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Lastminute.com recently launched a new version of its website in the UK and France, with new sites for the rest of Europe to follow.

I've been talking to Lastminute.com's head of customer experience Leah Russell about the thinking behind the new site, and the challenges of providing a usable website for different markets across Europe.

Lastminute.com homepage

Why did you decide to update the lastminute.com website?

We sat down and looked at the overall branding of the business at the beginning of last year, and as part of that, a logical next step was to look at how we present the brand online.

We wanted to make it consistent across Europe, and make all the sites broadly similar – the challenge was to achieve this consistency but still keep it flexible enough to appeal to users in different countries.

The beta site is now the main website, and though you always get some resistance when you make changes, the majority of customers have responded well to the new version. We have some good numbers on conversion rates, and we’re pleased by how it has performed so far.

Did you carry out user testing for European markets?

Initially we presented a variety of different designs, some branded mock-ups, some unbranded to focus groups to get their feedback, before narrowing the selection down.

We then started more intensive user testing in the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and France before making revisions. The sites for the UK and France are live now, the Italian and Spanish sites will be updated soon, and we are still working on the German version of the site.

You can research user behaviour, but it is valuable to see how people in Italy or Spain actually use the site, and this helped us to understand how to make the website appeal to these users.

Are there many national / cultural differences when doing usability testing across Europe?

Some of the more significant differences are to do with the maturity of peoples’ experience in using the internet. In general, the UK is the most internet-savvy, for want of a better word, while Italians are relatively new to the internet and are more careful when shopping online.

While the basic Lastminute.com website is the same across Europe, there is less information / promotions on some of the European versions. The pages are based on a modular layout so that each component can be added and removed easily, so while the Italian version of the site may be more basic, the search and booking engine remains the same.

What were the biggest challenges in the redesign?

One of the biggest challenges was to do with moving the search box to the right of the page. Traditionally, the search box is central on travel sites, and there was some concern about the effects of this change.

We had a lot of internal feedback within the company, and it was hotly debated, but not one customer had a problem understanding what it was. It was a big change but it has been successful for us so far.

What was the reason for moving the search box?

As well as having users come into the site and use the search box, we also wanted to use more space on the homepage to promote ideas for holidays and destinations.

Our overall brand is meant to be inspirational rather than just functional, though we do aim to provide a usable and functional website. We want to focus on helping customers with ideas about how they can spend their leisure time.

We want to encourage customers who, instead of coming to the site with a fixed idea of where they want to go, want to browse and find inspiration from some of the content on the site. A lot of users enter the site, they have holiday time but don’t know how to spend it and need ideas – we have built the site partly to facilitate this kind of behavior.

As well as holidays, we also offer a lot of other leisure products as well, and moving the box provides us with the opportunity to give people additional ideas.

What are the biggest challenges around producing usable travel sites?

The biggest problem is that it is a complex purchase. People booking a holiday want to make sure they make the right decisions, and there is a lot of information to convey to customers.

Making sure all that customers’ questions are answered is an ongoing challenge, as well as making sure that the information is presented at the right stage of the process.

In general, travel websites are more usable than they were a year or two ago, and there is more competition, so we have to make sure that the user experience on Lastminute.com is excellent.

Do many customers require reassurance during the search and buying process? How do you handle this?

We try to provide as much support as we can during the process and anticipate these questions, and give customers the answers on the website, though some people just like to talk to a person when they have an issue. This option is provided, and the issue is then where and when to display phone numbers during the booking process.

I noticed pop-ups when reviewing the beta version of the site recently - why are you using intrusive ads?

I read the article when you reviewed the site and was surprised that you managed to find one of those ads. This is something we have done in the past, but is being phased out now with the launch of the new site.

I saw an interesting preview for 'nru' a mobile app from Lastminute - can you tell me more about this?

I'm not the best person to ask about this, but the app is intended to help users find bars, cinemas and other places of interest nearby. We also have apps that we have produced for the iPhone, translation apps, as well as FoneFood, which allows you to find nearby restaurants.

What is the story behind the offline retail outlets?

This was an extension of the Good Stuff campaign, and we opened a store in Covent Garden for 48 hours, offering free massages and other free treats. We are also opening stores in Birmingham and Manchester, but these will also be temporary.

Graham Charlton

Published 6 March, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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