“That single feature alone tells me that they have thought through the experience and that they understand what it is like to be a traveler,” says Christian Crumlish, who works on consumer experience at AOL and is coauthor of the book Designing Social Interfaces. For Crumlish, the lesson other companies can take from Hipmunk is that the user comes first. “Instead of starting with technology and then adding a pretty ‘skin’ at the end of the process, find technical solutions to the problems real people have,” he says. “Their satisfaction will ultimately govern whether or not your business succeeds.”
That spirit guided Goldstein and his coworkers when they added hotel search to the site earlier this year. “We thought about our own frustrations, and we concluded that the biggest was that we would go to a city and we wouldn’t know where in that city to stay,” says Goldstein. Hotel search sites too often push people toward chain hotels a car ride away from any attraction or decent restaurant, but Hipmunk shows hotels on a map shaded to signal the density of different attractions in each area. Whether you’re looking for tourism, shopping, or food, Hipmunk’s map can make it clear where you need to stay to be close to the action.
Goldstein says the company’s focus on user experience won’t be compromised by adding advertising or selling the top spots on search results, as is common on competitor sites. “The travel market is so big and the commission so reasonable that there’s more than enough income from that alone,” he says.
The company has a staff of nine and won’t share details of its user base, but Goldstein says the numbers are growing strongly every month. Indeed, Hipmunk has become a point of reference for other startups: elevator pitches across Silicon Valley now contain the phrase “we’re the Hipmunk of …” Goldstein is flattered, but he says some people are blinded by the site’s minimal design: “Sometimes people conflate attractive with usable. Hipmunk is sparse and pretty, but in a way that is the right approach for the problem we’re trying to solve.”