Booking cottages – lessons for ecommerce

Help your customer

Small things can make a difference as to whether a customer ends up spending money with you. Sometimes a small missing item of information that the site owner doesn’t think is important would have made the difference. Sometimes it’s just making the search function a bit more easy to use.

I have a dog. Sometimes, we go to pubs. Some pubs don’t allow dogs at all, some allow them outside, some inside. Some pub web sites state whether dogs are allowed or not, but many don’t. Whether they are or aren’t I’m not the only one who will have that question. Help your customer.

Searching for cottages

I want to book at cottage for about a week in the UK. I have the following requirements.

  • 4 adults
  • 1 dog
  • 2 bathrooms
  • near a pub
  • start on Sunday, return on Saturday

I went to Best of Suffolk.

Best of Suffolk search bar

The initial search on Best of Suffolk has limited parameters, which is ok if there is some good post-search filtering. There’s always a tension between making a search form really easy to start with but you then have to filter, versus more questions but more relevant results. One simple thing that the site doesn’t do is cookie the search parameters. This means that if you come back to the home page to start a new search you have to enter everything again from scratch. Best practice with just about any search is to pre-populate the last search so that people can just adjust what they need, and to use a persistent cookie so you can come back another time and pick up from where you left off.

Sykes Cottages has a few more parameters, which I find useful, and it’s not so many that it’s off-putting.  Being able to state the flexibility of your search date is especially useful. However, they don’t cookie the parameters either.

Sykes Cottages booking panel

Filtering results

Back at Best of Suffolk the initial display of search results is quite good. There are large pictures of each property, and some of the key features are displayed as icons and text allowing you to quickly identify those you might be interested in.

Best of Suffolk search result detail

However, there’s no mention of proximity to pubs, and I want a tailored list. There’s a slide-open filter section at the top of the results. They are nice big icons, again with text. Pubs and pets are included, and one of the options is a swimming pool. It’s not a requirement, but why not have a look? So I include that too.

Best of Suffolk filters

However, when I set these filters there are no results (although it doesn’t actually say that). The obvious thing to do is to de-select the swimming pool filter. Yet when I go to the filter panel, all of the filters have apparently already been de-selected. Users will often try different combinations of filters and sometimes won’t recall what the last combination was that they tried, so this just makes it a lot more work. This is basic stuff. I also can’t filter on the number of bathrooms, which most other cottage sites do allow.

It gets worse. Here is what the filters look like after an unsuccessful search. The original search parameters are there, and no filters are selected. I want to get the original set of results back so just click ‘search’. No results. What I suspect is happening is that the filters actually are selected, but not shown as selected. It’s desperately poor work. Doesn’t anyone check this stuff?

Best of Suffolk filters

Sykes have a more traditional filter panel to the left of the cottage listings. You can always see what options are selected. Each time you add a filter the page refreshes. Many sites do this, but there are two factors that make it awkward here. Firstly it’s slow, and secondly the page reloads to the top each time, forcing you to scroll down and re-locate the filters again.  It’s quite laborious to set a number of filters. Functionally at least it works but the experience could be better.

Sykes filter panel

Dates and pricing

I start again from the home page on Best of Suffolk and persist enough to find a property that I’m interested in, but there’s further frustration ahead. Although I’ve searched on specific dates for 4 people I have to enter the information again on the property page. The calendar defaults to the current month even though I entered dates in May. I don’t really see why anyone should have to persevere with this.

Best of Suffolk date picker

When I move the calendar to May I find that there are changeover days, and you can only stay for seven days. I don’t understand the business well enough to know why this is necessary – I get that it’s more efficient if you sell out, but it could unnecessarily constrain sales. What would make sense here would be a message that you could pick other dates, and they’d get back to you if the owner accepted (especially sensible if it’s close to the date and the property might remain empty). They could at least suggest that you phone if you want other dates. But they don’t.

Best of Suffolk date picker

Despite the good visual design, layout, and well-written content, the functional experience is enough to put customers off. I did try to reach out to someone who I think is a founder of Best of Suffolk on Twitter, to give feedback, but didn’t get a response.

By contrast, Sykes lets you specify your own dates. On the date picker, an ‘arrival date’ is still marked, and it’s not immediately clear what the meaning of this is. As shown in the image below I’m planning to arrive on the 3rd and leave on the 9th, and the 4th is a changeover day. After some playing around, I think if your stay spans two weeks with an ‘arrival date’ sometime during your stay then you pay for two weeks. The cottages are priced by the week, rather than by the day as hotels are. Given that that’s how the system operates at least Sykes lets me do what I want if I’m prepared to pay for it. An additional customer-friendly enhancement here would be a message saying ‘if you arrive one day later, you will save £x’.

Sykes date picker

Other issues

There are a number of sites selling cottage rentals, as you might expect. The likes of booking.com, Expedia, and Air BnB get in on the act, and they appear to have some of the same technical constraints imposed by the way the business works. Whether these are technical constraints or commercial process I don’t know.

There are pluses and minuses across sites.

A common frustration is being forced to choose one specific geographical area. This example is from cottages.com. If I want to choose Cornwall and Devon, I can’t. I have to do a search on each on individually. This can be solved by using tick boxes which would allow for multiple selections. Often when I’m using filters and there’s a long list I would rather be able to exclude one or two, rather than include lots, but I rarely find this function offered.

A nice touch on the Original Cottages site is the ability to filter by drive time from home to the cottage. However, it doesn’t work. When I first tried it I got a swirly thing indicating something was happening, and it didn’t go away. I had to refresh the page to make it stop. More recently it just results in no search results, whatever length of drive I enter.

Original Cottages distance filter

The wrap up

So there you have it. As with many usability issues the good and the bad aren’t specific to cottages. If you’re in the business think about how you can strike the right balance between initial search parameters and filters. Do you cookie the search parameters, and are you thinking about the dimensions most meaningful and relevant to your customers? Also, it’s not just about making sure that a customer can add something to a basket and press ‘buy now’ – you have to look at what happens if they want to change their mind in the process. And, quite simply, just make sure it works. How could anyone not do that?

Big ‘look at me’ messages don’t work if they are not under the relevant heading

I’ve been looking at the job sites of various companies. I searched for ‘UX’ on the Royal Mail site, and got the following result.

Royal Mail job search results

I looked at the list of results, and, as has happened on other sites, found myself wondering what these results had to do with ‘UX’. I then noticed the big message above the results, saying there was nothing to match my search criteria. I’ve seen this in user testing.

The user is focused on their task. My task is to look at search results, not to look at headings or other stuff on a page. If you really want to stand the best chance of getting someone to notice content that is not on their main path, use red.

Whether it’s a list of results for flights, shoes, mp3 players, or dead Roman emperors, the natural tendency is, not surprisingly, to look at the results. Use red, or position the content beneath the results heading if you want people to notice other content.