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IN-DEPTH: Travel companies may have started out a little naively with their mobile strategy but 2012 has seen rapid strides made. Today’s mobile sites look set to sustain this momentum both in growth in visits and also by growing revenues.

Around this time last year, it was not uncommon to find travel companies bemoaning the `pain points’ associated with mobile offerings.

Today, however, it seems that efforts made in 2012 have paid off. From sophisticated device detection and replicating the functionality of the main websites to enabling a booking in just a few clicks, mobile portfolios are being constantly enhanced to take the user experience to a new level.

As a result, the number of mobile search queries has risen. In the first ten months of 2012, online travel company Kayak received over a billion queries via mobile. Indeed, it is argued that Kayak’s mobile strength was a key driver behind Priceline’s acquisition of the company last week for $1.8billion. 

Integral to the mobile strategy

So it seems that travel companies have focused on mobile apps, they have also aimed to ensure that mobile web isn’t ignored or left behind. The mobile web is, it seems, an integral part of the overall mobile strategy. 

A few months ago when Club Med launched its new mobile site over 10% of customers were already accessing information via mobile devices.

“With mobile traffic making up over 10% of our traffic, there was a strong need to adapt the website to make it more accessible to everyone’s needs,” says says Frederic Prisse, Internet marketing director at Club Med. “We had to take into consideration compatibility with all types of smartphones and ensure that there was not only easy access to the information, but that the website had adapted to the devices and their constraints (size of screen, limited bandwidth and so on).”

Ensuring conversion

Club Med’s first step was to make the information available on every possible screen. On top of that the focus has been on ensuring that customers are guided to complete their task, including their bookings that begin on mobile sites. For instance, Club Med’s new site features the ‘click-to-call” button which connects customers to an experienced Club Med travel advisor for an over the phone booking.

“With the mobile website, we’ve created a ‘new’ point of entry for our potential customers and prospects, that is totally integrated in all our more classical channels,” he explains. Conversion is then assured through the call centre as all calls to action use a unique number, taking advantage of the phone functionality of the smartphone. This is something that initially people over looked and often people want to speak to a person.

With respect to global strategy, the mobile website ensures that Club Med covers every possible screen. “Access to information to Apple devices is covered thanks to the dedicated app, the next natural step was to cover other types of smartphone such as Android and Blackberry,” he says.

The planning process has also been simplified. The search function lets mobile users choose between resorts based on the type of vacation experience or enables them to choose the level of luxury they require and so on. 

Learning from mistakes

Early mobile websites only offered limited version of the regular site but that is changing. Club Med aimed to deliver a much deeper level of information while still ensuring that it was adapted for mobile devices.

“The most important and relevant information will be directly accessible from the homepage, but if you want delve deeper and know everything about for example, a resort, you won’t have to wait until you’re on a regular computer to do so,” he says. “We managed to design the mobile website respecting brand guidelines and not making an oversimplified, ugly version of the web interface,” he says. Structuring the information carefully was essential.

For Sunit Singh, lead designer at Mumbai-based online travel company Cleartrip context is more important than trying to mimic your existing features of your website.  When the company first launched Cleartrip’s mobile product it allowed users to only make one-way domestic flight bookings for a single adult only. “Not only were we testing the waters at the time, but the business traveller was the strongest use case - someone who wants to book a flight while on the go,” he explains. By focusing on the primary user and understanding the context in which he could access the mobile site is key to building a relevant mobile experience.

Cleartri’sp mobile site is in the centre of its overall mobile strategy. Today, even after launched an iOS app the company is seeing a significant amount of iOS traffic searching and booking on our mobile site. “This is a clear indicator that people want you to be accessible through their mobile browser. Moreover, we don’t see ourselves building an app for every platform - this is why investing on the mobile site will go a long way,” says Singh.

Cleartrip’s tips for mobile websites

•     Design for speed and performance– on a mobile screen this really does matter.

•     Be brutal - When it comes to designing for mobile you have to brutally cut down the number of steps involved. Keep it as simple as possible – our booking process requires customers to fill out fewer than half the fields they have to fill out on the regular Cleartrip website. Moreover, the possibility of network loss is much higher when you are on an EDGE or 3G. Cleartrip has significantly cut down the number of steps and server calls to ensure fewer failures.

•     Use web standards - When it came to tackling text input for our mobile product, Cleartrip simply took advantage of existing standards, letting the original vision of the experts show the way. We made extensive use of HTML5′s support for different types of form fields in order to set the on-screen keyboards a user sees while using our product. Different keyboard layouts can be triggered by using the ‘type’ attribute of a field’s ‘input’ tag.

Explicitly specifying different ‘types’ for different fields automatically switches the on-screen keyboard on your smartphone. So, while you are entering data in a phone or credit card field, the keyboard displays only numeric keys. Similarly, when you’re filling in an email address, giving the field a ‘type’ of ‘email’ displays the ‘@’ and ‘.’ characters prominently for the user’s convenience.

•     Focus on typography - Given the physical constrains of mobile devices you really need to optimise the contents on the screen. For example, when Cleartrip first started designing for mobile, the limited screen size demanded that we completely cut down on any unnecessary detail. This also forced us to represent information with a stronger visual hierarchy to make it readable at arm’s length.

While many of these things may go unnoticed, the little things do add up to make a huge difference.



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