newly connected or less familiar with the digital sphere, care needs to be taken when designing these websites to ensure they offer a smooth user journey for everyone. Further to this, as two million people live with sight loss in the UK according to RNIB – a figure estimated to rise to nearly four million by 2050 – we need to consider and design for these users too.
In our research, we explored the user experience of 10 top travel websites. We looked at their usability, whether they were easy to navigate on different devices, how good the booking process was, and whether they were accessible.
"It pays massively for travel companies to consider the needs of blind and partially sighted people, particularly when you look at the monetary aspect of what these companies could be missing out on by ignoring millions of users." - Terry Hawkins
- The UK spends £31 billion on international tourism a year, the fourth highest in the world after China, Germany, and the USA – according to the World Tourism Organisation.
- The leading association of travel agents and tour operators, the ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents), found that between 2014 and 2015, 89% of UK holidaymakers booked a holiday online.
- The previous ABTA Consumer Holiday Trends Report, released in 2014, found that 68% of people took at least one UK holiday in 2014 and 53% took at least one holiday abroad.
- Clearly, consumers are booking more holidays than ever and are increasingly moving online to do so.
- In this report, 10 top travel websites were scored out of a possible 35 points for their usability, accessibility, and ease of use across devices. The websites included: Booking.com, Co-operative Travel, Airbnb, Expedia, Skyscanner, Laterooms.com, Lastminute.com, British Airways, On the Beach, and Virgin Atlantic.
- Skyscanner came out on top with 28, while Co-operative Travel came bottom, scoring 17. The average score across the sites was 23.
- Out of the 10 sites, Booking.com and Laterooms.com scored the highest for their booking processes.
We also looked in-depth at the accessibility (how easy to use they are for those with differing abilities) of the websites through testing with an independent consultant. Molly Watt has Usher syndrome, which means she was born deaf and is registered blind. Molly is a strong advocate of using technology to help those with differing abilities have independence. Take a look at our user research video with Molly to see the full range of issues we encountered on the tested websites.
“Booking holidays is meant to be fun but it’s actually just stressful” - Molly Watt
We asked people from the travel industry, user experience and usability communities for their views on the report and the state of websites and apps in the sector. The balance and sometimes conflict between conversion optimisation, usability and accessibility was a clear theme in the responses we received.
Accessibility and Usability Consultant
I was speaking with a lady recently who has a visual impairment and is very ‘tech savvy’. Both she and her husband have travelled the world and she explained to me that booking the trip is usually easy for her; the issue is always finding information regarding the airport and trip. She mentioned that websites often don’t tell her enough information about how to book transport to the airport, request help when at the airport and if she will be able to grab a coffee whilst waiting inside the airport.
Travel websites do need to put accessibility at the forefront of their design, development and testing processes to ensure all of their products are fully accessible. However, I also feel that it is important for travel websites to collaborate with airports; currency exchange; hotels and all those who are involved in the process to provide the best support for disabled users. In-depth information regarding the entire travel journey should be provided on websites for disabled users; from planning their trip, to the airport experience, to reviewing the trip when they get home.
Based on speaking to people I know, the options for disabled users are often very restricted and users find themselves typing a lot of (important) information in an “other” box, which they feel often gets disregarded. The options and data for disabled user information should be considered in the user journey design. This includes providing a number of options: the flexibility to write further information and asking users what type of assistance they will need.
Recently, I conducted user testing on a travel website and this used a large slider on the homepage which contained an extensive number of items that the user could book. All users who took part in the user testing, including those with disabilities, either struggled to use the slider or gave up halfway due to the large number of flights on display. Often, travel websites I come across will include a large amount of information at the start of the user journey and this can be overwhelming. Travel websites should give users the flexibility to narrow down their search and make the experience as easy as possible.
Inclusive Technology Consultant
In my opinion, the user experience within the travel industry is troublesome. The onus is on advertising and bright colours without consideration of contrasts and easy accessibility. Some are a little better than others, however, I consider many websites have been set up to emulate holiday brochures, shiny and pretty with accessibility being an afterthought.
There is thought given to some disabled groups, in particular those in wheelchairs. Sadly though, it is widely assumed that a wheelchair or the wheelchair symbol covers disability as a whole. There is little consideration or understanding of the needs of many hidden disabilities.
