Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

September 2003

Hotel Heartbreak

I travel quite often for my work, and usually have to work out my own flights and hotels. As a consequence I have had a lot of opportunity to study hotel bookings sites, and I can report that they can be divided into three types: 'appalling', 'all right, I suppose', and 'excellent'. Unfortunately there are no sites that fall into that last category.

Let's take the first category. You can spot them at first glance. If they look like a Christmas Tree at Mardi Gras in Times Square, then you should click [back] as fast as humanly possible.

The second category typically lets you search for hotels that have vacancies on the dates you are interested in, and will order them by number of stars if you are lucky (though not by price). You then are forced to click through them one by one to find out whether they match your budget, have the facilities you want, and match your other requirements, such as whether they are actually in the town you are going to. For many sites are apparently willing to lie to you without compunction; "Only minutes from the conference centre" may turn out to mean that they have left out the phrase "but we're not telling you how many minutes".

Research has shown that there are only 4 important factors that determine why a web user chooses one site over another: good content, usability, speed and freshness. Good content would be the number of hotels, speed is obvious, freshness is that you can find out online if they have vacancies. So we've got all those.

And usability? Usability is about optimising the time you take to achieve your purpose, how well you achieve it, and the satisfaction in doing it. In other words, how fast can you find the perfect hotel, and still enjoy doing it?

So what would help get a site into the third category? Firstly a map, with a scale, marked with major landmarks such as the centre of town, the conference centre, the major sights, etc, and then overlaid with the hotels with vacancies for the required dates, coloured or sized or something according to their value for money or price, filtered so that only the hotels that have the required facilities are shown, and clickable for details.

I am convinced that the site that ends up doing this right will sweep the board.

First published in ACM/Interactions, September 2003

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