Usability and Travel Sites, do they Measure Up?

When was the last time you booked a vacation using a travel agent? Likely not recently since booking travel online has become so easy. Companies like Expedia and Orbitz offer a convenient service for consumers by allowing a “one stop shop” experience for your travel needs. But how does the usability of their sites rate? Without an obvious competitor it is hard to compare services, especially if most sites are the same. But it might be helpful first to take a glance to see who these consumers are that travel companies are designing their sites for.


Specifically Expedia, using Quantcast we can see that 55% of users are affluent women with a skew to being older, typically have no children and college are educated. This lets us make some assumptions about how the usability of the site is designed to target this demographic. One assumption about the consumer is their familiarity with the internet and how to navigate it. Providing additional advertisements and promotions on the homepage might create more impulse purchases since they feel comfortable with their experience online. As a consumer myself, it is nice to have the freedom to search without pressure and choose the best travel option. Possibly this is the reason for the added clutter; the consumer might not be purchasing right then, but the travel site has a chance to influence their future purchase.


In a quick review of Expedia and two of its well know competitors Orbitz and Travelocity, I found three common factors in the design of their homepage. The first was the overall design, they are all very similar. Each has a look that incorporates beveled graphical elements, a blue scheme (possibly trying to relate to the sky), and multiple column layouts occupied with duplicate information (see graphical comparison below). All three use the same radial button design for consumers to select their travel options. One might argue this design element makes searching for travel more intuitive because it is easy to understand, but why does each site have the same format? I would argue that one seemed successful, thus why not copy? But to counter this statement, doesn’t this make it easy to cross over and use their competing site?


A second factor I realized is the clutter. Each page is filled with advertisements disguised as travel suggestions. In fact, all three sites are promoting an entertainment partnership on their homepage. For Expedia it is NFL, Orbitz is James Bond, and Travelocity is The Amazing Race. This could mean that travel companies see a close connection with travel consumers and entertainment, but it also ties these sites to the fancy perceptions of characters like Daniel Craig in the upcoming James Bond movie or Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.


The third factor deals with usability. Common in each site it the “searching status” page after you enter your criteria. Moggridge notes in his book “Designing Interactions” that this was a brilliant design because the consumer can see the progress to completion. Even if it takes a long time to complete, there is a sense that the designer is aware of the consumer’s valuable time. Another usability issue is the fold. Each of the three sites flow well below the fold of the page and have top site navigation bars that I did not even realize until I starting analyzing the sites. I believe John Maeda would have many issues with simplicity regarding these sites as he states in his opening chapter “the simplest was to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.” Which brings me to an analysis of a competing site which I feel can teach these big guys a small lesson.

Travel Site Traffic Comparison


Kayak is a travel search engine, not a service like Expedia. Kayak will perform a search of other travel sites and bring results back to you. While this site is technically not a service, it functions much like Expedia and aggregates all the results for you to view at once.  How does this site rank against my three above mentioned factors though? Well, the overall design is very crisp and clean, and is not cluttered with many advertisements. Usability wise I would give this a lower rating than Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity because if I search multiple travel sites Kayak will open additional windows to perform this task. This makes searching more difficult because the consumer’s travel search is not limited to just one window, but multiple.

Expedia Mobile Wireframe

Expedia Mobile Wireframe

According to site statics (embedded above), travel sites are seeing a notable downward trend in users. This could be due to the travel seasons, economy, or a little with the usability and design. Consumers will continue to put a price on convenience, especially when it comes scheduling a complicated multiple leg flight, adding a hotel, rental car and can’t forget those event tickets! By taking a deeper look at the demographics for Expedia we can see growth opportunities for adding travel services to mobile devices for optimum convenience. Click here to see a wireframe example of this.


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