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Conversational UI: How travel brands can get the experience right

In Travelport Digital’s Mobile Travel Trends 2019, one of our top trends looks at conversational UI—namely, voice assistants and chatbots. Of course, conversational interfaces are nothing new; Siri will celebrate its eighth anniversary this year and we were talking about the rise of bots two years ago, after Facebook launched chatbot capabilities in its Messenger platform.

In fact, it’s as far back as science fiction movies in the 1960s when we were first exposed to the concept of human-computer interaction (“Open the pod bay doors, HAL”). So what’s different about 2019, and why are we still talking about conversational UIs as an emerging trend?

With advancements in AI and Natural Language Processing (NLP), technology has now advanced to the point where conversational UIs are becoming smarter and more intuitive for users. They’re offering human-like assistance and, in some instances, they are becoming the preferred way for users to interact with brands.

This doesn’t mean that conversational UI will displace Graphical User Interfaces (GUI)—voice will not replace screens any time soon. It does however mean that brands can no longer afford to ignore the rising popularity of these platforms, which offer immense potential to augment the customer experience. Brands need to focus on designing the best mobile user experience possible, and this means incorporating conversational UI across various touchpoints.

Here, we’ll look at how travel brands are using conversational interfaces like chatbots and voice assistants to provide a better service to customers and to drive revenue. We’ll also look at the design considerations travel brands should take into account to ensure they’re creating the best user experience possible and delivering automated conversations that are genuinely useful to customers.

So let’s dive in.

‘Phono sapiens’ and the rise of conversational UIs

If we consider the fact that we’ve been talking about the concept of conversational interfaces for decades, it begs the question—what’s happened to drive user adoption of these interfaces over the last few years?

While on the one hand advancements in technology has enabled the creation of more intuitive and user-friendly platforms, Glenville Morris, Product Director of Digital Insights at Travelport Digital uncovers another important element, and that is our evolution into a new human species: the ‘Phono sapien’.



As ‘Phono sapiens’, we’ve all become mobile dependent and with that, our expectations of brands have become much more demanding. We’re no longer willing to pinch and zoom on various websites to find the information we’re looking for. We’re impatient and drop off a webpage if it takes longer than five seconds to load. We expect real-time, on-demand access to information that’s personalized to our needs.

Another key trait of our new Phono sapien status is the expectation that a brand should be ‘always on’. It’s no longer enough to have an app or website—we expect to be able to talk to brands via voice, chatbots or messaging. In addition to brands being on all of these platforms, we also expect a seamless and optimized experience at every single touchpoint.

Ultimately, we’re using mobile to make our day-to-day lives easier and this is especially true when we’re traveling. While packing a suitcase, we may wish to use our voice to check what the weather’s like in our destination. When walking through a busy airport, it’s easier for us to send a text on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger to check our flight status or gate number than squint at a screen display.

This is how conversational interfaces are helping to make our trips easier and more enjoyable, so it’s becoming increasingly important that travel brands design mobile experiences that take these considerations into account. By ignoring these platforms, brands risk losing the increasingly impatient ‘Phono sapien’ customers to the brands who are designing useful and intuitive conversational UIs.

How travel brands are using conversational platforms

Today, there are several platforms on the market that allow travel brands to automate conversations with users via voice (such as Siri and Alexa) and via text (such as Messenger, WhatsApp and WeChat). Our research with travel industry professionals found that half of travel brands plan to invest in chatbots in 2019—and it’s not surprising when you consider that in May 2018, there were over 300k active bots on Facebook Messenger, up from zero in the space of two years.

On the flip side, our end traveler research found that 30% of travelers had researched or booked a trip using a chat platform. Of those who said they hadn’t, 60% would be open to doing so in the future.

What’s most interesting here is the fact that travelers aren’t just using conversational UIs to ask questions—they’re actually spending money with brands directly through these platforms. Where travel brands may have once thought of these platforms as a means of reducing customer service costs, they are now becoming channels that are creating real revenue generation potential.

Here are some of the ways travel brands are successfully implementing conversational UI to drive their businesses forward.

