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Budget airline Ryanair made an online PR gaffe yesterday (or at least some of its staff did) by its petulant response to the exposure of a bug on its website by a blogger.
Taking our cue from Jason Roe's post on Ryanair's usability error, I've been looking at some other ways that the budget airline can improve the user experience on its website and perform better online.
A better website design
It is a low cost airline, but surely the website doesn't need to be quite this basic. Web users make snap judgments based on the look of a homepage when they arrive at a website, and this looks like a site that was designed in the late 90s. The blue and yellow colour scheme can be a strain on the eyes, while the whole page is far too busy.
We've criticised a few websites on this blog, and most companies have taken criticism on the chin. For instance, Asda contacted me after we published this post criticising its website, to say they appreciated the comments and were working on improvements. Encyclopedia Britannica agreed to an interview after a critical article while Reevoo even added new functions to its mobile site on the back of comments on this blog.
More importantly, none has responded with the kind of attitude that Ryanair's staff did on Jason's blog, which has resulted in plenty of bad publicity for the airline across the blogosphere. Senior management was probably unaware of this, but perhaps needs to lay down some rules for its employees to avoid future repetitions.
Provide a contact number
Booking flights can be a complex process, and there are any number of questions that customers may have while booking their flights. The site has an FAQs section, but even the best cannot possibly cover every single query, and besides, some customers just prefer the reassurance of talking to a real person. Others, having checked prices online, may simply prefer booking by phone.
However, Ryanair doesn't seem to want any customers to contact the company, as selecting the 'contact customer services' option on the homepage doesn't simply provide a contact number as it should, but attempts to divert customers towards the FAQs section, before offering them a fax number.
Who has faxes these days anyway? Unless they happen to be in an office or library, how many customers have access to a fax machine? Yet, alongside an address, this is the only option offered for complaints.
If you persevere, there are some contact numbers on the website, three clicks away from the homepage, when they really should be clearly displayed during the booking process. Also, these numbers are for reservations only, Ryanair doesn't want to hear your complaints over the phone.
Providing a clear contact can have the effect of increasing customer trust, but should also help with conversion rates, as some customers may just require some quick reassurance from customer services before going ahead and booking.
Having used easyJet as a positive example earlier, I should point out that finding a contact number on its site is impossible, as it only provides email contact options.
Don't charge customers to call
When you are expecting people to spend money booking flights and hotels, charging them to make calls seems like absolute madness to me, and would surely leave a bad taste in the mouths of some customers.
At least from the UK, it is only 10p per minute to call for a reservation, in other European countries it can be up to €1.00 per minute. Still, if you are asking customers to call and do business with you, charging for calls is not a good idea.
Distracting buyers with ads
If a visitor comes to your site, you surely want them to go through the process of buying from you directly, so distracting them with ads for third party products that will see users depart the site if they click on them doesn't seem wise. Offering complimentary products like car hire and hotels at the end of the booking process is fine and can be useful for customers, as long as you don't overdo it.
Let me choose all airports from the same city
If I'm in London and want to travel to Barcelona, I may not mind which airport I leave from or arrive at in my destination city, as long as I can find a flight. Most flight search engines provide the option of 'all London airports' etc which makes it much more convenient.
On Ryanair though, you have to search individually for each airport, making the whole process more time consuming than it needs to be:
Flexible departure times
I like the option that allows users to search for flights two or three days either side of the specified dates. While some customers may have a set date for their holidays, others may just want to find the best deal, so allowing more flexible search options saves users the job of searching again and again and reduces the need for filtering at the results stage.
Avoid returning no results
Customers don't want to see 'no results found' pages. This means they have to search all over again without any guarantee of finding results. Ideally, customers shouldn't even by allowed to select dates when no flights are available. In searching for flights from London to Paris and back, I could not find any results for the next two weeks, so why even let me search?
Most customers would try one or two searches, then give up and go elsewhere. I have rarely encountered this error on other travel websites I have reviewed.
Provide alternative suggestions
Instead of showing no results at all, the closest options should be suggested. I searched for a return flight from Paris to London Gatwick on 20th March and found no results. I got this page:
This gives me information about why I might not have found any results, the flight was full, as well as completely irrelevant information about fights from Riga. What it doesn't do though, is help me find an alternative flight. All I can do is select next day or previous day, which I did without finding flights for four days either side of my chosen date.
It should be offering options like flights to other London airports, or from other Paris airports, or at least offer me the next available option.
Lose the annoying error messages
By mistake, I entered a departure date of 29th February, and encountered this message:
The point here is that it shouldn't even be letting me enter invalid departure dates in the first place, I can also enter dates that have already passed for instance, all basics that most other travel websites would avoid in the first place.
Some customers could take offence at the slightly patronising tone of the message. Even if the user has made an obvious mistake, the tone of your error message should be friendly and polite. Basically, the message should not blame the user, but help to the correct their mistake.
I haven't actually gone all of the way through the booking process (I went as far as the payment stage), so there may be some usability problems I haven't come across. If you have encountered any when booking with Ryanair, let me know below...