Travel-booking sites are some of the busiest websites around, littered with annoying calendar widgets and pulldown menus and tabs and sidebars. Sign up for premium services or pre-check-in with the TSA. Check your points or miles, get a branded credit card, explore the tourist spots of every possible destination. It's not a relaxing start to a vacation. Booking is difficult to manage even in a full browser and hellish on a tablet or smartphone.
Virgin America's new beta site, beta.virginamerica.com is unlike any other travel provider's site we've seen. We hope everyone else will copy it. Why is it so much better? It's clean, efficient, and it acts like an app.
Out With The Old
And it's wildly different from the site it will soon replace. What a coup that Virgin's team simply threw out everything. Instead of redesigning the current site, Virgin decided to relaunch with an entirely new goal. "One of the things that we really wanted to do was to move away from having a million things on the page at one time, trying to focus for what users really want to do," says Jesse McMillin, the creative director of Virgin America.
When you go to the beta site, what you see is big, bold, and simple. In other words, it looks like a flashy new web app. The site assumes that the reason you've come is to buy a plane ticket, not to manage your account or look up architecture in Seattle, so it presents that first and foremost. (The other stuff can still be accessed from a Skybar up top.)
After looking at analytics for how people use the current Virgin site, McMillin realized that people just want power booking. So on the new site, it's immediately clear what to do—and Virgin walks you through it step-by-step.
First, it uses geolocation to figure out where you are, and sets that as the default. Then it asks you where you'd like to go, and only presents options that are doable from your location. (You can change that location easily if you happen to want to book a ticket from another city.) Then it asks you who's flying. You get a big honkin' calendar, not a tiny calendar widget, to book your dates. Then you pick your specific flight, select upgrades if you want, choose your seat, and book it. It's trim and playful, in bright purple and with friendly, casual fonts. (In a nice if strange touch, the dominant purple color gets darker as you get closer to booking a flight, indicating that you're in business mode and just want to Get Things Done.) Wonderfully, the site scrolls you down after each selection, rather than taking you forward to a new page—more like a fancy new app than a booking site.
Book On The Go
That's intentional, because the site is designed to work as a web app, too. "We wanted to create an experience for all different devices," McMillin says. The beta site works exceedingly well on a tablet or smartphone; it's a fully responsive design, so it senses which device you're using and adjusts automatically. In this case, not that much adjustment is needed. It already has big, finger-friendly links and an easy-to-understand menu system, and thanks to its simplicity it's quite speedy despite the less powerful hardware and slower web connections of a mobile device.
Admittedly, parts of the site are overly cute. I'm not sure that people really want to pick avatars when doing something as transactional as buying a plane ticket. The "Where We Fly" section, which lists Virgin's destination cities, is styled as a grid; each city gets a little drawing of thumb-shaped people enjoying that city's stereotypically famous offering—say, a hot dog in Chicago, a rodeo in Dallas, a burlesque dancer in Las Vegas. It's a touch twee. But these are minor complaints. Virgin got it right. The company designed an efficient, simple site that makes it easy—and not unpleasant!—to buy a plane ticket. And in the travel industry, that's huge.
(Disclosure: I'm cheap enough that saving $8 dollars on a flight is worth more to me than an extremely clean and pleasant purchasing experience—so you may catch me using Kayak or Priceline anyway—but I hope that the cheapest flight is on Virgin so I can surf with ease instead.)