In this project, I conducted user research to recommend new features and design elements to improve the user engagement of Visit Harford, the tourism website of Harford County.
I worked with a team of three students and took lead on the design and execution of the research plan and designed the high-fidelity product concepts which illustrated our recommendations.
See the final deliverable end of the case study.
Client: Harford County Tourism
Type: Classwork project for a User Research Methods class at the University of Maryland, College Park
Duration: 6 weeks, concluded in Dec 2018
Deliverable: Product concepts which illustrated new features and design elements to improve user engagement
My Role: Lead UX Researcher
Designed the research plan and led the team
Conducted contextual interviews and synthesized interview data into insights
Drove ideation sessions to identify solutions and designed high-fidelity product concepts
Tools: Contextual Inquiry, Affinity Diagramming, Whiteboarding, Sketch
Recommend new features and design elements to improve the user-engagement of the Visit Harford website.
I opted to follow the Contextual Design methodology for this project due to its focus on qualitative user research to create compelling user experiences. Specifically, the use of Contextual Inquiry, Affinity Diagramming and Interpretation Sessions allowed us to capture rich user-experience data, identify opportunities for improving user engagement and realize them through ideation exercises such as visioning and product concept generation. Our process was as follows:
Our overarching research goal was to understand how people used tourism websites to discover, evaluate and ultimately plan a trip to a location and use it to design a more engaging trip planning experience for everyone. We began by evaluating Visit Harford and its competitors to gain an understanding of the problem space. Then we moved on to user interviews to understand the process of trip planning and identify major drivers of engagement.
Visit Harford Review
We thoroughly explored the Visit Harford website and made a note of the general design and any issues which might have hindered the browsing experience.
We found that Visit Harford had an extremely dated website design and numerous user-interface elements which caused frustration - as confusing navigation elements, ad-like popups for newsletter signups, missing event information and generous use of stock and tacky images (like a moving hot air balloon on the home page). Aside from the usability issues, we also found the Visit Harford regularly linked to external websites for detailed event information, something we thought was a huge red flag for retaining users and boosting engagement.
As a consequence Visit Harford felt dated and generic website from the early 2000s and in some cases was actively diverting users away from the website.
Next, we conducted a competitive analysis of popular tourism websites such as Iceland, Oregon, Idaho, Stockton, and Belize to discover trends in tourism website design and how they impacted user engagement.
We found that these websites featured a modern design aesthetic and created a sense of identity and intrigue about their location by using strong, moving imagery, clear call-to-actions (“Things To Do”, “Plan Your Trip” and more) and occasionally social media integration.
In sharp contrast to Visit Harford, popular modern tourism websites immediately created an identity and imparted a sense of place. Here’s an example of Travel Oregon.
We conducted 8 interviews with a diverse participant pool to understand the process of trip planning and how they discovered and assimilated information related to it. Our participants were recruited from the University of Maryland and Baltimore City and were a mix of students (undergraduate through Ph.D.), administrators and one doctor.
In the interview, we first retrospectively questioned the participants about their past trips and then transitioned into a contextual inquiry where we observed them planning a short trip of their choosing. These activities helped us collect data to answer the following questions
What information do people need to select a destination and make travel plans?
How do they gather this information and what technology do they use?
What aspect of planning travel or traveling excites them?
How can tourism websites better support the different phases of a trip - planning, traveling, being at the destination?
After each interview, we conducted an interpretation session where we analyzed the interview and created notes about user behavior, likes and dislikes, technology usage and sequence of actions. This exercise yielded more than 600 notes using which we created an Affinity Diagram and three user models, namely, the Identity, Day In The Life and Sequence models. We then analyzed these artifacts to identify major user needs and drivers of engagement.
The consolidated findings from our analysis are presented at the end of this section.
We built an inductive Affinity Diagram which organized our notes into thematic groupings. Moving from bottom to top, the data was organized into emergent groupings starting from individual user experiences (yellow notes), issues and desires (blue notes), sub-themes (pink notes) and overarching themes (green notes). Each level provided a level of abstraction but retained the representative details of the levels below it. When read from top to bottom, the Affinity read like a well structured story of the users’ needs and desires which made it a great data organization and story-telling tool.
Design Impact — The Affinity helped us identify numerous user likes, dislikes, behaviors and needs which we captured in the following insights.
The emergent insights from our Affinity were as follows
I plan my trips based on personal interest and availability; amenities; comfort; friends and family; distance from the destination; weather.
I discover new trip destinations and ideas from friends; social media; google searches.
I pre-plan my trips when I am free at home or at office because I like staying organized; dislike last minute planning; want to involve my friends in planning.
I consider my budget while traveling:
I like to find cheap deals and discounts.
I am willing to spend more on unique experiences.
I choose trip and accommodation options based on my budget.
I look for particular experiences based on novelty; personal interests; culture and history; immersion and authenticity.
I prefer to travel with friends; by myself; meet others at my destination.
I prefer to travel by driving my car; public transport; flights; Uber.
I find it annoying when apps and websites display ads and popups; insufficient, irrelevant or too much information.
The Identity model captured the personality elements exhibited by our participants and their specific wants when planning trips. These personality elements are often sources and pride, self-expression and value and therefore extremely potent drivers of user-engagement. Therefore, designing to appeal to these elements results in engaging user-experiences.
Design Impact — We identified 8 identity elements - Self Planner, Meticulous Planner, Weekend Traveller, Foodie, Super Saver, Explorer, Group Traveller and, Nature Lover. They served as a focal point of our design ideas and a standard against which we measured our design decisions. We often stopped and thought about it like so - “How does this affect the Foodie? Does it negatively impact the other identities?”
