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Travel Search without the Agony

Startup Hipmunk used design to muscle into the crowded marketplace for online travel sites.
April 13, 2011

In the last two years Google and Microsoft both made multimillion-dollar acquisitions to bolster their search offerings for airline flight times. Small startup Hipmunk has become a serious contender using a different weapon: a stripped-down yet powerful design.

Search simplified: Hipmunk shows flight options on a single page, not as a list of text entries spread across many pages. Bars are positioned to show the duration and timing of each option.

The Hipmunk experience starts with a home page featuring a simple interface for entering your trip details. It ends with a results page that is more like an infographic than the ranked list of text entries produced by a traditional search engine. Flights and their duration are shown as colorful bars; a glance and five clicks is enough to select flights and get ready to pay for them. All the large flight search sites, including Expedia and Kayak, get their data from the same source, ITA software—but Hipmunk is succeeding by finding new ways to work with that same information.

Users may not notice how few clicks they need or how simple Hipmunk’s calendar is, but they do notice that they get things done faster, says Adam Goldstein, who founded the company with Steve Huffman in mid-2010. “We want you to see all of the relevant options on a single page or, better yet, a single screen,” he says. “And you need to be able to see the tradeoffs between the choices.”

The bars that Hipmunk uses to represent flights make it easy to compare them by departure time, arrival time, and duration. Choices are ordered not by price—as is usual for flight results—but by a measure of something frequent fliers are all too familiar with: agony. As Hipmunk defines it, “agony” is a combination of price, overall trip duration, and number of stops.

“Every other flight search ranking is by price, but it’s stupid to save five dollars and spend five hours more in an airport,” says Goldstein. “Ranking by price alone is an implied value judgment, and if you’re doing that, it should be one people agree with.”

“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.”

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