March 26, 2004

online travel site homepages

Preface: it must be Matt Jones day.

Travelocity launched their redesigned site this week (along with a redesigned visual identity). Their press release cites the user research they conducted. “Findings indicated that consumers viewed online travel sites as visually crowded, with too many offers and features competing for their attention.” And I think they did hit the mark in cleaning up their home page, their flight search results pages, and their overall IA.

But earlier this week Matt Jones pointed to Michael Bernard’s study “Examining User Expectations of the Location of Web Objects,” which notes that most study participants “expected a website’s internal search engine to be generally centered at the upper half of a web page.” (Jones went on to make a recommendation for how the newly redesigned should rework their search box.) The combination of Jones’ post and the new Travelocity got me thinking about just what it is that I love about Expedia so much (besides the calendar integration, that is), so I went to compare the two (and threw in a look at Orbitz, for good measure).

And something became immediately obvious to me: it’s all about the home page. Now, admittedly, I’m a utility bigot, and I’m not the type to surf endlessly for vacation deals to Aruba. But Expedia puts the flight search box – the number one reason I’m visiting – front and center, and given it plenty of room to breathe. Both Travelocity and Orbitz, however, shuttle theirs to the left-hand gutter, giving much more visual prominence to “marketing” items – hotel deals, flight deals, travel deals and deals on deals.

So because there’s nothing better to do at midnight on a Thursday, I grabbed screencaps of the home pages of Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz (at 1024x768 resolution with just a bit of chrome and no scrolling) and mapped the major areas of functionality, in four categories. The flight picker (obviously), nav/tools (things that help the user with functionality of the site), marketing (deals, deals and more deals) and branding.

The colors obviously tell the story on their own, but what jumps out at me is the visual prominence of Expedia’s flight picker, and how the remainder of the page is fairly evenly balanced between nav/tools and marketing. Again, call me a utility bigot, but is it any surprise that Expedia commands 40% of the online travel market?