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Mobile User Behavior Is Changing On Hotel Websites

By Des O'Mahony | On 21.05.2014

WebApp versus Responsive

There’s always been a strong discussion about whether responsive is really fit for purpose for hotels’ web and mobile presence, or whether a separate mobile-focused webapp and desktop/tablet website is better. A strong advantage of responsive sites is that the content is largely the same and managed in one place, it’s just adjusted physically to match different screen sizes or devices. This makes it easier to deal with for the hotel, and ensures a consistent image and brand projection across devices for the user and prospective customer.

However, such an approach does not always take account of differences in user requirements and behaviour across different platforms. A strong advantage of webapps is that they are not tied to the structure, content or philosophy of the desktop website, and can focus much better on the mobile users’ specific needs. Webapps represent a good mobile-first strategy compared to a catch-all responsive strategy. Or certainly that was the case.

Responsive typically takes the same basic elements and alters their presentation or priority for different screen sizes or devices.
Responsive typically takes the same basic elements and alters their presentation or priority for different screen sizes or devices.

The Mobile User Is Different

In 2010, when Bookassist pioneered mobile solutions for hotels with direct booking capability, we launched a stand-alone webapp approach for hotels that operated quite separately from a hotel’s own website. (Throughout this article, I’m using mobile to refer to smartphone only, not tablet.) Our analysis of mobile traffic across hundreds of hotel websites at that time showed that users on smartphones had very different and more immediate demands to those users on desktop/tablet, which meant that responsive was not quite good enough as an approach. Our webapp system forwards a hotel website user on a smartphone to a dedicated webapp for the hotel, where the popular functions that mobile users want are immediately catered for:

  • location details for the hotel,
  • phone and contact details,
  • map,
  • routing,
  • same-day booking,
  • photographs.

Analysis showed that pages with large amounts of text were simply being ignored or quickly exited by mobile users. Their demands were quite specific and short term. We built (and build) our mobile approach based on analysing the user, not based on what we “thought” would be the best solution.

As we approach mid-2014, our webapp solution (soon to be upgraded to WebApp V3) and the philosophy behind it continues to evolve to match mobile users’ needs. Our user research continues to track strong changes in mobile user behaviour. Mobile bookings for our hotels through their webapp platform continue to grow steadily, as shown below. But we have noticed very interesting trends and changes in mobile user behaviour.

Growth in mobile bookings in Bookassist's Dublin hotels
Growth in direct mobile bookings recorded in Bookassist’s Dublin hotel clients

The Mobile User Is Different?

Firstly, the mobile platform itself is evolving very quickly. You don’t need statistics to understand this - it’s clear to everyone that in the past 3 or 4 years, the market penetration of smartphones has been enormous. Screen size continues to grow, with Apple’s flagship iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c now among the smallest screen size in the top sellers (the upcoming iPhone 6 expected to address that issue). Screen quality and pixel density have both improved, meaning that more of the web is visible with clarity on a smartphone screen without scrolling.

All of these physical device changes (see Appendix 1 below) mean that you undoubtedly find it increasingly easier and more comfortable to browse and work on your smartphone. As a result, user patterns on mobile and desktop are beginning to quickly converge and they do not show the kind of differences in behaviour that we saw just 2 or 3 years ago. Increasingly, catering for a different user behaviour (as distinct from screen size) across devices may now be less relevant than it was before.

Secondly, smartphones are no longer new-fangled devices. Now, they’re normal, they’re everyday. People have grown used to them very quickly, and as a result people are using them more and more as everyday web access devices. Accordingly, the patterns of behaviour we are seeing on mobile are less different from desktop than they used to be in previous years. And our analysis of booking trends on mobile shows this evolution in stark terms.

Last-Minute Is Diminishing On Mobile

From a booking perspective, mobile has always been touted as a strong “last minute” channel, but again here we are seeing a clear shift in mobile user booking towards a more “normal” distribution. The portion of same-day bookings is clearly decreasing on mobile, from close to 30% in 2011 to less than 15% today in our figures. Long lead-in times are also becoming more prevalent, just like the typical desktop booking distribution. People are planning ahead on mobile, and booking ahead, more than ever before. It should be noted that last minute booking was very significantly swayed towards business travellers, and business travellers had a larger share of smartphones in the earlier years. But as the profile of bookers on mobile switches from business-dominant to everyday users, the result is a drop in the last minute portion of bookings on mobile.

Change in booking lead-in for Bookassist's hotels on mobile
Change in booking lead-in for Bookassist’s hotels on mobile

The trend is quite clear. Mobile user behaviour for hotel websites is approaching the norms of desktop user behaviour. The differences in behaviour are reducing as mobile phones evolve and users get more comfortable with their use for everyday online access.

This is probably one reason why last minute mobile booking company Hotel Tonight are now also offering a look ahead service for rates up to 7 days in the future as reported on thenextweb recently - possibly pre-empting the increasing desire of mobile users to plan ahead.

Responsive Revisited

All of this of course is good news for responsive design. There will always be a need to ensure that responsive design takes note of the different requirements of users on each platform, not just the layout of information. But the data here does clearly show that those behavioural differences are rapidly diminishing to the point where they are very manageable with a single, well thought-out responsive solution across all devices.

At Bookassist, our Web Design team now designs all websites for hotel clients on a smart responsive basis, while ensuring that key processes such as booking are genuinely optimised for the smaller screens and other limitations on mobile. This fuses the best of our knowledge on responsive design with our knowledge and experience of hundreds of hotels using our webapp platform. We continue to offer a strong dedicated and ever-evolving webapp solution for hotels who wish to retain their non-responsive website designs but need a proven, effective and award-winning mobile browsing and booking solution.

Recent examples of our responsive approach are:

Appendix 1: Screens Are Growing

The following two figures illustrate the rapid change in screen size that has accompanied the growth in mobile phone usage online. From 2010 to 2013, mobile phones’ diagonal screen size has shot up by 38%, giving a far more useable area for the mobile user. More importantly, if you look specifically at browsing, the average screen size being used on mobile web has also grown in that period. So the devices themselves are growing, and browsing is increasingly making use of those larger screens.

Growth in average diagonal screen size (inches) on shipped devices to end 2013, from NPD Display Search.
Growth in average screen size (square inches) used on mobile web to mid 2013, adapted from 51Degrees.

The screen size issue is not the full story, as screen resolution has also seen a stark change, allowing more of a web page to be made visible on the same notional screen size, as illustrated below. While standard desktop monitors traditionally ranged 72ppi (pixels per inch) to 96ppi (and that is also changing with Apple’s Retina displays on its MacBook Pro line and the recent introduction of 4k monitors), mobile devices pack far more pixels into each inch than typical desktop displays do, and can therefore display much more on the same real estate. Mobile ppi figures on the popular smartphones are now in excess of 4 times the density of traditional desktop monitors, essentially cramming more of the visible web onto your screen.

All of these physical device changes mean that it is increasingly easier and more comfortable to browse and work on smartphones, and so user patterns on mobile and desktop are beginning to quickly converge.

Screen pixels and pixel density in the top smartphones as of March 2014, adapted from Gizmag.

Dr Des O’Mahony is CEO and founder at Bookassist (bookassist.org), the award-winning technology and online strategy partner for hotels worldwide.

Značky: website, webapp, responsive, mobile, booking engine

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