Again, in my opinion, it is absolutely essential that all holiday companies have a fully accessible mobile app. In this day and age, it is more likely that most will have access to a smartphone than any other piece of equipment.
Molly Watt Trust
Head of Experience Design
There are many technically simple approaches that travel websites can take in order to make themselves more accessible. For example, better technical support for keyboard and/or touch navigation, improving colour contrast and enabling ARIA landmark roles to help users with screen readers, would not only enhance the UX of the site for users with disabilities but for all users in general. It is quite often the case that throughout the booking process, users will interact with two or three different interface elements that do the same thing, which in some cases means where the date selection tool is accessible on one page, it may not be on others. This level of coherence is crucial for instilling confidence and trust in travel website users.
My top design considerations for usability? It sounds obvious but nevertheless, travel websites should keep users at the heart of the design process. Simplicity is paramount. Vendors need to make the user journey and booking process as seamless as possible. As a rule of thumb, travel websites should create and use predictable and consistent patterns across their interfaces. My pet niggle is when companies introduce complicated business led processes half way through the purchasing journey. These add ons really do confuse users and potentially provide a real obstruction to accessing the check-out screen.
Travel websites should pay more attention to reassuring users throughout their journey. I've often found that halfway through the booking process, I can't clearly see a full summary of my selections from the previous pages; this does not inspire confidence when spending hundreds of pounds online.
I think there’s a misconception that businesses always need to have a dedicated app in order to be mobile friendly (or mobile first), when often a properly optimised mobile site will do just fine. Take the Government Digital Service here in the UK, which “banned” native apps in favour of an adaptable, open, responsive design, and saved itself a reported £4.1 billion over four years through that approach.
I think travel websites in particular don’t necessarily need an app because the vast majority of people will use them once every few months at most. Apps are more suited to the kind of site where you have an account and log in regularly to make purchases, or use the service – like social networks or some ecommerce sites. But if it’s just for one-off uses, a responsive site (or dedicated mobile site, which is another option on the table) is simpler and cheaper to maintain, and can still do everything your customers need to on mobile.
I think the importance of things like descriptive alt text for images is starting to be more widely recognised and talked about, thanks to the efforts of disability activists who are making their needs and experiences known. But yes, there’s still a lot of work to be done – the results of Sigma’s study show that quite clearly.
I don’t think most businesses treat accessibility as a primary design consideration; like Molly said in her response to the study, they try to incorporate accessibility features as an afterthought, which is the wrong way to be going about things. And I don’t think most of them think of having an inaccessible website as actively excluding a huge portion of their customer base.
There’s also the fact that having an accessible website tends to result in a better user experience for everyone. I find that travel websites in particular can be a bit of a sensory assault as companies throw everything and the kitchen sink at you in a bid to make you spend more money. Insurance, seat booking, luggage, car hire… A more streamlined, clean and consistent interface would improve the experience for all customers, and be of more benefit to businesses as customers are more likely to return to their service.
Head of Business to Business Solutions
Whilst businesses are now beginning to recognise some value in making aspects of their online offerings accessible, it’s still not translating to the sizable changes we need across all industries. Indeed, Sigma’s report shows there’s still work to be done when it comes to accommodating people with disabilities – a proportion of users which is only set to grow. This is especially crucial in the travel sector, where consumers can be parting with hundreds of pounds at a time, so must feel secure and comfortable with online journeys. Stats show that the majority of people are now booking their holidays online, so it’s unfair to ostracise a huge portion of the population from something so engrained in everyday life. Denying blind and partially-sighted people these opportunities will be extremely damaging for these companies and detrimental to reputation, loyalty, and ultimately sales.
I believe the challenge for the travel sector now will be to delicately balance keeping up with the pace of change in a multi-channel world, whilst remaining inclusive to all users. We know that mobile apps in particular can be a sore spot when it comes to accessibility – poorly labelled buttons, a lack of audio or text overlaid on images, or no option to magnify text are just some of the issues blind and partially sighted people face when trying to access apps. It’s now up to travel businesses to ensure this doesn’t become an issue and ensure a consistent user journey, no matter what the channel or ability of the user.
Royal National Institue of Blind People
Tristan Parker (Image ©Rob Greig)