Technology, This Turbulent World

Visiting one of my daily input sites, Hacker News, I came across a blog post that I took offense to with the link: “Hipmunk needs to ramp up on usability.” Hipmunk is not my site, so why would I take offense? Because Hipmunk is the Harvey Dent to my Bruce Wayne. Because I believe in Hipmunk.

Although the title of your blog post was: “Why I don’t use Hipmunk..”, the title to the link provided to Hacker News was: “Hipmunk needs to ramp up on usability.” The title of your post was far more accurate. Hipmunk has incredibly usability in my opinion and the opinion of many others. Your opinion of the usability is your own and upon reading your post, is probably in the minority. Finding flights was a huge pain in the rear before Hipmunk came around. While some search providers tried to make things easier, no one has nailed it like Hipmunk has. I’ve traveled often my whole life. Hipmunk was, to me, a breath of fresh air when it arrived and it has only gotten better. As I was reading through the gripes of the author, I couldn’t help but think: “oh come on, really?”

Let’s see if I can successfully come to the defense of the site I have grown to know and love.

1. Default sorting by Agony: What exactly is Agony, in layman terms? I have no idea. There is some vague explanation on the site about it being some sort of a combined metric, but I find it hard to visualize or connect to anything that matters to me.

Did you even bother to look at the FAQ? You know, the thing that is commonly included for services in case you have a question, that might be frequently asked. I don’t see the vagueness in the description that is the third item down and easily visible on that page (emphasis added):

What is Agony, and why would I want to sort by it?

We know that price isn’t the only factor that goes into purchasing a flight. While other sites sort by price, Hipmunk automatically sorts results by “Agony,” which is primarily a combination of price, flight duration, and number of stopovers.

Not only is the description readily available, the agony sorting methodology is far superior to other sorting methods, in my opinion. Frequent travelers often have a threshold at which layovers and connecting flights are worth a few more bucks to avoid countless hours of sitting in an airport. If price is really your main concern, the cheapest flight is always highlighted and it’s quick and easy to switch the view to sort by price. In my experience, it is nearly sorted by price anyway, so I find it odd that this would really get in your way so often that it would be of concern.

2. Price: The pricing is vague. What does From $639 mean to a price-conscious traveler? Not clear. I can’t tell whether the price is only for the onward journey or also includes the return journey. I also can’t tell if it’s $639, or something higher (because of the From). Do I have to actually go through multiple screens and select the onward and return flights just to find the exact price? That’s too much work..

Hovering your mouse over the price clearly provides the tip that the price is the total including the round trip. Desiring a different return flight on the next screen may change that price so, yes, it’s “From $639” if you happen to select the flights that make that price; this is not a problem of usability, it’s the truth. I have never experienced confusion with this. To answer your question: no, you do not have to go through many screens to find the exact price because it was listed right there at the beginning.

3. Selecting onward/return flights in 2 different steps: Being able to pick onward and return flights separately might sound neat in theory, but it’s confusing for the average traveler. I want simple options. On Hipmunk, how do I know what options United will give me for the return flight if I pick the 6 am onward? What if I pick delta? Do I have to click on each individual flight to see what the return flight options are? This taxes my brain and is frustrating.

I’ve found this to be one of the nice parts about Hipmunk and many of my friends I have shown Hipmunk to have agreed. If this truly taxes your brain and is frustrating, then I would have to question your capacity to purchase flights online at all. Clearly shown at the top are the two different dates you have chosen with a 1 and a 2 next to them. The first day of your trip is highlighted. Upon making your selection, the second day is highlighted and you choose a return flight. Not only is there a clear indication that you are moving from the first leg of your trip to the next, but there’s help to let you know that it may be a two step process. I don’t think you do a very good job of speaking for “the average traveler.”

4. Flight duration: visualizing this is supposed to be Hipmunk’s strength, but it’s not helpful to me. I find the hours explicitly stated on Kayak (“8h 51m”) much more comprehensible than having to estimate the duration by looking at Hipmunk’s excel type UI.

