James Bates
“Early on in the project we had one of Virgin Holidays’ directors join us for a collaborative design session. I recall seeing his enthusiasm whilst sketching and critiquing ideas with the team. It felt like a positive sign for things to come.”

James Bates, Creative Director

The challenge for Virgin Holidays

The travel industry is seeing a slowing demand for the classic ‘package holiday’ as customers ‑ largely enabled by the Web ‑ become ever more comfortable with self-servicing. It’s easier than ever for customers to source the elements of and then go on to create a tailored holiday for themselves.

The current website works well if you know where you want to go and when. But customer research revealed a large group who don’t necessarily start with that in mind. They think in terms of an experience they’re after or are looking to discover something new. With literally the world as your oyster, the challenge becomes one of discovery and knowing how to combine the right things to achieve your perfect holiday.

Strategically, Virgin Holidays felt there was an opportunity to create customer experiences that better met these needs, something they refer to as ‘experience-led’ travel. Their brand strength and travel expertise, combined with the fact that this customer group was being largely underserved, meant the potential business opportunity could be huge.

It was this challenge that they asked us to consider, tasking us to help provide some answers as to how they could start meeting those needs.

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How do you create space for innovation?

For the last 18 months we’ve been embedded within the Virgin Holidays team, helping them to deliver product improvements, develop their user-centered design practice, and establish a sustainable culture of design. A key challenge they faced was how to make the space to consider broader initiatives (like this one) when you have a small product team optimised around delivering incremental product improvements. They’d previously tried to tackle these amongst the day-to-day product development work, but frequently failed to carve out enough time or have access to the right people to make significant progress.

We strongly believed there was a need to separate this type of work from ‘business-as-usual’ and give a team the time and space to immerse themselves in tackling a problem with greater focus. Having run design sprints with lots of other clients, we knew there was an opportunity to demonstrate the value of using that approach for kick-starting initiatives like this. And, if successful, make a case for using design sprints as a more sustainable approach to kickstarting innovation projects.

Can you use design sprints to answer broader, fuzzier questions?

In our experience, yes. But because of the scale of the problem, we felt one week wasn’t going to get us far enough. We considered running three successive sprints, but opted to try running a three-week ‘mega’ sprint instead. By using the same techniques and ways of working, and by focusing on building and testing something with customers, we were able to provide the business with a tangible view of what their future customer experience might look like.

With a challenge as open-ended as this and a bit more time than usual, it was crucial to set clear boundaries on what they were doing. The team decided that we should be thinking about solutions in the next 12 months (rather than something three to five years out) and that they had to be buildable within the current technology and existing architecture.

We also decided that we should focus on describing a broad (but shallow) view of the experience, rather than go deep into any particular part of it. We felt there was an opportunity to then use subsequent design sprints the explore particular aspects in more detail.

With our sprint mandate set, it was time to get stuck in.

What makes a great sprint team?

In a design sprint you’re looking to bring together a team that can represent all of the relevant parts of the organisation that relate to the problem you’re solving. In our case, we assembled a multi-disciplined team comprising three designers from Clearleft and four from Virgin Holidays that represented technology, marketing and business. Equally important is the attitude of those involved. You’re looking for willing collaborators and individuals that are happy to get stuck in and perform a number of different roles. Something this team excelled at.

Sprints are always lots of fun, but exhausting — especially one that lasts three weeks! So it’s important to manage the energy of the group and keep them focused on solving the problem at hand. We agreed that taking them out of their usual environments and co-locating in the Clearleft offices in Brighton would be a good way to encourage fresh thinking and ensure they weren’t distracted by the pressures of business-as-usual. Everyone involved relished the opportunity to participate in the design process and play an active part in defining the future of the customer experience. They got a sense of how much effort goes into creating good design and what makes the difference between a good and great experience.

How do you create a search for someone who doesn’t know what they’re looking for?

Having spent a day in-store during the first week doing field research, we’d observed first hand that not all customers start with a destination in mind. They often start with something else in mind. This could be something as simple as ‘somewhere relaxing and sunny’, or a particular experience or activity like a ‘safari’ or ‘scuba diving’. The team felt there had to be a better way to approach it. Searching for that dream holiday needn’t be a utilitarian process like comparing insurance options.

