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If you want to know how the travel sector sees the role of mobile apps shaping up, talk to developers. Since their role is to visualise the whole trip planning process, or make the in-destination phase more interesting, they often have the inside track.

Many travel companies focused on developing their mobile portfolio in 2012. They looked around to establish what worked on their desktop websites and how they could best extend this to mobile devices. Firms also considered how to capitalise on the popularity of mobile devices, the performance of mobile operating systems and so on. As 2013 gets underway, travel companies recognise that now is the time to focus more deeply on customer engagement.

EyeforTravel’s Ritesh Gupta talks to Kaushal Kantawala, Mixologist at Room77 to find out how the mobile app space is shaping up.

EFT: What exactly do you do as Mixologist at Room 77?

KK: I do what a Mixologist is born to do: make people – in other words customers and employees - happy. Regarding the product, my job involves mobile development for our apps, designing new features and working with our development team to get them out on schedule, and managing the mobile product roadmap. Additionally, I track analytical data for our apps and make improvements to increase usage and conversion, while simultaneously working with marketing to push our app awareness

EFT: What will set companies operating in the mobile apps space apart in 2013?

KK: For the most part, the mobile apps space has grown in a common direction. Most apps that are frequently used have a common feature set and comparable prices. In the near future, what will set companies apart is a compelling new feature for which they may be able to charge a premium and still have a loyal customer base or market-breaking prices. I think the former is more likely.

EFT: What did Room 77 set out to achieve with its mobile apps and how would you assess this performance in 2012?

KK: Room 77 always sets the highest standards in product refinement and user experience. Our goal this year was to develop and launch our new native iOS and Android apps, as well as drive user engagement with the Room 77 brand on mobile devices. At this stage, we have come a long way; each of our apps has been downloaded several thousand times, and we see daily engagement and bookings from users. We proactively collect feedback from users and our analytics platforms to make the apps more intuitive and easier to use. It’s encouraging to have a great response to our apps but for us, the work is never done and the hammer and chisel can never rest. We are working for stronger 2013 and aim to make Room 77 a household name on all platforms.

EFT: How tough was it to work on mobile apps considering the scope of work?

KK: We were developing mobile apps for Room 77 after the web platform had already been written. Obviously, there was no point in reinventing or throwing away the wheel so we used what we learned from the website.

However, users on mobile tend to engage very differently. They are generally shopping for last minute hotel rates and are in a hurry so we need to provide the shortest path for them from searching for a hotel to completing a booking. This gets complicated, especially when we are looking at searching several different providers to find the best rates and responsiveness varies from different providers, loading images, hotel information etc. possibly over a weak 3G or slower network. At the same time, we ensure parity in our feature set and experience across multiple platforms. This made design and engineering challenging but we enjoy working with hard interesting problems.

EFT: What stands out in Room77’s app; is it sidebar navigation, search filter or user interface or anything else?

KK: Insider Tips is a feature allowing users to access the curated repository of information that we have collected and built for each hotel. To me, it is invaluable to know when I book a room whether rooms at the end of the lobby are bigger or not, or which ones are closer to the elevator so I can request a room accordingly. I’m also particular about room views and from insider tips I actually know what are all possible views available and which rooms have the best views. In addition we have special rates for club members and these are discounts other apps do not provide. In addition we provide a Room Concierge service to help our customers get the room they request.

So what stands out about Room 77’s apps is the added value they bring to the table while adhering to overall simplicity and elegance.

EFT: Talking of mobile shopping, how can one assess consumers’ shopping behaviour as they hop between devices, and also mobile web and apps?

KK: Restating the obvious, most hotel bookings are made for weekends. That being said, what really interests us is how many days in advance are these bookings made. There are several analytics solutions that provide information regarding the time of the day and date on which the app was used. Some interesting data can be collected based on where the app is being used, whether it is an airport, train station, coffee shop or residence. We want to use all the data we collect to find users the best deals and most personalised results based on their mobile shopping habits.

EFT: How do you ensure that interest is sustained in your apps?

KK: There are divided philosophies on making a great user experience. One is along the lines of listening to your customer and the other is believing that your customer does not know what they really want until you serve it to them. We find our sweet spot in middle, so we take feedback seriously and update our apps accordingly. At the same time we work on innovative features that don’t currently exist in mobile travel apps and experiment with those to see the traction they receive.

EFT: What do you make of usage pattern and involvement level of users?

KK: It has been very promising so far. Our downloads and updates have been steadily increasing and so has the average engagement time and sessions. We closely track screens within the app where there is higher drop-off, pinpoint the cause and fix it. It is always interesting to study this data because we find data pointing to usage in certain parts of the app the way we least expected and it gives us meaningful insights into our app usage.

In general we find engagement statistics comparable between iOS and Android in terms of how the app is being used. This is expected because we focus on maintaining a uniform brand experience on a cross platform scale.

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