When Orbitz launched in 2000 it signaled a revolution in how consumers shopped for airfares. Previously, online travel agencies simply listed a huge number of flights and it was up to the customer to make sense of which airline was charging how much; how many stops there were; and when flights were leaving. Orbitz changed all that by introducing the fare matrix at the top of the page which gave customers a quick understanding of the tradeoffs between price, stops and choice of airline.
At the time, I remember speaking to staff at Orbitz and they said that customers either understood the matrix right away and it changed their life (I’m paraphrasing) or they didn’t understand it at all. I always felt the matrix was an amazing leap in information architecture, and other OTAs eventually agreed, as they have all adopted a matrix display for airfares. I can’t imagine looking at airfares without it.
Fast forward about 10 years, and we’ve basically seen no change in how airfares are displayed to consumers. Until now. A little company called Hipmunk is trying to take Orbitz’ idea one step further, displaying airfares in a graphic that displays a grid based on the duration of flight (go over and check it out. I’ll wait here).
Back? Good. Interesting, right? They’re putting a lot of weight on measure they call “Agony,” which is an index of tradeoffs between price, stops and duration. I’m not sure customers are going to get that (especially since I think a nonstop in a middle seat on a Continental 757 from Newark to Paris with little legroom may be more agony than a 1-stop on KLM Economy Comfort through Amsterdam…to each his own).
Putting the Agony measure aside, I admire that they’ve taken an entirely different approach to the amazingly complex problem of how you display multiple-factor options when choosing a flight. I appreciate that the focus is not on price, and that they’re focused on helping understand tradeoffs – that’s a great thing for travelers, especially when Hipmunk introduces some level of understanding the fees involved in each flight (they don’t have that now, but how do they not roll that out soon?)
That all said, while I admire what they’ve done, I don’t actually think it will take off in its current form. Why?
– Orbitz was a hit pretty quickly not only because the matrix display was brilliant, but because they were the first OTA to be tied into ITA Software. Why did that matter? Especially in the beginning, ITA simply brought back more and better fare options. That’s less true today, but in 2001 web fares were a big deal, and fares really did vary by site. That’s not really the case (much) anymore, and Orbitz brought back lower fares more often. Hipmunk is hit-or-miss on fares. That can be solved over time, but it’s not solved yet.
– The fundamental idea of the Hipmunk display is that customers will graphically understand the tradeoff between fare and duration. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. The lines they use to connote how long a flight is all look pretty similar to my eye (check out a longer flight, say New York to Paris). It’s not the obvious that one flight is two hours longer than another because of a stop. In fact, I think the way that most OTAs just tell you the flight duration actually works better (perhaps if Hipmunk put the duration of the flight within the horizontal bar connoting the length of time it would help). However, most people can’t easily suss out the difference in length of flight based on the length of line. They just look too similar.
But this is still a Version 1 — I imagine this site will look quite different in a year. There’s been so little innovation in airfares over the past year, that I really admire a company taking a different approach to visualizing a very complex problem. I’m not convinced they’ve solved it yet, but they’ve raised some money from some impressive folks who know what they’re doing. I look forward to watching them grow.