In our latest UX Insider interview I had a fascinating chat with Grant McAllister, a Senior UX Designer at Booking.com.
Could you describe a typical Booking.com user and tell us how you go about improving their experience?
One of the great things about working at Booking.com is we design for such a vast array of people. We have millions of people from over 200 countries using the site everyday, and they have different cultural backgrounds and different travel needs. We have people who use the website in very verbose languages such as Greek and Russian, and they have quite different experiences and needs from Japanese or Chinese users, or even Arabic users who are using the website in right to left.
They all expect different things when they’re looking for accommodation online, which means we don’t have one specific persona – we try and design for everyone and that’s one of the challenges.
So how do you do that when you have such a diverse user base?
To understand our users we do a lot of user research and user testing, which allows us to better understand the different needs and cultural affordances of our users. We also run surveys constantly, and have a usability lab in our Amsterdam office that’s constantly in use.
I think one of our biggest challenges is making our designs flexible enough to work for all these people, and in all the different browsers that we support. Currently, we support 41 languages and there are a lot of complexities with such an extreme, diverse user base.
Designing sites for an international audience especially at our scale is really hard, by biggest tip would be to say that copy is key. Working with great copy writers and language specialists who understand what you are trying to convey to the user and giving feedback on the approach and tone can make or break a feature or product.
You mention the challenge of your varied user base, but what other big challenges are you facing as an organisation in the next 12 months in terms of UX?
From the perspective of the design team, a lot of our challenges are working at our scale. The website was first made in 1996 or 1998, so you can imagine there are lots of complexities with this older code piece, which is something that we’re constantly trying to evolve. We’re also growing very fast, which means hiring the right people is another challenge, as well as making sure those people are then working on the right problems.
Have you got any learning points that you could share in terms of how to approach these challenges or anything you’ve experienced that you think might be useful?
My advice would be to work on challenges and things that you’re passionate about. At Booking.com, we’re all very enthusiastic about travel, for instance all the designers travel quite a lot through the year, and we use our product regularly. That allows us to see the real pain points when you’re actually trying to book accommodation. It’s really easy to work on improving something that frustrates you, and that is likely to be frustrating other people. Of course we have to validate the problems and that’s where user research and feedback comes in.
I’d also advise anyone in a similar role to work on as many different projects as possible as I think this is key to learning and helping round yourself as a designer.
We’ve talked about challenges, but what would you say is the biggest threat to success for UX inside Booking.com?
I think it would be egos. We’re very humble people – we know that we don’t have the most beautiful or the best designed product in the world and I think we’re very humble in our approach in that we want to make it better. We’re never satisfied and we’re always pushing for something better and know we can improve something for our customers. So I think our biggest threat would be if we got a little bit lackadaisical to that, if we didn’t care or if we thought we were the best.
“I never used to validate ideas, and when I first started out I didn’t know I had to. But what I’ve learned is that I’m often wrong.”
Have you got any examples of a big UX mistake that you’ve made in your career so far and what you’ve learned from that?
I’d probably say it was when I first started out and had this mindset that designers know best. And in the companies I’d worked at designers were always empowered and their solutions were just expected to work. I never used to validate ideas, and when I first started out I didn’t know I had to.
But what I’ve learned is that I’m often wrong. Another great thing about working at Booking.com is that we validate all of our ideas, we A/B test everything, we get qualitative data and we use feedback to make sure that we’re making the right decisions. Ideas can come from the designers, developers, product planners – it’s a very agile way of working for AB testing and quick iterations and that’s really helped me develop my design process.
I’ve learned that there’s so much power in validating ideas and more often than not you’re going to be wrong in your first approach, so it’s key to learn from each experiment or from each solution you put out there and to keep evolving it.
Working with such an international audience of users, the things you can learn just from user testing in a different country or a different context are fascinating.
In the ‘Trip of a Lifetime’ section there’s a list of ‘what’s your passion?’ where you can build your ideal break based on your interests. I haven’t seen that feature before – where did it come from and did you have any user feedback on it?
This wasn’t something that I was involved in specifically, but I can give you a little bit of background. As we’ve been building the website we’ve focused on the customers who knew where they wanted to go and have optimised our sales front to cater for them. And I think it’s something we do very well – if you know where you want to go and you know what’s important to you we can help you find the right accommodation, be it a hotel or an igloo or a city apartment.
But what we’re seeing more and more is people traveling for experiences. So we’re exploring that and giving people the opportunity to be inspired and create an experience that they really want through this feature.
One of the things I like to remember when I’m designing is that not everyone has the ability to travel multiple times per year. Some people never leave the country they were born in, some people may only have one holiday in their entire lifetime and a product like ours is really cool, because we can be what stands between you getting something great or the only holiday in your lifetime not being very good, or not living up to what you wanted.
“Truthfulness is very important in this feature.”
