The Ace Hotel is an exclusive global hotel franchise that focuses on a luxury but local experience in all of its locations. We were tasked with designing a new way for hotel guests to book experiences when staying at the London branch. There were several criteria to meet with this brief including:
- Showcasing the brand’s point of difference (hyper-local, authentic)
- Allowing users to easily reschedule their experiences if necessary
- Allowing customers to rate and/or share the experience via social media
- Allowing customers to contact staff about activities via online messaging
I started by doing some comprehensive research on competitor travel/experience booking websites to get an idea of where Ace Hotel could sit within the marketplace; I mapped this onto a quadrant for clarity:
The majority of travel/experience-booking websites cater to the mass market and aim to provide users with as much choice as possible. They also tend to focus on key touristic attractions rather than unique local experiences. Competitors like AirBnB have branched out into offering local and authentic experiences to customers when booking their stay, however there appears to be no limit on the number of experiences offered to someone.
I worked off the assumption that Ace Hotel could differentiate themselves by offering local experiences in affinity with their brand, but making sure to offer a small curated list of experiences to maintain exclusivity and make the booking journey as simple as possible for users. As a team we then had to validate this assumption from user interviews.
We spoke to a total of 10 people who had previously booked travel experiences. We synthesised our findings using affinity mapping in order to identify key problems and see where we could add most value to a user's booking journey. We identified several key trends from our users:
- Users liked a curated selection of activities to choose from. When using sites such as TripAdvisor (which are not curated), they tended to stick to the ‘Top 10’ activities listed on these sites.
- Users trusted opinions of locals and/or hotel staff members more so than reviews from other guests (though reviews are still important).
- People who didn’t like to pre-book travel activities said they didn’t like the lack of flexibility that came with pre-booking.
- The most common reason listed for abandoning a booking process was a slow website and/or an inefficient payment process.
- Users’ preferred method of booking was online, and their preferred method of contact for any further questions was via email rather than phone.
Developing our Solutions
Before we began to generate design solutions, we distilled our insights from user interviews plus our business analysis of the Ace Hotel and created a persona to help us stay focussed during our ideation phase.
Designing with Sofia in mind, we began to ideate on solutions by running several design studios as a team, focusing on developing the key areas we had defined from our user interviews & affinity mapping:
- A curated selection of activities
- An authentic local selection of activities backed up by positive customer reviews
- A simple online booking process
We found the design studio process really helpful for problem solving & ideating and took our favourite sketches from the process into our low-fi prototype.
Myself and teammates Ian & Pascal during a design studio
User Testing & Iterations
Starting with our low-fi sketched prototype from our design studios, we created 3 prototypes in total and iterated throughout the project based on insights from user testing. Our key iterations were as follows:
1. How to present our Curated Experiences
We knew we wanted a curated list of experiences rather than a vast list like other competitors, but struggled with how to present this information. Through a combination of user testing and further design studios, we changed from a long scrolling list of activities, to implementing a horizontal scrolling carousel for each category. In our final high-fidelity prototype we added visible filters to make the browsing experience as quick and easy as possible for our user.
2. Presentation of the ‘Key Info Highlights’
In addition to having a curated list of experiences, we knew that our users wanted a quick way to see a summary of key information about a tour or experience without having to trawl through paragraphs of information. Through our design studio process we decided to have icons for these key pieces of information such as tour duration and languages offered (things that competitors often failed to do). Through user testing our final high-fidelity prototype had this information in visible icons at the top of the activity detail pages.
3. Presentation of the Staff or Local opinions
We knew from our user insights from interviews that opinions of staff and/or locals was hugely important from a trust perspective when it came to users booking travel experiences. We therefore wanted to incorporate this sense of trusted opinions into our offering. Through our first design studio we decided on a dedicated page of “staff picks” of experience. Through user testing and further design studios we decided that since our offering of experiences was highly curated anyway, this wasn’t necessary and it complicated the browsing and booking process. We instead decided to include a simple yet noticeable quote from staff members on each experience detail page.
Native App vs Responsive Website
In the brief we were told we could design our product as a native app or a mobile-first responsive website. We drew up a pros and cons list and decided on designing a responsive website for the following reasons:
- The Ace Hotel doesn't have an existing native app. Launching as a responsive website means we could create our product as an MVP on the existing Ace Hotel website, and test various features with a view to creating a native app once more data had been gathered.
- We wanted non-guests of the Ace Hotel to be able to see what they were missing out on with our experiences offering (the lobby of the hotel is a popular co-working space), and this wouldn’t be possible if it required downloading a native app.
- We found in our user research that most users planned and booked holidays and experiences on websites, so a mobile-first website would offer continuity to their booking journey.
The Final Prototype
Please see below for a video of the final high-fidelity prototype, or if you want to explore more yourself, check out the prototype here
As this product is intended as an MVP, given more time to continue the project we imagined that our next steps would be as follows:
- Gather data on usage and determine whether to build a native app
- Once native app is created, explore other functionalities such as a DIY audio guide feature which would be particularly useful for:
- Business travellers (most tours aren’t available outside of working hours rendering it impossible for business travellers to partake in guided tours
- Flexibility for leisure travellers e.g. if they couldn’t make any of the times
- Language Accessibility (since London is such an international city and it’s not possible to offer guided tours in all languages, this service could instead be offered via audio guide.)