Booking your holiday is an exciting experience, and for many people the online booking process is the end-point of lots of research and consideration.
The challenge for consumers is that travel booking processes are long (an average of 36 fields, that take 167.7 seconds to complete). There's a myriad of fields that have to be completed, and in some cases this can include your passport details and date of birth.
The length of booking processes, and the choice in the market, means that consumers that think "I don't have the time to complete this form, I'll come back to this another day" may never return. I researched travel booking processes because the optimisation opportunities for long forms are significant. There are a high number of fields and areas that can be improved or removed, and the challenge is always "What should we prioritise". My research highlights the opportunities, and issues, within the market.
Jump to the league table for all travel companies
I carried out this analysis in January 2018 and started by creating a persona to use across all the sites. This means that the the information I entered in the forms was standardised across every process.
In my analysis I counted only the required fields, so optional fields were noted but not included in my numbers.
Some sites (like Kuoni) don't allow you to transact online, and these have been marked in the graphs with "(Enquire)" after the company name.
Finally, when an "average number" is noted in this report it is a median average unless stated otherwise.
I reviewed the booking process for almost every major UK travel company
My research is focused on every aspect of the form, from the form elements to the timing and mobile usability.
I scored each form based on critical factors that will increase user frustration and decrease conversions
Only 4.1% of travel companies use advanced postcode lookup. An automatic lookup allows the user to type any element of their address and uses their IP address to filter the results to show the most likely matches. Reducing five fields, or two fields, to just one, will have a significant impact on conversion rates.
30.6% of sites do not mark required fields. Marking required fields will help users get through a process faster, as they don't feel inclined to enter information in fields that are optional. Making it easy for users to understand the minimum data entry requirements will increase the starter to conversion ratio for your form steps.
Only 26.5% of sites use inline validation on success and failure. Showing error messages to users as they move through the fields will allow them to fix issues quickly, and they can do so whilst their mind is on that particular field. The opposite of inline validation is submit validation, where all of the fields are checked at the end of the process, and then multiple error messages may be displayed. Going beyond validating inline for errors, is validating for success. Adding a green tick, or making the border of the input element green, confirms to the user that they have successfully completed the field, giving them confidence to move through the rest of the fields.
43% of sites do not use mobile keyboards on phone number fields. Showing a mobile-friendly keyboard, in this case a number keyboard, will make data entry significantly easier, and is a relatively easy optimisation. Making sure that your site uses the mobile, telephone and number keyboard types will allow the growing number of mobile users to get through your forms faster.
Each step or block in a booking process is a new page or new section for a potential customer to absorb. There's no magic number of steps that will lead to a higher conversion rate but there's likely to be drop off if the process gets too long.
The median number of steps across all travel companies is 3.
What consumers find important is knowing their progress in a process. In a single step form the user can see all the fields, and therefore get a general understanding of the effort required (this can cause people to abandon a process on the first step if it just looks too long). When a process has more than one step, there is an unknown amount of effort required to complete all the steps. Showing the user that they are on Step X of Y is one way to help them understand that this is (ideally) a simple process, and that they are Z% of the way through it.
Having a visual indicator of progress through steps is an easy, but important, way to help users understand how close they are to completion.
Users hate completing forms - they want to get their holiday booked as quickly as possible and to then start counting down the days until they depart. The fewer fields they have to complete, the more likely they are to get through your process.
In my research of travel companies I found the longest form was Best At Travel with a total of 54 fields to complete. 20 travel companies had 40 or more fields to complete, including volume organisations like Jet2holidays and Thomas Cook
The average number of fields across all booking processes is 36.
Whereas the relationship between the number of steps (see graph above) and the conversion rate is often indirect, there is a strong relationship between the number of fields and conversion rates. A potential customer who sees a shorter form is more likely to complete it, and the time required to complete a shorter form is less. Aggressively reducing the size of the form, and reducing the effort required to complete it, will have a positive impact on conversion rates.
Across all travel companies 21.9 of fields appear in the first step of the booking process, with 8.1% of organisations having only one step to complete.
The question over top-loading (or not) is an important one. Ask too many questions in the first step and the user will be put off, whilst having too many steps will make the user believe that they're engaging in a virtually endless process. It is important to show to the user how far they are in a process, and how many steps are left.
Only 6.1% of travel companies have six or more steps in their process. 20% have five or more, 38% have four or more, and 77% have three more steps.
If you're considering optimising the number of steps in your process then a sensible starting point for testing is the average across all companies: 25% of fields in Step 1, 40% in Step 2, 25% in Step 3 and the remainder in the final step.
