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Design Driven on Data

The company inspiring the world to escape one Marvel prototype at a time

Launched five years ago by Tom Valentine and Alex Saint when they saw a gap in the market in UK luxury hotel sales. Their idea to cut deals with hotels who had last minute spare rooms enabled them to offer 70% discount to the public – creating profit where there was none. On their journey, they have found a way to optimise design to make each of their 28 million users experience seamless and streamlined – through data driven design.

After securing £60m in funding last year, Secret Escapes are forecast to be a global multi-billion turnover business by the end of the decade. The business revenue is growing at an average annual rate of 230pc, has seen its membership rise from 4m in 2014 to 28m this year and has recently expanded into four new markets in Asia. With a mission to inspire the world to escape and ambitions to become the number one destination for consumers to book their holidays, they’re well on their way.

“In a company which is inspiring the world to escape, it is vital to pull ideas and feedback from the people that matter most.”

The Secret Escapes design process is user centric. In a company which is inspiring the world to escape, it is vital to pull ideas and feedback from the people that matter most. The users. Each feature has been tested and determined by carrying out extensive user feedback to ensure that it will actually improve the overall user experience. Ian, Lead Designer, and his team explain that in their opinion, this is a more productive way to work than following trends.

“You never know with trends in this industry. Working with trends means working with assumptions. At Secret Escapes, we are trying to find out what is correct and what is actually creating a significant impact. Design is driven on data.”

Throughout the building of more complex tests, like testing the experience and design that would improve conversion on their sign up page, the team extend deadlines to develop a fully functional AB test. Once that had been fully tested and approved by the Product team, a new test goes live.

“We tested multiple elements throughout the weeks, from showing more trust logos, real sale cards, background image carousels, interactive features, to what we found gained and converted the most – the sign up modal screen.”

The modal screen housed their real sales behind to entice user intrigue. They included fine details such as various trust logos inside the model, which also reinforced the confidence to sign up with Secret Escapes. As a result, they combined various elements from multiple AB tests, which proved to appeal to the users, and built the best test possible.

“We look for patterns across the areas we’re trying to test. From that, we create a version, or versions, on our site using A/B or MVT testing to see if there is any statistical significance in its value. If it turns out there is not, then it doesn’t make it to the Secret Escapes application.”

Research is carried out in house at least once a month and is all part of a sprint process developed by the design team at Google Ventures, which is where Marvel comes in. As part of the sprint process Ian and his team invite in five users per session, giving them the Marvel prototype which hosts the feature they are testing. In these sessions they collate user feedback on a wall full of post it notes, holding the good, the bad and the neutral.

“Getting to know the users really enables a more focused and valuable design.”

The team discovered Marvel during a sprint with the Google Ventures design team which focused on mobile. “We needed a platform to create the prototype on. One of the guys we were working with recommended it and we were drawn to it because of its iOS app.” Ian explains that Marvel’s native feel removes the risk of compromising the environment of the testing session. It’s important for the sessions to feel as real as possible so that users believe it’s an actual website or app they’re using.

“Marvel’s native feel removes the risk of compromising the environment of the testing session.”

“We have looked at more complex prototyping tools but to be honest the simplicity of Marvel and how we approach design, you don’t really need the complexity of the others. And nor does the user.”

Since introducing Marvel into their process, it has been used on every single project. Although, a lot of the fully fledged prototypes they make do not actually make it into the Secret Escapes brand.

“As a designer you have to accept that a high percentage of your concepts will never make it. In our design process we create prototypes which represent solutions to business problems and test. We’re working towards what we think is the problem and find what we believe to be solutions and put it out to our users. If it receives negative feedback or statistically shows no value in our split testing, it doesn’t make it.”

“The ability to change the way people make sense of a product with good design is incredibly rewarding.”

“Marvel has totally changed the feedback loop within our teams and across departments, this part is critical in our design process to create a level of understanding with stakeholders. Before it was not as efficient, important design decision could be prolonged due to long email chains, where discussions can lose focus. Now we can get all our stakeholders in a meeting, give them a prototype and get a real understanding of not just how it looks, but how it works, how it feels and why.”

Whilst the majority of their prototypes may not make it to the Secret Escapes brand, Ian values the design process here. He has first hand experience in designing to match assumptions after working in marketing agencies for four years and taking instructions from clients who ‘have a hunch’. Getting to know the users really enables a more focused and valuable design. Working in this method has contributed to the Secret Escapes user base growing by 24 million in two years. Indisputably, there is power in design driven on data.

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