Direct Design: The evolution of Hotel Web Design in the last 15 years
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What were you doing on 11 August 2001?
If you were anything like me you were likely still carrying around a large CD case along with your Discman so you could listen to your favorite albums on the go, (all the while waiting for the iPod to be invented). Moving large files from computer to computer meant either burning CD's or using Zip drives and the main reason you kept taking your phone out in a bar / restaurant was to play Snake on your Nokia 3310. In the cinemas Harry Potter was three months away from starting his first day at Hogwarts and Frodo Baggins had no intention of stepping outside his front door until things changed somewhat suddenly for him around December time.
Elsewhere however a epic journey of another kind had already begun. On 11 August 2001 Dromoland Castle confirmed their first ever online booking, facilitated by a small online startup who were even then advocating the benefits of Booking Direct. Since that time Avvio have been at the forefront of both Booking Technology and Hotel Website Design, pioneering in their use of the latest Design techniques to achieve phenomenal growth for both ourselves and our Clients.
In the ensuing period Hotels, and businesses in general have gone from simply 'yeah I suppose we should get one of those websites' and taking Fax Reservations to transacting the majority of their revenue via multiple online channels.
While the next stage of innovation is open to some speculation it is important to understand how things have changed in that 15 year period and how those trends might inform where the industry may go from here.
Download Speeds - Intro Pages
In 2001 the general standard for home internet use was likely a 56k dial up modem, which you likely had to plug your phone out to use. Due to the nature of these speeds Hotel Website Design needed to be kept intentionally simple to ensure that the site loaded quickly enough for visitors to view but interesting enough for them to get a sense of where it is they were going to stay.
Dromoland Castle Hotel website landing page on a lower resolution screen and slow download speed which was standard at the time.
To immediately engage the visitor Avvio employed landing pages specifically designed to communicate a 'Welcome to the site' message, alongside animated elements (either Flash or Animated GIF) to ensure fast loading of the site and a delightful experience from the outset.
Considered extremely poor practice now due to lack of optimised SEO content and overall being a barrier to viewing more relevant information (in an age of increasingly fast Broadband and 3G / 4G in your pocket) they were almost a requirement at the time to ensure something attractive displayed on the screen quickly for the visitor.
Want something more than just the standard text and images on a page? Flash was the go-to tool for Designers looking to deliver a more immersive experience for Hotels in order to convey their Brand Message in an interactive manner. Tracking the trend for these types of sites for international, high end Fashion Brands, Avvio was able to deliver a number of best in class Flash sites for our Hotel Clients without compromising on overall User Experience, Revenue Growth or Search Engine Optimisation.
Left - The g Hotel in Galway with a Flash preloader before the fullscreen animations and images load.
Right - Ashford Castle Hotel full Flash site.
Ongoing changes to SEO best practice also sounded a death knell for Flash with content contained within these files being invisible to Search Engines meaning fully Flash sites required additional support to maintain its Rankings.
In addition the advent of Smartphone's and the difficulty involved in supporting hugely interactive Flash sites on small sizes and touch-screens having no concept of Mouse Hover to trigger certain features, meant Flash's decline has been rapid over the last number of years. The original iPhone was derided for its lack of Flash support from the start, while now modern Desktop Browsers have either discontinued support or have it as an 'opt in' preference in favour of HTML5 / CSS3 delivery for interactive and video elements.
While you would be hard pressed to find a top end site using Flash as a primary means of delivering content now, the importance Flash played in some of Avvio's best websites over the years cannot be over-estimated.
Screen Size / Resolutions
While screen sizes are still an issue very much at the forefront of Design practice due to the range of devices available today, a number of years ago the problem was quite a different one. We are pretty quick to forget in the current age of commercially available HD, Retina and 4K displays that only short time ago the majority of Visitors were browsing sites on Screen Resolutions of 800x600 with the higher end of the spectrum being 1024x768.
What this meant for Site Layout was, with only a very limited amount of content being visible on the site above the Page Fold (ie. the point beyond which the visitor needed to start scrolling) it was a challenge to ensure the site was visually engaging while at the same time making certain that key items such as Navigation and Booking Engine were obvious on the screen. Combine this with the content required for good SEO Practice and you can quickly see how many elements were competing for attention on the screen.
