Chris Roe presented at our recent Online Marketing Masterclasses event, talking about the improvements he has implemented there, which have helped to increase conversion rates on the site by an impressive 90%.

Chris is General Manager of Sales & Distribution, responsible for web, call centre and trade sales. We have been talking to him about the improvements made to the user experience on the Virgin Holidays website.

You have done some in-depth user experience work in the past couple of years. Where did you start with this?  

We have come a hell of a long way from where we were when we started to look at user experience. One of the first things I noticed was to recognize that there was a problem with the user experience on the website.

We hired usability agency Bunnyfoot to take a look at the site and get their opinions about how it could be improved upon. Forty ‘quick wins’ were indentified on the site, and by solving these issues, we managed to improve conversion rates by 90%.

What were some of these ‘quick wins’?

Things like improving the error messages on the site. The brand colours are red, so having a red website made red error messages confusing. Changing the colours made these messages more understandable for customers, while offering alternative courses of action helped improve conversions.

Where are you now?

Now we are looking at the user experience at a more detailed level, at mental content models and personas. This allows us to look at the motivations of our customers which helps us to make decisions about the design of the site.

Any best practices to share in terms of how you manage user experience projects?

The biggest tip is not to listen to the web development team, the design agency or internal teams, but to listen to what the customer wants.

The MD may have an idea of how the booking process should look, but the customer’s view is more important, and this should be at the heart of everything you do.

For example, user generated content is a good thing on the web, but it doesn’t necessarily work for every kind of website, though it is something we are looking into.

What usability basics should e-commerce companies focus on?

The most basic thing is to talk to the customer and find out what they want. This is what we have been doing since initially making changes to the website in April 2007.

Are you seeing the effects of the credit crunch?

Not so far. We understand who our customers are and the ones who are likely to be affected, so we can adjust and adapt to customers’ needs.

Our higher-end customers are still buying holidays, so we have been making an effort to target them. The credit crunch hasn’t really hit travel yet.

The peak period is January though, so we will see whether customers are still prepared to spend money on holidays then.

Your forms are very well-designed; do you have any insights to share about the kind of improvements that can be made, and how it can impact conversion rates?

The forms on the first version of the site were frustrating. One of the things we picked up on was that customers had to use a combination of keyboard and mouse to fill in forms, which made it more difficult.

Now customers are able to use the drop down menus and fill n forms using only the mouse, making the process much easier.

We implemented a lot of improvements at once so it’s difficult to determine which particular changes made the biggest impact, but it’s clear that we saw a massive improvement in conversion rates.

How difficult was it to secure a usability budget from your board?

Many of the changes didn’t cost much to implement, so I didn’t have to justify it to the board. Once I had made the changes and the benefits were clear, further spending on usability was easy to justify.

Is usability now an ongoing project for you? Do you pay a retainer to your agency?

It is something we are looking into all of the time; I think that once you are focused on the customer, it is easy.

We still retain the services of Bunnyfoot and are very pleased with the work they have done.

Related articles:

Q&A with Duncan Jennings of

Q&A:’s Iain Hildreth on user experience

Related research:
Usability and User Experience: A Beginner’s Guide