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Case: Malmö Aviation
Booking airline tickets from a mobile phone
Screenshot from app
Daniel Taylor goes to town on engineers in his blog post "This is what happens when we let engineers run the show." I have to admit that I had a few thoughts like that when working on the Branova mobile application for buying airline tickets.
Now, there is nothing as rewarding as criticizing a user interface. ANY user interface is a compromise. There are all kinds of technical constrains, context issues, etc, etc and it always shows. A user interface is easy to criticize and I love doing it.
Anyway, lets start...
The task at hand
We were hired by Branova, a company that makes reservation systems for airlines. The task was to design and implement their Mobile eTravel Suite, an end user application for buying, changing or canceling tickets, and checking in. Their pilot customer is a Swedish airline called Malmö Aviation.
The current process
On the web, booking a flight is a fairly standard type of procedure across airlines. It is quite a number of steps: you have to choose one way or round trip, to, from, departure dates and the number of adults, children and infants. After that, you are presented with a number of flights to choose from and what type of ticket you want. At this screen you can also change the details you entered in the first screen. If you accept the booking details you go to the checkout screen where you enter names, billing details. On the last screen you get a receipt.
The challenge was not to get all of this onto a mobile phone. The challenge was to decide what subset of this functionality that made sense on a mobile phone.
What scenarios are relevant in this case? Booking a vacation with your family? No. In that scenario you probably want to spend some time in front of your PC, maybe researching alternative destinations, comparing prices etc.
The primary scenario is a business traveler booking domestic flights. This type of traveler makes up a large portion of Malmö Aviations customers. Most people who have some amount of job-related travels have an established relationship with the airline. So payment was not an issue we had to deal with in this case.
Most of these travelers book single person tickets, so we were able to avoid the added complexity of booking multiple persons; entering their age and names, provide alternative delivery methods for getting the travel documents to them, etc.
Booking from a phone
Usually, when booking an airline ticket from a website, you fiddle some knobs and dials (dropdown lists, calendars, checkboxes etc). When you are satisfied with your settings, you hit a button labeled "Search" and the system will contemplate your "query" for a while and then show you available flights.
A more linear structure that supports back and forth movement is better suited for a mobile environment. A linear "interview"-type interaction is easier for the mobile user if it is not too long. It is also a lot better approach if the user gets distracted. You only have to consider one question at a time.
Background shows ticket
There is only five pieces of information we needed from the traveler: From, To, Date, Time and Ticket type. This was laid out in a manner where the user could easily see the progress.
We moved the One Way/Round Trip question to the end of the process. Most flights are booked one way only. However it appeared that if the return time is known, the traveler is not comfortable booking the flights separately. If you are going on a round trip you don’t want to commit one way before you know that you can get a suitable return ticket. So at the end of the booking we gave the traveler the choice to either commit the one way ticket, or book a return flight before committing.
This is a quick Flash test of the interaction for the booking process. It is a "slide show" so you just click it to proceed.
This is a "slide show" I made in Flash to check out the interaction. Click the image to advance. Click the "please wait" screens too :-)
Fast and pray
At this point, the interaction design budget was spent. So it were more or less waiting and praying that the idea would survive the rest of the implementation (programming) phase. It did not. Well, some survived, some did not. The developers also have budgets and they love to "reuse".
How did it turn out?
Branova made a promotional video showing the product in use. What you see is more or less whet the release version looks likes. It shows a booking in real time, so you can see that it is quick. To pick out a few interesting questions relating to before/after:
1. The interaction feel is fairly different. For technical reasons, the entire screen transits instead of just the "question". This breaks the concept of building up the ticket on the background area. On the other hand, it shows very clearly that you can easily navigate back and forth. What do you think?
2. The idea was that when you click something it is transferred to the "ticket area". In the video you can see that the current selection is mirrored in the ticket area further breaking the concept. I don’t think this is good. Do you agree?
3. If you view the video to the end where she checks in, you see that the list showing "my tickets" looks the same as the booking ticket process. This is highly unfortunate in my opinion.
OK, I'm a problem-oriented person. The Branova Mobile eTravel product is, as you can see from the video, miles ahead of anything available elsewhere. It is not perfect, but it is definitely usable. In order to learn and progress in my craft, I tend to focus on what can be done better. Sometimes at the sacrifice of celebrating what we actually have achieved.
Branova reports that there has been strong interest from other airlines, so we will probably get to work on a new version later this year. I'm looking forward to that.
- The product was built with the mBricks enterprise application development tool.
- The product owner is Branova.
- The development was done by Branova and Teleplan.