Expedia studying how online travel shopping makes you feel

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During the Expedia Partner Conference, a mobile lab was set up to conduct research on subjects shopping for travel online. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

LAS VEGAS -- On the reflective side of one-way glass sits a test subject in a soundproof room, multiple sensors applied to her face, wearing high-tech glasses that track her eyes' every movement.

On the other side sits a researcher and several computer displays monitoring the subject's movements and emotions via red and green waveforms.

No, it's not a scene out of some sci-fi film. It's an inside look into what Expedia Inc.'s user experience research team does on a daily basis.

The team set up a mobile lab at the recent Expedia Partner Conference at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, displaying its work in electromyography (EMG), a tool used to enhance Expedia's user experiences.

"In terms of the methods that we implement, we have a very broad research methodology toolkit," said Tammy Snow, Expedia's director of user experience research.

That toolkit includes EMG, "something unique to the way Expedia builds our experiences," Snow said. "We care very much about the emotional impact of experiences."

Emotional impact is what EMG measures. Eye-tracking glasses enable a researcher to see what a test subject is looking at, whether it's on a desktop computer or a mobile phone. Sensors placed on the forehead, where one might furrow one's brow, help read feelings of confusion or tension. Sensors placed on the cheeks to read muscles that form smiles enable researchers to recognize when a user is positively responding to something.

Researchers track their subjects' emotions in real time so these can be linked to exactly what they're looking at, then ask them why they felt a particular emotion. Snow said EMG is all about tracking those emotions and tweaking products based on users' responses.

"When it comes to actually shopping for, researching and booking travel, there are a lot of tension points," Snow said, because travel is an expensive product and can't be returned if it's not what a user expected. "Anything that we're doing on the site or in our applications that adds to that tension is not going to be good."

Conversely, anything that increases a user's "delight," as Snow calls it, is a positive.

Expedia runs EMG tests on its own products, including its numerous websites and smartphone applications. The company also tests competitors' products. Tests often take place in its research labs in Bellevue, Wash., Singapore and London, as well as in users' homes and, sometimes, on the road, like at its Partner Conference earlier this month.

EMG does three key things for Expedia, Snow said. First, it enables the company to run frequent studies on a variety of experiences, not limited to online travel or online shopping, to find patterns or themes that elicit positive emotions from subjects.

She added: "We can use that to help influence design decisions and product decisions, so if a team comes to us and says, 'Hey, we're looking at implementing something and we want there to be good, strong emotional engagement; what are some of the patterns you've seen?' We can provide that information to them and help guide their decisions."

Second, EMG studies that are undertaken on Expedia-specific projects help "identify how delightful or frustrating the experience is," Snow said.

Finally, when a design concept has a goal of increasing the emotional engagement of users, Snow said, EMG tests can be used as a metric to determine if it has met its goal.

EMG has had measurable results since it came into use at Expedia in 2013. It has enabled the company to provide hotel partners with a set of guidelines on the types of photos users most like to see on website listings to help drive conversion.

It has also informed Expedia's efforts to include high-quality imagery on its websites and apps and improve photo galleries and media viewers. EMG has also highlighted the importance of avoiding large blocks of text.

"It's helped us understand that the more we can provide a really healthy balance of visuals with the textual information, [the more] we reduce frustration, and we have the opportunity to increase delight," Snow said.

Going forward, EMG will focus on advancing one of the missions that new CEO Mark Okerstrom has set for his company: becoming more locally relevant globally. EMG will be used to determine whether people around the world react and respond to things in the same way that people in the U.S. do.

EMG studies will also focus on ensuring that the Expedia brand is reflected throughout all points of a customer's journey, from advertising to booking and more.

"EMG will play a key role in helping us understand whether or not we're actually doing that well," Snow said.

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