The full model can be viewed here.
Day In The Life Model
The Day In The Life (DIL) model presented an overview of the different phases of a trip - planning, traveling and at destination - by capturing what activities occurred and what technology was used during each phase.
Design Impact — A breakdown of user behavior and technology usage during each phase of trip planning highlighted design opportunities to support those behaviors. For example, we saw that checking the weather for their next event is something users do frequently when at the destination. So we included that information when designing the trip breakdown section of our product concepts.
The Sequence model mapped the actions that the participants took to complete their trip planning tasks during the interviews. It clearly identified the triggers and intentions of each action taken and any unexpected breakdowns during their tasks.
Design Impact — A mapping of user actions (as presented on the right) clearly highlighted the experiential expectations they had when navigating trip planning websites/apps and helped us avoid design pitfalls. For example, one of our users got stuck on a particularly information dense tourism website because she could not find what she needed. We made a note of frustrations like these and avoided them while designing our product concepts.
We consolidated the numerous findings from our analysis of the above artifacts into user quotes and design guidelines.
The user quotes captured major drivers of engagement and needs of our users. They were created by combining the high-level findings from the Affinity Diagram and the personality elements from the Identity model.
“I prefer to plan my own trip and meticulously plan for every minute. I organize my trip as a list of things I want to do and see.“
“I like diverse experiences and exploring new things when I have time. I make every moment of my free time count.”
“I ask people, check social media and read reviews to decide what to do, where to stay and where to eat.”
“Good visuals attract me. I make decisions on where to go, based the pictures I see. They help me get an overall idea of the place.”
The design guidelines were created by combining the insights from the Affinity Diagram, Day In The Life Model and Sequence Model. These guidelines ensured that our solutions supported users during the different phases of their trips and while completing common tasks for the same.
Design for ease of planning - highlight event timing, travel directions and other logistical information
Design for exploration - highlight nearby activities, and experiences unique to Harford County
Design for a social experience - show pictures, reviews, ratings and comments from real people
Design for visual delight - use impactful pictures to highlight events, activities and more
Design minimally - extraneous, irrelevant and poorly designed information will cause frustration
With the guidelines in hand, we started visioning, an exercise where we created travel scenarios for our users and imagined how a new Visit Harford would engage them in the planning process. These sessions involved sketching an entire user journey while creating new features and design elements to keep the user(s) engaged in their trip planning in Visit Harford. For example, in one of our sessions, we walked through a scenario where Sarah and her friend Bob planned a weekend trip to Harford County using the website.
We created a total of 3 vision boards which covered solo, family and casual weekend trip scenarios.
We came up with numerous design ideas during visioning. The following are the ones we selected as the most impactful for user engagement based on our findings in the analysis phase.
Highlight unique aspects of Harford County on the home page
Increase visibility of events to promote exploration and discovery
Offer curated experiences to visitors to make them feel valued
Make activities more compelling by adding a social component - reviews, social media posts
Provide clear trip information and on-the-fly cost readjustment with a smart itinerary feature
Connect users with real people by showing highlights of their trip
Integrate social media posts and pictures to increase likelihood of experiences being perceived as “genuine”
We sketched our design ideas to visualize how a user would interact with them and after a round of feedback and iteration, I began designing the product concepts.
I designed 3 product concepts - Redesigned Home Page, Event Discovery and Smart Itinerary - which are presented below.
Redesigned Home Page
The new home page was designed to invite people to explore Harford County and give them a real sense of the place. Testimonials and social media posts encouraged exploration and made the homepage a dynamic source of information where users could discover happening events and recommendations from real people.
Our research indicated that simplified event discovery is one of the most important aspects of travel planning and user engagement. When on a tourism websites, users are looking for engagement in the form of lively visuals, interesting event descriptions, trip recommendations and more. Any good tourism website should facilitate all these aspects of user engagement. The suggestions for the redesigned event discovery components integrate all our user engagement research to create a compelling and engaging experience.
The itinerary is a crucial part of completing the trip planning experience. Our recommendations include clearly laid out trip and event information with intelligent prompts for adding new events and adjusting the cost of the trip. The intention here is to keep the user engaged with their trip plan and allow them to fine-tune it to their liking in terms of the events they are attending and the money they are spending.
While creating these product concepts we also incorporated findings from our background research. These are evident in the Home Page and Events Details Page. For the Home Page, we used bold imagery and concise navigation as we had seen in modern tourism websites. For the Event Details Page, we made sure to integrate all necessary information for decision making and removed external links to keep the user in Visit Harford.
This project concluded with us presenting our findings to the Harford County officials in Dec 2018. They were very impressed our work and had this to say
“Mr. Sharma’s graduate project for Visit Harford was for a deliverable we could use moving forward to promote Harford County. It was obvious during the project that Mr. Sharma was not only an integral member of this group but appeared to be looked upon as the de facto leader. During the presentation, Mr. Sharma delivered an excellent work product. The presentation was articulate, clear and precise. “
- Greg Pizzuto, Executive Director, Visit Harford
This project was an excellent opportunity to learn how to conduct industry user-experience research. While it was more focused on research than design, creating the product concepts provided exposure to designing solutions as well.
I recognize there is still more that can be done in realizing the product concepts as full-fledged solutions. The immediate next steps would be to test, validate and gather feedback on our product concepts and iterate on the design.