On average it takes a customer 167.7 seconds to complete a booking process. There is a significant difference between the best and worst performing sites, with Best at Travel, Explore and RyanAir Holidays taking over 220 seconds and Cox & Kings, Black Tomato and Audley Travel taking less than 70 seconds.
The main factor in form completion time is the number of fields, with a general trend of a lower completion time when there are fewer fields. A secondary factor in time to complete is the type of fields used: text inputs take up the most time, followed by drop downs, then radio buttons and finally tick boxes. Radio buttons take an average of 2.8 seconds to complete (from absorbing the question, to selecting the answer) compared to 3.6 seconds for drop downs. Not only does a higher number of fields mean more time required entering data in the field, but also time between the fields, as the user completes one question and moves to the next one.
Comparing the average time per field for Carrier and Kuoni shows the importance of choosing the right field types. Carrier has one less field than Kuoni (20 vs 21) but their form takes 7.1 seconds more to complete. Their average field time is 4.57 seconds per field, versus 4.01 of Kuoni. In fact Kuoni have the lowest average field time of all sites. The reason for this difference is Kuoni have just two drop downs, versus the nine of Carrier, and instead they prefer radio buttons and tick boxes. This shift in field types means a faster process for potential customers.
Radio buttons trump Drop Downs for two reasons. Firstly all of the potential options are visible and readable by the user on a radio button. A drop down requires the user to click and then read the options.
Secondly, the user has less total interaction with a radio button than a drop down, a drop down requires a minimum of two clicks versus the single click for a radio. With a form that has a significant number of fields then saving the user fractions of a second will add up to a good time saving, and a greater likelihood of conversion.
From our aggregated timing data on forms (Formisimo tracks engagement with fields with millisecond accuracy) I can see that the time spent on a radio button (taken from the time of the interaction with the last field to the first engagement with the next field) is 2.8 seconds, whereas a drop down is 3.6 seconds.
Comparing the top five application forms (ranked using our scoring at the base of the page) and the bottom five forms you can see how the higher performing sites move away from drop downs and use a greater proportion of radio buttons and tick boxes (as well as text boxes). Radio buttons (where the user has a choice between two or more items, presented as items that are clickable) are much easier to complete. They're not ideal for when there's a lot of options, but when the choice is between two to four options it allows them all to be presented to the user without them having to click.
Comparing the UX of a text box (open, requires typing), drop downs (closed list, requires clicking and reviewing) and radio buttons (closed, all options visible) the radio button wins on total interaction required, and is therefore faster to complete. A radio button requires a single click on the right option, whereas a drop down requires a minimum of two clicks, with an unfurling of the options. That list will then need to be read and absorbed after the first click, taking up more user time.
Mobile users represent new challenges for forms. Beyond the way that a form is presented on screen there's a second challenge of how the user enters data, and dealing with the complexity of data entry compared to entering information on a desktop.
Only 57% of travel booking forms use the telephone (or number) keyboard type, with 73% of sites using the email keyboard type.
The use of keyboard types on mobile devices makes it easier for potential customers to complete a form as it shows them the most relevant keyboard for the data input. As an example, a number or telephone number field should show just the number keypad, rather than the full keyboard. A field that asks for an email address can show a keyboard that makes the "@" symbol visible without having to press the shift key. Adding this functionality to a field is relatively easy, and it generally has a positive impact on conversion rates.
Inline validation is a good way to highlight issues as a user moves through a form, allowing potential customers to correct issues before the end of the process.
For long forms inline validation is a necessity. The more questions, and the more complex the questions, the greater the likelihood that a user will make a mistake. Informing that user of errors as they go through the process (effectively one-by-one) is far better than informing the customer of many issues at the end of the process.
Inline validation can also be used to highlight success as well as failure. Typically a green tick is shown next to the field, or a green border is shown on the field itself, to validate to the user that they have successfully completed that field. This constant reminder that the user has succeeded will give them confidence, and make them feel positive about their progress through the form.
My research showed that 38.8% of travel sites had no inline validation, with 34.7% reporting just on error. 26.5% validation on both errors, and success, as the user moves through the form.
Validating for both success and failure will give the user the best level of feedback as they move through the form, and it gives you the best opportunity of converting them into customers.
Website visitors have all experienced frustrating forms and when they start to engage with yours they are carrying baggage from the times when a form has been annoying. The length of a holiday booking form suggests that it will be a painful process for them.