Across the website I notice you use quite a lot of alert boxes and iconography. Can you tell me anything about those?
The iconography works in multiple languages, or for the most part it should work in multiple languages. But like I said before, when you’re designing for languages that are very concise or very verbose your design has to be flexible and icons are often a good way to manage that and make it flexible enough. I also think that in the travel industry the icons are very recognisable to the people who are using these products, so that can help us to make the design simpler.
We use the alert boxes to help users make a decision. For example, in a user test recently we had someone who was actually booking a hotel for a concert. They selected their dates and their destination, and then saw that four people were looking at the same hotel that was right next to the concert venue, where there were only a few rooms left. So that person said ‘I really want to book this right now because if they’re also going to that concert I might not get this room’. So we aim to help inform people’s decisions.
Personally I think there’s a very fine ethical line that you can cross and be too pushy or misleading. It’s something at Booking.com that we take very seriously and make sure we don’t cross that line. We want to make sure that it’s always helpful to customers and that it’s never damaging, deceiving, or pushing someone to do something they don’t want to.
Truthfulness is very important in this feature.
I also noticed that there seems to be a really big emphasis on user-generated content on the site. What’s the thinking behind that?
This is actually one of our USPs, that all this content comes from people who’ve stayed in properties that they’ve booked through Booking.com and we’ve confirmed they went there.
We know that some people aren’t sure about destinations, but we also know that so many people are using Booking.com that there are a lot of travel experts out there, who travel a lot or who are really passionate about their destinations and think they could help other people.
So we’re trying to empower people to share that knowledge and be those travel experts. You can get some really great tips on destinations from locals, or people visiting family or maybe somewhere off the beaten track suggested by a hotelier. These things might not be in a travel guide, and if they share that with Booking.com users it can add a lot of value to their trip.
“One thing we don’t do with user-generated content is edit it; we don’t translate it, so you’ll only see content about your destination or from people who’ve written something in your language.”
Do you face any challenges from a UX perspective with all the user-generated content?
With the website in so many languages, it can be hard to know what to do with some of this content, or how to display it properly and make it engaging for the customers who want to view it. But one thing we don’t do with user-generated content is edit it; we don’t translate it, so you’ll only see content about your destination or from people who’ve written something in your language.
And there are a lot of challenges. It’s often very unpredictable and people have very different styles for sharing information. We’re lucky to have such a range of designers that we can put our heads together and work on some of these challenges, which makes it quite fun.
“Everything comes from the users and they help us drive our decisions.”
And how do you prioritise new features, or new ideas, for Booking.com?
As designers we have the freedom to work on almost anything we want, but we always hire designers with good commercial awareness who know the industry we’re in and who are very in touch with users. That means they can see the problems and we make sure that we have enough research and enough data to know what the big problems are and what challenges we should work on. Everything comes from the users and they help us drive our decisions.
I always know if I have an idea in the morning on the way into work, I can come in, I can work on the UI, go for lunch, come back, push the code, roll out and by the time I’ve gone home, millions of people have seen or used my feature or my product. It’s very empowering for designers. But each teams works closely with product owners, which help drive business needs and user problems to help us prioritise some of these ideas.
That sounds like a real challenge as well though, because if you’ve got 120 designers and they’ve all got different ideas, how is it possible for everybody to have so much freedom and still have a working website?
A typical team normally has a designer, a front-end developer, a back-end developer and a product owner, so in one sense we’re like a small start-up because we’ve got at least one of every skill and we’ll all work on specific problems or specific parts of the website. I’m currently on the User Accounts team for example.
Having that team structure allows us to work on different problems or different parts of the website where we don’t step on each other’s toes. It involves a lot of good communication, so a lot of catch-ups, and a weekly meeting with all the designers where we discuss what we’re working on and make sure that we coordinate and communicate so that overlaps or conflicts don’t happen. Of course they still do from time to time because there are so many people involved, but I think communication is really key here to helping us coordinate ideas and prioritise what we work on.
“Being in the lab conducting user research is my favourite thing for finding out how users are using the product and getting feedback on design decisions.”
What UX methods or tools do you find most helpful in doing your role?
For me, being in the lab conducting user research is my favourite thing for finding out how users are using the product and getting feedback on design decisions. There’s nothing better than seeing someone react to something you’ve designed. You can see them getting confused or flinching or smiling as they get into it and it’s working perfectly.
One thing that’s very consistent when I talk to people is that in UX you can’t know everything. Is there any area of knowledge that you feel you really need to know more about?
Everything to be honest! Designers at Booking.com do a little bit of everything – user research, the typical UX stuff of wireframes and prototypes, code, UI and visual design.
I don’t think there is just one thing you can be great at, so for me it’s always about pushing myself to learn these different skills. I’m currently learning more about how to use the data to help make smarter decisions for users, and trying spot behavioural changes with users. There’s a lot of psychology that comes into play and that’s one of the areas that I’m really interested in.
