The mobile flight search user experience
The Kayak iPhone app
Flight search is a difficult design problem. There are millions of scheduled flights every year and even when constrained by route and date, the amount of choice can be paralysing. Flights can be amongst the largest purchases someone makes during the year, yet confidently picking out a single flight when there are so many variables can be daunting.
Providing flight search on the web is a tough challenge, but doing the same on a mobile device with a smaller screen and larger controls needed to accommodate fingers is even harder.
I decided to look at the current state user experience of flight search on mobile devices. To get a feel for it, I looked at seven of the most popular iPhone apps:
- Kayak (version 18.0.0)
- Hipmunk (v. 1.0.2)
- Skyscanner (v. 1.0.5)
- Liligo (v. 1.4.2)
- Oneworld (v. 1.8)
- FlightNetwork (v. 126.96.36.199)
- OnTheFly (v. 1.0.4)
To evaluate each app, I searched for a real flight that I’ll be taking this summer from London to Los Angeles. My dates are flexible, arriving 4th-6th June and leaving 10th-12th June. This is a busy route and one that almost always includes a flight that arrives the day after it takes off.
Even at the simplest first step, there are a number of considerations to take into account. Choosing which airport to fly to and from can lead to confusion, as cities such as London and New York have multiple airports. If you’re unfamiliar with these, you may not know which is the best to fly to.
The best apps provide a shortcut for an entire area and illustrate the hierarchy of locations. Skyscanner indents the airports within a single city to show this, while OnTheFly suggests nearby airports and their distance from the one you selected. On the other end of the scale, FlightNetwork doesn’t differentiate between airports in the same city, leaving you to rely on the three letter codes to work out which is which.
When you’re planning a holiday, sometimes you know exactly when you’re travelling, but often your dates will be flexible. In my case, I could fly on several different days, so I would ideally be able to use flight costs to inform that decision. However, only Kayak and OnTheFly allow for flexibility. Without this facility, you’d have to go back and forth between searches in the other apps to be confident of choosing a suitable flight.
Two ways are used to select dates: on a calendar and using a roller. I found that the former makes it easier to relate what can seem like arbitrary dates to actual days. Kayak has perhaps the best date selection, although Hipmunk and OnTheFly merge adjacent months. Of the roller selection methods, Skyscanner is perhaps the best, with shortcut buttons below it.
Once the results come through, you need to be able to narrow down the list of flights and be able to make a confident decision about which is the best option. The clarity of the results varies quite a bit. Here, Kayak is surprisingly weak; it groups flights together, which forces you to tap on each row to reveal the details. However, its filtering options are the best available, allowing for precise refinement and clearly showing which filters are active.
Hipmunk is best known for its time-based approach when showing results and this is mirrored in the iPhone app. Flights are displayed across a timescale and can be sorted by four categories, although there are no filtering options. It’s not obvious what you’re meant to do next: you have to tap on a flight, tap on an arrow, then ‘Select This Option’ on another page to bring up available return legs, where you run through the same process again.
While regular users of the main site will be familiar with its peculiar interaction model, it’s a poor experience for those who aren’t. Having to pick one leg before viewing the others narrows down the selection too far: what if there are several suitable outbound flights? You’d have to go back and forward to compare all the options. Viewing a flight as a set of both the outbound and return legs seems like a more logical way to think about it when both are important.
OnTheFly has a number of notable aspects to its results. The initial display is a matrix of airlines and stops, allowing you to filter your search by pressing on any of the options. You can also view a breakdown of cost per date (in my case, there’s a £400 difference between two days) and uniquely, the available routes on a map. The flight list is perhaps the clearest of all the apps tested, showing price, date, times, duration, stops and airports all in a single, compact row. Full details are then quickly available within the same page.
Of the apps, Skyscanner has the best listings and filtering options, although the time filtering is too vague, with options for ‘Morning’, ‘Afternoon’ and ‘Evening’, without specifying when these actually are. Liligo also suffers from the same ambiguity, as well as a poor filtering screen in general, which has buttons at the top and bottom. This implies that they have some different function, which is not the case. Oneworld and FlightNetwork offer no filtering options for their poorly organised results, rendering them fairly useless.
Closing the sale
Perhaps with the exception of Oneworld, all of these companies rely on income generated by booking referral fees. Once someone has found the flight they’re looking for, there needs to be a smooth handover to other sites where they can book, or an option to continue their shopping journey on another computer at a later date.
All of the apps except FlightNetwork and Oneworld allow you to send yourself the search results, typically via email. Hipmunk has the best continuation options, allowing you to email booking links or remember a unique word to continue your journey later. Most also show recent searches when you relaunch the app, allowing you to continue from where you left off.
Several times when I tried to book a flight, the carriers’ websites routed me to mobile sites which didn’t support booking. This broke the journey and forced me to back up to find another way to continue. OnTheFly has a relatively weak booking process, considering its strengths in other areas. You’re forced to phone the carrier, at least on the flights I looked at, requiring you to go through a complicated and cumbersome process. Why there isn’t an option to book online, I’m not sure.
Ten design principles
Having reviewed the current crop of flight search apps, there are a number of principles that I would recommend any of them follow:
- Support users when choosing airports
- Provide flexible date selection
- Show dates in a calendar view
- Allow users to filter and sort results
- Make filtering options precise and unambiguous
- Show both legs of flights in the same view
- Provide a clear overview of each flight option
- Allow shoppers to continue their search or booking on another computer
- Ensure that online booking on carrier websites works when mobile
- Show recent searches when users relaunch the app
Of the apps tested, none excel in all areas, which isn’t surprising given the complexity of the design problem. Kayak is the perhaps the best, with excellent date selection and filtering options making up for its poor results view. I didn’t expect much from OnTheFly due to it’s unappealing icon and unfamiliar name, but it provides an excellent experience in all but the final booking stage. Hipmunk is interesting, but only those familiar with its concept will be able to get the most from it. Its time-based view is innovative, but it isn’t always as helpful at supporting your decision making as it could be.
Skyscanner is the best of the rest, with generally solid selection and filtering options, which can be too vague at times. Liligo is competent, if confusing, while Oneworld and FlightNetwork are best avoided.