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Airbnb's business model has certainly been 'disruptive' for the hotel industry, but a major factor in its success is the user experience.
While some travel brands have yet to fully adapt to the web, Airbnb offers an excellent user experience backed up by great visual design.
I've picked out several lessons that other travel brands, and indeed any online business can learn from Airbnb...
First of all, the site looks great. First impressions matter, and new visitors to the site see a homepage with great photography and simple, clear design.
The use of images can inspire users, while the simplicity of the design tells them that this site will be easy to use.
Focus on search box
There's no clutter here, and little to distract the user from the end goal of finding a hotel.
While some other sites tend to cram as much as they can on the homepage to cover all bases, Airbnb focuses the user's attention on the search box.
The search box is well designed too. The use of autocomplete ensures that customers don't have to worry about spelling tricky place names.
It gets the calendar tool right too. It's simple, but ensuring that, when a customer selects an arrival date, the departure calendar defaults to the following day saves a lot of trouble.
Try booking a train on Eurostar's mobile site to see what a pain it can be when sites don't take account of such basics.
How to use maps
The use of Google Maps here is excellent. First of all, plotting locations on the results page like this is immensely helpful, yet something most sites aren't doing.
It enables users to see at a glance whether the locations to rent are near the city centre, beach or wherever, rather than relying on vague '10 minutes from the beach' information.
I also love the 'search when I move the map' option, which makes it nice and easy to broaden or narrow the search radius without having to start over again.
These guides are excellent. Not only is it valuable for SEO, but this is genuinely useful content for the site's users.
Take this overview of New York. The locals' pros and cons, and he 'known for' information gives people a quick idea of what the city is about, before exploring and finding which neighbourhood will suit them.
I love the micro-copy used underneath each neighbourhood, giving a flavour of each location in just a few words.
The tone is just right for the brand, while the tags provide a little more depth, and could be used as a handy search filter.
Good web form design is all important, and can be the difference between a site providing a pleasant user experience, and being massive pain for users.
Registration can be a barrier to purchase, but is necessary on a site like this. Airbnb keeps it simple as possible with a form that works equally well on mobile and desktop.
Crucially, the form asks only for the essentials: name, email address and password. No need to ask for dates of birth, where they heard about the site, and so on.
The social logins also provide an alternative, easier option for those who don't want to register in the 'usual' way.
Use of images
Images are used throughout the site to add visual appeal, and are very effective on product/listing pages.
Use of reviews
Some travel sites have yet to fully embrace reviews, or have failed to use them to their full potential.
Reviews are used well here, and it's important that people can book knowing that the host is reliable and the apartment or house is as described.
Here, the summary of scores for various factors like cleanliness and location are very useful for potential bookers.
Airbnb could make more use of reviews though. Here, Booking.com is an example to look to, as Paul Rouke has explored recently.
Reviews are a great form of social proof, and it pays to use them as much as possible.
Booking.com adds review scores as a filtering option when users are searching for hotels, and displays the average star rating prominently on search and map results.
Creating a great user experience is wasted if your checkout contains various barriers to purchase. And travel sites do have a habit of over-complicating checkout.
As we've covered before, Airbnb deals with registration well, making it as painless as possible, and continues the good work with a clear and simple checkout form.
The form is well designed, and data entry is easy enough. No unnecessary form fields or conventions on things like postcode formats.
The box on the right provides a valuable summary of room booked and total costs, while the personal touch of seeing a picture of, and being able to say hello to the host works well.
Airbnb is by no means perfect, and there are improvements that could be made. Better social integration, making more of reviews, and so on.
However, the site is attractive and designed with users in mind. It's very easy to overcomplicate the travel search and booking process, but Airbnb has managed to keep it simple and usable.
What do you think? Have I missed any major issues with Airbnb? Are there other travel sites providing a better user experience? Let me know...