A good way to keep users motivated, and to challenge their belief that the experience will be painful, is to use positive validation as they enter data. This is often in the form of a tick box next to a field, and is shown as they exit the field and move to the next one. This positive validation keeps the user happy, and helps them believe that when they click the "submit" or "next" button that they will be successful.
Showing errors in-line is equally important, as the user doesn't have to wait until the end of the step to see if they have made mistakes. A good inline validation process will not only show the user if they have entered incorrect information in a field (and so so as they move out of the field) but it will also explain what they need to do to correct it.
An example of insurer AXA using full inline validation. They highlight when information is correct and also when a user makes a mistake (along with a full explanation of what the mistake is). In the image above I have left the postcode field blank, and then moved to the next field.
Adding customer service information to a form gives users the confidence that if they have an issue then they can contact you directly. They're unlikely to need to contact you, although some may have issues that you can help them with. By displaying phone numbers, or a livechat link, this increases the likelihood that a user will trust your brand, and convert.
Just 15.4% of travel sites have no customer service information visible during the application process. 43.6% include contact details on the page, with 41% having a livechat.
Marking which fields a user has to complete will save them time. It guides them to which fields you absolutely have to enter information into, and which fields you can ignore (there's a question over whether you should have any optional fields in your process). A simple asterisk or similar notation will help the user understand how they can fast-track the process.
My analysis shows that 30.6% of travel sites do not mark required fields, whilst the remaining 69.4% mark them in some way. For the sites that do not mark required fields this is an easy optimisation.
Customers get used to entering certain information into forms: they frequently enter their name and their email address. When you ask a user to enter non-standard information this will slow the process down, as the user will think "Why do you need this information, and should I enter it and continue with the process?".
Travel booking processes are generally longer than regular forms, and many ask for personal information like your date of birth, passport number and telephone number.
Explaining why you need this information can reduce the confusion that users have. So, for example, saying "We need your mobile number so we can contact you if there any changes to your trip" will remove the user's concerns.
71.4% of sites do not offer an explanation for any non-standard fields. 2.0% have a popup that appears with an explanation, whilst 26.5% have an explanation that is inline (shown next to the field) or hidden until the user clicks on an item.
Forms on travel websites ask personal questions - like your date of birth, address and passport details. Users are cautious, and sometimes confused, about questions that are highly personal. In your day to day life of completing forms this information is rarely asked for, so it can make a user consider why you need that, and then potentially decide to abandon the process.
When your process requires this information then offering an explanation as to why you need it, and what you use it for, is an important optimisation.
There are diverse ways that you can explain to the user why you need this information from them. Showing text around a field is an effective way to make sure that your explanation is always visible, but using an inline popup (that displays the message on the current field, as the user moves into it) is a good way to make the message highly visible.
American Express have a popup message on some of their fields, and it is currently visible on the email, "Name on Card" and mothers maiden name fields.
The messages are either to confirm why they need that information (in the case of Mothers Maiden Name they explain that this is needed for security and verification) or an explanation of something that may simply confuse the user ("Name on Card" is explained as it can differ from the regular name of the customer).
Entering your address into a form is a painful process for users, especially on a mobile device. The number of fields that have to be completed, and the combination of letters, and numbers (and the required switches between mobile keyboards) mean that this takes up a significant proportion of the total time to complete.
Using postcode lookup functionality can reduce the required fields from around five to just two (house number and postcode). This is a significant reduction in fields. Using an advanced, automatic postcode lookup (where the user types any element of their address into a single text box) reduces the form size further.
Just 4.1% of sites use an automatic, advanced postcode lookup. 53.1% use a standard lookup, whilst 32.7% have no address lookup at all. That's a positive number of sites that have a basic address lookup, but there's a good opportunity for them to upgrade to an advanced lookup, and to reduce the effort required to complete their process.
To rank each organisation I generated a score out of 81, which took into account the number of steps and fields (related to the median score for each) and scored companies based on the percentage they were above or below this. I also scored companies based on the removal of unnecessary obstacles, and the mobile friendliness of each form based on the usage of mobile keyboard attributes. Having a livechat and postcode lookup was also part of the scoring process, and using inline validation boosted scores further, along with other form features that I considered to be critical to conversion rates.
The aim of our scoring was to take into account attributes of the form rather than the look and feel. Some forms were more attractive than others, but as design is subjective I chose not to apply any marks for forms that I felt looked better or worse.
"If you have forms, you need to analyze their performance. Formisimo does a very good job at providing in-depth information that really helps with optimization efforts. Useful data, simple interface. It is form analytics that actually works, especially when compared to some mouse tracking tools that have form analytics as one of the many features."ConversionXL Peep Laja