Even if you are incapable of doing a bit of math or using graphs to determine values, the necessary information is provided: when do you leave and when do you get there? Using the graphical layout, Hipmunk also provides, at a glance, important information that Kayak does not. Specifically: how much of that total time Kayak is quoting is spent sitting in an airport waiting for my next flight? I can’t tell at a glance. With Hipmunk showing me the various airport codes I will be staying in and color coding them differently, I can tell rather quickly how much time I’ll be sitting around waiting for my flights and which airports I’m going to be stuck in.

5. Filtering: Hipmunk falls short here too. Their “Non-stops” filter is grouped together with sorting options, making it hardly noticeable. On Kayak, I can specify the number of stops I am comfortable with (my wife only likes non-stops, I’m ok with 1 stops). I can also specify my take-off times for both legs (say early evening for onward flights and late evenings for return flights). It’s really useful to use the departure/arrival time sliders to view flight availability, while also observing how that affects price.

I agree with a single point of this statement: grouping “Non-stops” with sorting options is not a good place for it. However, this does not mean Hipmunk does a bad job of filtering. Because of the strength of the visual layout, filtering becomes less of a necessity. This is especially true when there are enough sorting options to make the layout appear in a way that is easy to absorb. Most concerned with when you leave? Sort by Departure.

That being said: you can still filter based on time rather easily so I don’t know where Kayak has an advantage here. Want to leave after 8:00am? Select “No early morning departures” from the drop down menu. Finding that 8:00am isn’t specific enough? Simply drag the time filtering bar from the left to the appropriate time. You can do the same with the bar on the right.

If there is concern for the number of stops you have to make, Hipmunk shows it visually quite easily and provides that all-important additional information Kayak does not: how long do you have to sit at that stop? If I have two stops but one of them is a 30 minute layover where I may miss my flight due to delay or find myself running from one gate to another, Hipmunk shows this to me. Kayak does not provide me with this information.

6. Modifying a flight search: Kayak has a prominent Change your search link on the left sidebar above the filters. Clicking on it opens up a lightweight dialog box that I can use to change my current flight options and rerun search. Hipmunk has a New Search link at the top, hardly visible(faded colors), which opens a new tab. What if I only wanted to change the return date on the current search? I don’t really want to go to a new tab and type everything again.

Did you even bother to open a new tab? It keeps your previous search in there. There is no “type everything again” needed. Open a new tab, make your switch, and go. Your old search is still quickly available so you can compare the results of what you previously searched to what you’re searching now. Does Kayak do that? I don’t think so.

7. “Live Help: Offline”: unnecessary button on Hipmunk. Why not just remove this when live help is unavailable?

While I’m all for removing visual clutter, I don’t find this distracting and I actually think this is a good thing for new users, even if it is offline, for a couple of reasons:

  • It lets the user know that the site is legitimate enough to offer instantaneous help when it is needed. This provides a sense of comfort and satisfaction. It is good to know there are people there to assist you (albeit not all the time) and that this isn’t just a site out there being a meta search engine. Kayak doesn’t even have a link to contact them.
  • Upon clicking on the link, you are presented with a form that allows you provide feedback or ask questions. Again: something Kayak seems to be lacking completely.

An adequate argument was not presented that would indicate Hipmunk has usability issues from the author of the aforementioned blog post. I would like to reiterate that the actual title of your post is far more accurate than the one you provided for Hacker News. You provided reasons why you (who doesn’t seem to be an average traveler or someone who recognizes usability concerns well) don’t use Hipmunk, not reasons why Hipmunk has usability issues.

Constant improvements with Hipmunk are readily seen while Kayak remains the same and feels archaic. I won’t go into why I think Kayak is horrible but during my usage of the site while writing this post I have discovered I am extremely glad I don’t have to use it. Why do I have to see 7 results for the same airline and price with slight variations in time (that aren’t necessarily sorted by time) with unexplained differences in the “total time” it takes for a flight listed? Why do I need to see pop up windows for practically every action I take? Why would I want to see comparison searches from other sites? Oh gosh… don’t get me started.

I believe in Hipmunk.

  • Florence Gin

    Hey David. Thanks for the awesome post! I’d appreciate it if you could email me directly. I’d like to get in touch with you. thx