Expedia looks at eye tracking, facial recognition

From left: Kyle Schatzel, PR Manager, Expedia Group, Lodging Partner Services; Adam Smolinski, Director User Research, Brand Expedia; Emmy Arndt, Sr. Manager User Experience Research, Brand Expedia; Dave McDowell, Technician, Brand Expedia; and Mary Zajac, PR Manager Brand Expedia.

From left: Kyle Schatzel, PR Manager, Expedia Group, Lodging Partner Services; Adam Smolinski, Director User Research, Brand Expedia; Emmy Arndt, Sr. Manager User Experience Research, Brand Expedia; Dave McDowell, Technician, Brand Expedia; and Mary Zajac, PR Manager Brand Expedia.

TORONTO — Expedia brought its portable lab to Toronto to demonstrate eye tracking and face reading technology to journalists and hoteliers Sept. 17. The technology helps the company troubleshoot website problems and learn more about their customers.

Canadian Lodging News attended the media session. The hotelier event was well attended and the partners were very interested in seeing how the technology worked. Expedia Group demos the innovation lab with their lodging suppliers on a regular basis.

“We want to demonstrate what user researchers do, understanding who our customers are and studying their behaviours,” said Adam Smolinski, director of user research. “Expedia is customer-centric. The core of Expedia is our customers.”

With more than $1.6 billion USD invested in technology and innovation in 2018 alone, Expedia Group is investing in tools and features that help them work better with suppliers to provide an elevated experience for travellers. The tools can be used to look at all of the Expedia Group websites, including Expedia Partner Central, the hotel-facing site.

When Smolinski was a little boy, his family went to a Western-themed restaurant, complete with cowboy hats. When young Adam went to find the restrooms, he was utterly confused by the labels on the three doors in the hallway. One said Cowboys, one said Cowgirls and the third said Exit. “I'm not a cow and I'm not a girl,” he thought, ruling that door out. “Cowboys are big and strong — what if there are actual cowboys in there?” Afraid of that possibility, he went through the third door, the emergency exit, setting off all kinds of sirens that startled him so much, his cowboy hat flew off.  He returned to his seat, embarrassed and ashamed.

How could the restaurant have avoided the problem, since children sometimes take things literally and do things like that? How could they have better met the needs of their clientele?

David and Sarah use the facial recognition and eye tracking technology.

David and Sarah use the facial recognition and eye tracking technology.

“That's our purpose — to bring the world within reach of travellers, but travel is complicated and confusing. Our job is to learn who our customers are, what their behaviour is, and how to make the booking experience more enjoyable, easy and accessible,” Smolinski said.

Emmy Arndt of Expedia's research department gave a specific example of how the new technology helped identify problems with Expedia websites. Traffic on one of their sites dropped significantly following a redesign, and one of the technical product managers reached out to the research team. 

“People stumbled over the new date selector, prompting a very specific study of the date component to make it easier to use. They found that users changed the date, but didn't click the button needed to make that date change. We quickly found the issue, fixed it and the click throughs went back up.”

Expedia studies this type of behaviour in its three innovation labs in London, Singapore and Bellevue, Washington, Expedia's world headquarters. Then also have a portable lab, that fits in a large suitcase. “We can bring it to people's homes — anywhere they shop or plan travel,” Smolinski said.

Two of the more advanced technologies are eye tracking, to see where people are looking at a web page or app; and a face reader that can analyze emotion without questioning the study subject. The technology maps key points on the human face to determine whether the subject is feeling sadness, disgust, anger, joy or surprise.

“We are not testing your decision making — there are no right or wrong answers,” Smolinsky told demo subject Sarah, who used a computer to book a pretend trip. “You won't hurt my feelings — we just want to know why you are reacting this way, and we want you to give us a running commentary.”

The audience watched as a yellow line indicated where Sarah's eyes were going — who knew the eyes moved so quickly from one part of a screen to another! This helped the researchers map where she was looking on the site.  At the same time, the facial recognition technology checked which emotions she was feeling — mostly joy as she was planning a trip to Mexico City; but a mild anger or sadness when she realized there were not that many hotels to choose from in the area she wanted to go.

Lab manager David with journalist Jim Byers.

Lab manager David with journalist Jim Byers.

Travel journalist Jim Byers was the subject for the mobile app, and he gave running commentary while he went through the exercise of booking a flight to  Vancouver. His experience provided some valuable input for the researchers: Byers was pleasantly surprised to find an inexpensive flight to Vancouver; then less impressed when he realized the currency was U.S. dollars, even though he was looking at Expedia.ca. He had no trouble with the expression “outbound flight,” but did stumble over the term, “inbound flight,” as the more common term in Canada is “return flight.”