Data and design: transforming the travel industry

IBM’s Amanda Gosling looks at how the growth of mobile and other digital channels is leading to disruption in the travel industry and bringing design to the fore.


The travel industry is seeing significant transformation, fuelled by an explosion of digital channels, mobile ownership and changing consumer behaviour.

As the pace of change accelerates and industry boundaries increasingly blur, there is a growing opportunity for organisations to understand and engage with their consumers in different ways. The ability to access relevant data to understand and predict consumer behaviour and design a personalised experience has become the key opportunity, fundamentally changing how customers interact and transact with brands and businesses everywhere.

As industries start to overlap, the focus is moving away from that singular, inspirational moment towards the ability to change the entire consumer journey, quite literally, with experience design as the driver.

Blurring boundaries

Expectations today are often created by moments and interactions outside the core industry of focus. Boundaries are blurring and the more that the strategic innovators of the travel industries coalesce, the better they will become at removing friction from the consumer experience.

Disruptions in the industry so far have been profound but have still centred on these individual points of travel, as opposed to the entire experience. In the future, for example, airlines and hotels will have to work together when they are looking at end-to-end experience from the customer’s perspective. Airlines such as Emirates have already aimed to create more “hotel-like” experiences, but there are few leaders in designing the experience from door-to-door.

Defined by experience

At the outset, you’d think this had already happened, but in reality, online travel aggregators are only really solving the booking experience. In today’s environment, no experience can be based on an individual “industry”, and true disruption will evidence when organisations are able to operate across industry verticals in a consumer-centric way, i.e. defined by experience.

This experience requires that user-centric, cohesive viewpoint that typifies what design is really about: moving past the definition of an individual moment and instead combining interactions and pieces of travel comprising the overall journey. Design plays an important role here as it asks questions about that journey in a different way, but also creates a requirement for industries to work together to foster that environment.

This is obvious for the user, but from the industry perspective challenges traditional economic models and highlights the notion that this is far from an incremental process; it is far more about creating that empathy to truly meet the needs of the consumer, and then working to create the eco-system and new business models required from more vertical integration to co-opertition for different segments.

Airbnb and design thinking

This disruptive thinking arguably goes a step beyond even the story of Airbnb, a well-used example in this space. It’s still a significant depiction of design thinking, though. This business model applied abstract, user-centric questioning to completely re-evaluate its business model and essentially act as a connector.

Digital disruption has introduced this connecting notion in a range of industries, from travel to transportation and even to DIY. By providing the digital capability to match an individual who needs a service with another individual who can provide one, organisations are shifting away from focusing on products and services to instead focus on the what the consumer needs holistically.

Design thinking in this context transformed a failing business model into one that applied digital values to a traditional business model. Organisations in the travel industry are increasingly realising that design in this context is crucial; and not in the traditional sense – ultimately, this comes down to reframing problems to find different solutions that create a human experience, solve an actual problem or create a business opportunity.

The rise of mobile

Today’s consumer is increasingly mobile-centric, which brings even more focus to the role of design. Adoption figures are no longer relevant – we are now seeing that growing numbers of transactions are conducted on mobile devices, and from a content and social media perspective, mobile is the device of choice. This means that consumers have the data, collaboration and power at their fingertips to make decisions through a range of channels that are even more spontaneous, convenient and social.

It is not unknown that the consumer attention span is reducing in an environment where any task can be completed in the palm of your hand. This, in tandem, erodes brand loyalty. With the ability to make such informed decisions, today’s modern consumers are fickle. They want to know that they have the best deal, with the least hassle, and will most likely share these decisions on social media, too. Design is therefore playing a fundamentally important part in developing customer-centric experiences that are trustworthy, appealing and engaging both from a utility and aesthetic perspective across all available channels. Whether booking a luxury cruise, a business stay or a week in a backpacker hostel, consumers are ultimately influenced by personalised and genuine interactions, and creating those interactions requires a deep understanding of their behaviour and ecosystem.

As the travel industry transforms, experience is everything. It is the only sustainable source of growth and differentiation, and this is powered by design. We are blending the real and the digital world, as well as physical and virtual. The depth of customer experience is therefore multi-faceted and complex, and as such design teams will need to become even more versed in this new understanding so that they too can adapt to evolving consumer behaviour.

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