But we have the pleasure of working with psychology experts at Booking.com who can help us with this, and we have a really good research team who I’m always trying to work more closely with so I can understand exactly what’s happening with users.
What would you say is the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is the ability to come up with ideas and push them out to millions of people every day. When I first started I couldn’t fathom that number of people. And for me that’s still one of the most exciting things about my job.
Imagine someone is booking their honeymoon and the fact that I could stand between them having a great honeymoon or a terrible one is very impactful and a big responsibility, but I absolutely love it.
And what about the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part is designing good products that work at this scale, in so many different contexts. It’s extremely difficult but it’s so much fun. You’ll be user testing and you won’t believe what some people are expecting or looking for and I would never have considered that, so one of the hardest parts is trying to understand the intent, the contexts it’s going to be used in and who it could help, and how to surface it to those people but not surface it for the people it’s not so relevant for.
How did you get into UX?
When I was 14 or 15 I was working in a computer shop on the weekend and someone came in needing a website – I’d never done it before but I thought it seemed easy enough, and I picked it up quite easily.
I’ve always liked to create and make stuff, but when I was speaking to people who needed websites and finding out what they wanted to achieve, what people were going to do on their site, what they wanted to happen when they got there, something just sparked in me. There was this interest, this intrigue and it became a passion. I couldn’t believe someone started paying me for it!
Where do you go for inspiration or to see great ideas?
I look at a lot of other travel websites, and blogs and ecommerce sites in general. I think that’s quite a standard thing to do, to look at competitors and see what space they’re maybe moving into. But I also like to follow a lot of designers and speak to designers to see what they’re working on and the challenges they face, something that’s not in my industry or the travel industry per say.
Medium.com/design is one of my favourite sites just now for getting insights into people’s processes, what they’re working on, the challenges they face and the ideas they have. I love to see someone come up with something that’s very controversial and just put it out there and get feedback – I love those kinds of conversations.
Some of my favourite designers are Tobias van Schneider, Daniel Burka and designers like Luke Wroblewski who’s constantly challenging mobile patterns and helping people push these products and I think that’s mostly where my inspiration comes from.
But I also like to deconstruct other designs and figure out the initial intent – what is that element trying to do? What are they trying to achieve? What was the designer trying to solve by putting that there or making this interaction do this? And I love to try and recreate these and add my own flavour and see if I can make it better.
Are there any blogs, podcasts or books that you find yourself recommending?
The Design Details podcast from Spec FM is one of my favourites. It’s something that I’ve normally got on in the office. Also LukeW on Twitter who’s always sharing mobile patterns and challenging people with new ideas. He’s very data driven and a very good resource for people to go to for inspiration for the problems they’re working on.
Are there any websites that you look at and think, wow, they’ve really got that right?
I think Medium’s a good example of this, they really make the content the key thing and the website feels undesigned – I think that’s one of my favourite experiences.
We also have an app called Booking Now, where you enter in all the details you want and it finds a property near you for that night, or tomorrow night. It’s one of my favourite experiences because it takes all the thinking out of the process.
Again, it feels undesigned, it feels like I don’t have to think, I don’t have to choose – it just gives me what I want. I think these sorts of personalised experiences are the future of user experience.
“Products are going to become smarter. Users are going to have higher standards for the quality of what you’re delivering them and I think making things more end-to-end and including your users in the experience will be key.”
That leads me onto the next question quite nicely. What do you think is going to be different in five years in the way we book travel and accommodation?
I think it’s how we personalise these products and that end-to-end experience. It’s very narrow minded to just look at it as being an accommodation provider, rather than helping people go on a vacation, or have an experience and I think that’s the kind of direction it’s going to go in the next five years.
Products are going to become smarter. Users are going to have higher standards for the quality of what you’re delivering them and I think making things more end-to-end and including your users in the experience will be key. So imagine someone’s booking a property. It doesn’t just stop once they’ve booked and you’ve got the money. They’re still going on a vacation and you can still add a lot of value to that. I think that’s going to be key to engaging users, getting them to use your products and getting them to come back because they feel like you care about them and their experience.
What do you think the biggest frustration for users is in the booking process?
A level of uncertainty. We have a lot of choice, but a lot of people haven’t been to these properties before and they’re trying to get a good overview of not just a destination, but also where they’re going to stay and what they’re going to do when they get there. I think getting a truthful overview where all those things are considered is one of the biggest frustration points, and bringing that all together at the right time, in the right place, for the right people is a difficult challenge.
If somebody was starting a very similar role in a different company, what advice would you offer them?
Think about how you can apply your skills to work on the big business problems. Designers often think about how to make an interface look great, but we’re problem solvers. I think we can add a lot of value to businesses and a lot of value to users by thinking at a higher level and spending time working on things that matter.
Thanks for reading. If you would like to be interviewed, or you’d like us to interview anyone in particular please get in touch.