Left - Dingle Skelling site with large image, navigation and quickbook, content moved below the page fold, scrolling required.
Right - Marlin Apartments site with a similar set up.
Despite all these restrictions Avvio have consistently delivered innovative layouts with Visitor Conversion in mind while continuously refining best practices around item positioning via a combination of our own in-house Analytics and the best that Strategic Partners (such as Google) have to offer. Items such as ‘inline scroll-bars’ allowed lots of content to be readily available but only take up a small footprint on the screen and layouts were tailored such that they took full advantage of the available space on these small resolutions.
Left - Ashford Castle Hotel site with everything on the screen at all times for the main screen sizes of the time. No scrolling required.
Right - Dromoland Castle Hotel with a similar set up.
More prolific use of smaller device such as Smart-phones, 'Phablets' and Tablets have also given rise to Users having a more rounded understanding of how content scales across device types with Bookers no longer restricted to having to boot up a large desktop machine in order to research / book, but rather 'device hopping' before committing to their decision. There has been a rapid rise and corresponding fall in requirement for larger screen phones with Customers deciding in some cases that 4 inch screens are significantly more comfortable to use than their larger 5.5 - 6 inch counterparts. What is certain though is Avvio will continuously innovate when it comes to ensuing maximum conversions no matter how big or small the screen.
Fullscreen / Adaptive / Responsive Sites
As screen sizes became incrementally bigger, requirements changed to deliver larger sites for those whose screen sizes could accommodate them but still maintain the experience for the (then) majority who were still restricted to smaller monitors. Again looking at Design trends in other industries Avvio spearheaded a move, within the Irish Hotel industry, to full-screen image sites which coincided with a time when faster Download speeds meant larger images were less of an issue for overall page load times.
Athlone Springs Hotel - Left is their fixed size site on a higher resolution display. Right is their new, fullscreen / adaptive site on the same display but a far more immersive experience.
The effect that this had for the end customer experience was profound as stunning Hotel Photography, taking over the entire screen, immersing them in the surrounds of the Hotel in a way that the previous ‘click thumbnail image to see larger version’ could never do before. Combined with the advent of 3D Tours and the increase in rich content such as Video Tours, a visit to a Hotel website was now very much the first step in a luxurious journey.
With the proliferation of Mobile Devices enabling Users to navigate the Web ‘on the go’ it became necessary to adapt the Desktop site experience to meet the needs of the smaller touch-screen devices, first with Mobile Specific Sites and then moving rapidly into Responsive Layouts which removed the need to maintain a separate Mobile Site in parallel.
The Gresham Hotel Dublin - Reponsive Site across all platforms from Desktop to Mobile.
Add to that Tablet Devices and now even Smart Watch it is now more challenging than ever for Hotels to maintain a consistently excellent experience for their Customers across all these touch-points.
Following on from the above It's interesting to note that, while it is still crucial to retain key elements such as the Online Booking Widget in a prominent location on the screen, the notion that Designs need to have 'everything on the screen all of the time' seems to have undergone a dramatic reversal in with longer scrolling, magazine style sites becoming a staple of modern Design practice.
Hastings Hotels site - Left is the fullscreen adaptive site which preceeded their new scrolling / magazine / responsive website of today (right).
While 'The Fold' can still be a source of some debate among Designers and Clients more recent analysis of User Behavior points to having content further down the page flow being less of an issue than it was previously, due in part to the type of 'device hopping' we have explored previously.
To that end Avvio provide Site-to-Site analysis around User Behaviour, scrolling habits and points of interest on the screen with techniques such as AB Testing, Heat-mapping and Booking Funnel breakdowns providing key insights. In this manner we are able to collaborate with our Clients and their Customers to create Designs that performs and also refine and improve them on an ongoing basis.
While we have only skimmed the surface of some of the changes that have taken place, overall we can conclude that even in the relatively short space of time such as the 15 years since Avvio processed that historic first transaction Hotel Website Design has been an ever evolving landscape. Users are now more savvy than ever before with today's Bookers never knowing what it was to not have a Mobile / Smart phone in their pockets and relentless in their demand for more personalised content and experiences.
As for me, I'm off to see if Snake is available in the App Store.