As a team we explored a range of solutions, but rallied around ones that allowed the customer to describe as little or as much about their holiday as they liked, that provided opportunities for serendipity and discovery and finally better reflected some of the personality and interactions we’d observed in-store between customer and sales staff. We eventually settled on two routes to test with customers.

The first route we tested was to present customers with a familiar set of questions, but allow them to provide us with fuzzy answers instead of being specific. We were interested in whether it made it easier for customers and whether we could still provide them with relevant results. We also asked them about the types of experiences the holiday should include (like relaxing, luxurious, family-friendly etc) and offered them a sets of presets (about a week, a long break etc, instead of dates) to choose from. Finally we gave them the option to be specific if they wanted to.

The second route we tested was a quiz about their desired holiday. Would they be able to describe it using questions and indicative imagery? The interface was designed to be playful and exploratory if the customer answered a question the interface would respond with delightful, contextual feedback.

Search is a huge challenge in itself, so it was tempting to spend lots of time here, but as we wanted to cover a lot of other ground, these routes provided us enough to learn from.

How could we provide better starting points for customers?

By allowing the customer’s search to be less specific, you naturally increase the amount of options available to them. With increased options, comes the challenge of knowing where to begin. We knew from research that customers already find it hard to differentiate between lots of seemingly similar products and that this is often the point that they’ll turn to experts, either in a store or a call centre, to help them narrow the options.

We wanted to inspire customers and offer them a starting point that they could then tailor to meet their own needs. So we suggested creating a set of ‘hero itineraries’ for each destination built around popular or unique experiences (e.g a road trip driving the Pacific Coast Highway). These would include all the elements we think they’d need to make a memorable trip, along with a bunch of expert tips and advice to ensure they get the most out of it.

By being able to easily change and add details like hotels, the length of stay and different experiences they’d be perfect for those customers wanting flexibility but without the hassle of creating everything from scratch.

The next challenge was how to ensure customers were better able to find content. The current experience is centred around search and doesn’t provide obvious routes for customers to browse and discover the breadth of products on offer. So we radically rethought how the site handles search results, creating a design that seamlessly blends a variety of product types, destinations and introduces another new concept: collections.

We know customers spend lots of time thinking and dreaming about their next holiday and many enjoy the ‘research’ phase of hunting for destinations and experiences. So we created collections to help inspire them and provide jumping off points for further discovery. Collections are groups of products (e.g. destinations, hotels and experiences) curated around topics or themes. These would be curated and introduced by an ‘expert’ that could be a member of staff, or an outside ‘influencer’ such as a travel blogger or guest celebrity.

All the products contained within both search results and collections are collectable by the customer, who can create their own wish lists and save items to them. This enables them to create a ‘scrapbook’ of ideas during their research and return to them later to form their own itineraries or add them to an existing ones.

The sprint itself was a lot of fun – the camaraderie in the team was great. But it was always going to hinge on the progress we made and how it went down inside the business. I'm happy to call it a success on both counts. We were able to make rapid progress on one of our biggest challenges, make some important decisions, and turn out a great-looking prototype. It really was like fast-forwarding into the future. Then, we were able to use that experience to start an informed conversation about where we're headed, start introducing design thinking into the business, and get our key stakeholders really excited about how we can use design sprints. That's an awesome result for three weeks of work.

— Alex Glancy, Head of Creative, Virgin Holidays

The Results

Demonstrated the value of treating innovation work separately

We showed that it was possible to move from problems to solutions (with lots of learning along the way) in just three weeks. This was something the business had previously struggled to do. As a result, this helped to solidify the value of innovation sprints in the mind of the executive team. Just three weeks later we were asked to start another sprint with another member of the board.

We articulated an experience vision

Until this point, Virgin Holidays had no tangible articulation of what their future customer experience looked like. The concepts we presented to the board were well received.

We created a backlog of ideas for future exploration

By taking a broad, holistic view across the customer journey, we were able to generate lots of ideas and opportunities for the business. We focussed on some of them during this sprint, and many others may form the basis for future sprints.

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