Searching and booking

Travelers are increasingly turning to conversational platforms to do the legwork when it comes to researching trips. Channels like Facebook Messenger or Amazon’s Alexa can present trip options by asking the user simple questions, which require minimal effort and input from the users themselves.

KLM has been taking advantage of the benefits of chatbots to streamline its customer queries, with its smart assistant ‘BB’ available on Facebook Messenger and Google Assistant. Users can book flights directly through Facebook Messenger by answering some simple questions, and can access their flight details on any Google Assistant enabled device.

Check-in and boarding

Some chatbots and voice assistants on the market allow travelers to check in directly through conversational platforms—for example, United Airlines passengers can check in directly through Amazon Alexa. Again, this shows travel brands’ desire to be where the customer is and to deliver joined-up experiences. Customers don’t have to log into an app or a website to check in—they can get it through the channel that’s most convenient to them at the time.

Customer service and travel disruption

Chatbots and voice assistants also help to reduce operational costs for travel brands, answering the most common customer queries without the need for human interaction.

Our research found that more than half of travelers (52%) expect to be able to communicate with travel brands using text messaging. This is especially true during times of travel disruption; travel doesn’t happen within the constraints of the 9-5 business day, yet travelers expect 24/7 support.

From a travel brand point of view, this is really where artificial intelligence can help to reduce operational costs. Having round-the-clock human resource is an expensive overhead, one which chatbots can help to eliminate by answering the most common customer queries. In fact, Juniper Research has suggested that chatbots could help cut business costs by more than $8 billion per year by 2022.

Personalized recommendations

Aside from the more obvious travel tasks, chatbots and voice assistants can also offer personalized suggestions on in-destination activities. For example, in 2017 TripAdvisor launched its Facebook Messenger bot, which provides recommendations for restaurants, hotels, attractions and flights using user-generated content.

This again speaks to the trend we’ve already mentioned: the rise of the Phono sapien. We now expect to be able to converse with brands at every step of the journey, not just when we’re booking a flight or need customer support.

Text vs talk: Designing the right conversational UI

These examples show how chatbots and voice assistants give travel brands the chance to offer a more personalized service to travelers and generate revenue. However, when it comes to designing for these conversational user interfaces, brands need to tread carefully.

Matthew Ovington, Head of UX at Travelport, talks about designing the right conversational UI in our Mobile Travel Trends 2019 report. He says that the brands who consider their customers’ context when building these interfaces will win out in terms of creating the best user experience possible.

“If content is king, then context is queen. Sometimes it’s better to talk, other times it’s better to text. As we travel our surroundings are constantly changing, so therefore the context and opportunity for engaging via conversation changes too. Choosing the right mode to interact with a customer means understanding the user and the context.”

Travel companies hoping to engage with customers through conversational interaction need to consider the context their customers frequently find themselves in and how customers prefer to interact. For example, expecting a customer to interact via voice in busy airport might be possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s how they would prefer to interact. Requiring a traveler to go find a quiet place to talk is putting the problem back on the customer, and this means a poorer customer experience.

Going back to KLM as an example, its smart assistant offers users personalized advice on what to pack for their trip through Google Home (voice). The feature isn’t available on its Facebook Messenger bot because voice is the more appropriate channel to use here. Users will typically have their hands full when packing, so text is a less convenient option. It is these considerations that will enable a brand to deliver the best user experience possible.

As Matthew Ovington puts it in our Trends report: “the early adopter brands that will see the greatest benefit from conversational interaction will be those that understand that riding the wave of digital fragmentation requires not just being open to conversation, but being able to interact at the right time and in the right way.”

For more on the Travelport Digital end traveler research and key trends for 2019, download our Mobile Travel Trends 2019 report.

Download the report

Aisling White - Head of Marketing

Aisling has over 16 years’ experience in marketing, brand, and PR. Prior to joining Travelport Digital, Aisling worked at Hostelworld.com and Sage Software. At Travelport Digital Aisling manages the marketing strategy, content, communications, and digital platforms, to drive customer engagement.

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