Virgin Holidays
18 Months
What we did
Digital strategy
User experience design
Interface design
Design ops
Training and workshops
Digital transformation
Vh casestudy hero

The travel sector is seeing ongoing disruption from new business models, such as Airbnb, as well as indirect, digitally-native competitors from outside of the traditional travel provider space, such as Google and its ever increasing suite of travel tools.

The ability for consumers to tailor their holiday experience to their own unique demands requires package holiday providers, and others in the travel industry, to radically and rapidly transform the products and services they deliver and, perhaps equally as important, how they deliver them. Issues of adaptability and agility at larger enterprises are also ongoing challenges where the pace of change is so disruptive that the average lifespan of a successful company has shrunk by over two-thirds over the last 50 years, to under 15 years.

Like many well-established bricks and mortar organisations, Virgin Holidays was looking at the means to deliver products and services more successfully via digital channels, whilst building a design culture for the future.

There were three implicit strands to our engagement:

  • How do we deliver better-designed, more desirable digital products that meet the needs and expectations of customers?
  • How do we sustainably build design capability into the business?
  • How do we influence the company’s culture, mindset and approach to digital?
Behind the blood, sweat and tears that went into rapidly increasing design output, there was always the implicit goal of something bigger. After 12 months, our key sponsor had committed to a pivotal decision: reshaping the digital team to be more sensitive to customer needs meant sacrificing some breadth of technical development in favour of user experience and design roles. There couldn’t be a bigger statement of intent or testament to what had been achieved.
Andy Thornton
Andy Thornton, UX Design Lead, Clearleft Strategy Director

The Results

Record business growth on the web

Since our partnership with Virgin Holidays began, sales generated via the web have grown faster and larger than ever, increasing by 8% over 2 years. In comparison to retail stores and the call centre, the web is now the largest sales channel.

Sustainable in-house design capability

The in-house digital design team has doubled in size, with Clearleft supporting the coaching, training, mentoring and recruitment of new team members, in diverse roles from Product Design, User Experience and Customer Insights & Research. The partnership also attracted positive PR in trade travel press, sharing the story and helping attract new talent.

A renewed focus on digital evolution

In collaboration with the Technology leadership team, Clearleft played a vital role in ensuring that the voice of design has a seat at the table - both in terms of the future shape of digital at Virgin Holidays and the decision-making processes behind their digital strategy.

The Full Story

Clearleft’s approach

Given the huge overlaps and dependencies between each of these challenges, it was clear that they would need to be approached as interdependent layers of the same problem: by solving one of these challenges, it would likewise benefit the others. Some of these challenges would also progress at a faster pace than others, given the fact that the delivery of online products and services, operational processes and culture change all happen at different speeds, and culture change doesn’t happen overnight.

Working on an ongoing quarterly basis, we began immersing ourselves into the various challenges ahead by spending the first few months partnering closely with the technology team to help deliver a series of initiatives against some aggressive end of year deadlines.

Men and women in design workshops, collaborating
Collaboration and co-design: Participatory workshops bring together cross-functional teams to share knowledge and solve problems faster

How do you deliver products that are more customer-centric?

Part of our co-location within the technology team gave everyone a good practical opportunity to begin embedding an experience design methodology into an existing and mature Agile delivery framework. The organisation was already proficient in continuous delivery and also in the early stages of adopting a more sophisticated test and learn approach.

However, given the limited experience of applying user-centered design techniques – such as conducting lightweight primary research, rapidly generating ideas or iteratively prototyping and testing potential solutions before development – this ongoing design production support performed an invaluable role above and beyond its more obvious aim of delivering products customers love. By gathering direct insights and continuous feedback about the design process, we could fine tune what works for the nuances of Virgin Holidays, whilst also understand the existing status quo in relation to both design maturity and attitude to digital at the organisation.

Explore how we applied user-centered design practices in close collaboration to generate innovative ideas at pace in our Virgin Holidays design sprint case study.

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How do you build in-house design capability?

Using the insights gathered through the ongoing design support within the delivery teams, including learnings from any approaches that were less successful, Virgin Holidays continue to implement a number of key improvements to their ways of working and design culture, including:

  • Fully integrated design roles within each product team
    We believe that the enhanced collaboration and awareness-building that comes from being embedded within a multi-functional digital team greatly outweighs the benefits of co-locating as an exclusive design team. Regular design team meetings are vital to ensure ongoing discussions and critique as a community of peers.
  • Habitualised usability testing and improved transparency of insights
    Establishing an in-house digital customer insights practice by encouraging the facilitation of firsthand research (rather than outsourcing to third parties), keeps the team closer to the challenges and opportunities in the customer experience and generates far greater returns in knowledge back to the organisation.
  • Implementation of a design system and associated workflows and processes
    Building, managing and maintaining a working component library, in this case using Fractal (an open source tool originated at Clearleft), dramatically improves the efficiency of the delivery process and the integration and handover between design and development teams.
Screenshots of the digital style guide.

How do you influence the organisational culture and approach to digital?

With the influence of a more sophisticated design capability beginning to show signs of progress, the digital leadership at Virgin Holidays can focus greater energy into shifting the mindset behind digital initiatives in a number of ways:

  • Mitigate risk of large scale initiatives through an iterative and experiment-based approach Using the principles of Lean, Virgin Holidays continue to implement an hypothesis-driven, evidence-based approach to seek funding and plan new initiatives. This helps sponsors and key stakeholders reframe project objectives in terms of measurable business outcomes, rather than explicitly dictating predefined solutions. Clearleft helped pioneer workshops, templates and techniques to support this transition.
  • Encourage design thinking through business-wide collaboration and co-design Establishing transparent, collaborative ways of working and exposing ongoing work in progress helps build confidence, trust, awareness and knowledge in design capability between otherwise distant business units, whilst also driving smarter and well informed digital solutions.
  • Upskill digital team members in customer research and design thinking methods Periodic training delivered more formally through off-site workshops ensures new or novel ways of working are rigorously applied, fully embedded and put back in focus when neglected or beginning to revert back to bad habits. We facilitated three training workshops in 2017, with a further four following in 2018.

From being historically reactive in its approach, Virgin Holidays continues to evolve towards a collective mindset that is more proactive, flexible and individually empowering. As such, they’re increasing their ability to gain competitive advantage in a dynamic and disruptive marketplace.

Virgin Holidays teams at work in their office spaces
Digital rituals: Sprint by sprint marketplace ‘show-n-tell’ and retrospectives for Scrum teams help expose progress, learn and improve
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