The friendly travel octopus
My capstone project for the CMU MHCI program was with Expedia, who challenged our team to find a way to integrate discovery experiences into travel planning. Our clients were excited by the ways consumers use services like Pinterest and Groupon to find content they didn't even know existed, and wanted to bring that same joy to travel planning, an infamously arduous process. Our team's goal was “to engage travelers through habitual discovery, delightful planning, and confident decision-making."
Our team spent four months researching travel planning, discovery, and delight through a huge variety of methods. We asked participants to fill out daily travel planning journals for two months to get an accurate sense of how planning unfolded. We visited social groups to ask why they kept coming back to the activities they found joy in. We watched people using discovery sites and broke down what made them exciting. Most entertainingly, we interviewed people in the middle of their vacations at Disney World and Las Vegas to ask how they were deciding what to do each day. We turned this data into a mountain of notes that we then synthesized into trends.
Our major finding was that people move through identifiable stages of the travel planning process, but in different patterns. Our clients at Expedia were especially excited about this finding, as they had long suspected it but had been trying to find the longitudinal data to support their hunch.
Armed with data and aware of the ways we could help people, we worked to create something that would solve the problems we had seen our research participants struggle with. We narrowed down the many opportunities for improvement to the one we felt we could most aid: People don't usually know what they want to do when they travel. We observed that the travel planning space, the one Expedia is generally known for, was very well served by existing products, but that once travelers got down to the details of their days, they were at a loss as to how to find activities they would love doing. We approached this problem by creating a product which would suggest activities that a traveler might do in a given area and which would learn each traveler's tastes through which activities were liked and disliked. We also added a basic itinerary feature with which travelers could keep a loose schedule, which we found to be the granularity that most people are comfortable with keeping.
For the last three months of the project, we iterated weekly on our product. We spent each week ideating, prototyping, and testing with users. We started the process working on the white board together, taking turns drawing and leading, and quickly moved to paper prototyping. From there, we moved up in fidelity to basic interactivity and eventually a fully functional prototype that I developed as a native iOS app.
We started out with a broad travel planning concept, trying to solve almost all of the major pain points we had observed, but soon discovered that the concept was too complex for people to understand and that it was not solving any of the issues very well. We narrowed our scope to helping travelers find activities, which gave us a sharper focus and allowed us to solve that problem more fully. The first version worked well, but it had lost the sense of wonder that we had seen travel bring to people. We revamped the concept and landed on Oliver, the friendly travel octopus. Our testing showed that Oliver both delighted people and helped them find activities that they would actually enjoy doing.
We tested each iteration using progressively more in-depth think-aloud sessions. For earlier iterations, we asked people in coffee shops and laundromats to take a minute to answer a few basic questions, which showed us whether they understood the basic concepts; for later iterations, we recruited participants to come to our lab space and spend half an hour using Oliver, providing rich feedback along the way.
The final design
The final prototype of Oliver is available through TestFlight; get in touch and I can send it to you.