Expedia Reads Your Mind (and Face) to Beat Rivals
The travel company Expedia is trying to read my mind. Or more accurately, it's trying to analyze my emotions to figure out how I’m feeling as I go about booking travel on its website. To do so, Expedia’s researchers have wired me with electrodes. They are tracking my eye movements and scrutinizing me through one-way glass in their recently opened “usability lab” in London.
The lab is an important component in Bellevue, Wash.-based Expedia’s efforts to stay ahead of a growing raft of competitors, from Priceline’s Booking.com to China’s Ctrip—which recently bought Skyscanner—to Airbnb and TripAdvisor, which are increasingly morphing into full-service travel booking sites. And then there’s behemoth Google, which may one day dominate travel searches through its digital assistant. “The lab allows us to see how people emotionally engage with the site,” said Gary Morrison, Expedia’s senior vice president of retail and brand.
Research subjects in the lab are hooked up to sensors for electromyography—technology that records minute muscle movements, in this case the muscles in people's faces. These tiny facial movements in turn let Expedia's researchers detect emotional responses, even when the subjects themselves might not be conscious they are experiencing them. Eye tracking allows researchers to see exactly what the subjects are looking at when they experience these emotions. Researchers observing the subjects will also intervene to ask explicit questions about what’s motivating certain emotions as they book travel.
Expedia is hoping the lab will help it find ways to reduce the stress and frustration associated with making online bookings. A survey its U.K. branch conducted found that more than 75 percent of people considered purchasing a holiday online as stressful as a bad day at the office, being stuck in traffic, or arguing with a loved one. Nearly a third said that the internet had made travel booking more confusing because of the multitude of options now available.
Insights from its usability labs, which Expedia operates in Bellevue and Singapore as well as in London, led the company to develop its Scratchpad feature, which automatically saves users’ travel searches as they go along, Morrison said. Researchers in the lab had been surprised to learn just how many different flight options users searched before booking—an average of 48—and how often consumers were resorting to good old paper and pencil to keep track of these searches.
Experiments in its usability labs also showed that consumers responded most positively to photographs of hotel rooms depicting attractive vistas out the rooms’ windows rather than those that focused on the bed. This finding has helped the hotel operators that list rooms with Expedia boost bookings, Morrison said.
The usability labs are just one aspect of a technological push Expedia has made under Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi, who boosted the company’s overall spending on technology from $130 million, when he took over in 2005, to $750 million in 2015. The company has ramped up the number of engineers it employs and now conducts more than 1,000 A/B tests per year to figure out the best tweaks to make to its websites and mobile apps. The company has also been using machine learning to optimize flight searches and has been experimenting with chatbot travel assistants that understand natural language, said Scott Crawford, London-based vice president for e-commerce at Expedia.
To learn firsthand how Expedia’s usability lab works, I let myself get wired up.