The Importance of Human-Centered Design in Business Travel Tech

May 5, 2021

Have you ever wondered why you enjoy using your favorite applications? Software developers have teams of designers, all dedicated to creating great design and user experiences that allow people to easily navigate and enjoy their software. If creating apps that we love to use is the goal of product designers, why is the experience of using some apps better than others?

The answer lies in a philosophy called human-centered design (HCD). By taking a human-centered design approach, the developers behind your favorite apps create intuitive experiences that can be used by people who naturally have different skill levels and abilities. Using this approach, designers and developers observe and strive to understand the experiences of different users to create optimal results for a variety of uses.

By placing people first in the design philosophy and user experience, products can be made significantly more efficient and easier to use. An example we’re all familiar with is the way Apple revolutionized computing when they introduced the iPhone. Personal computers, and especially smartphones at the time, required the user to interact via a separate tool like a keyboard, mouse, or in the case of the Blackberry, a jog-wheel and stylus. The iPhone, on the other hand, enabled users to literally touch the content on their devices. It’s hard to imagine going back to those older tools now that our user experience has changed for the better.

Left: Vintage Blackberry smartphone with jog wheel; Right: Gen. 1 iPhone with touchscreen

At Deem, we employed human-centered design when creating Etta, our redesigned software platform for business travel booking and management. As a traveler-centric technology company, we know that all travel is personal. So, we wanted to make sure that our software isn’t just functional; we wanted to create a solution so helpful and engaging that travelers couldn’t imagine a business trip without it. Let’s take a look at what human-centered design means and why it’s important.

What is human-centered design?

There isn’t one standard definition of human-centered design. But, generally, human-centered design is the philosophy and method of designing products based on empathy and understanding for the end user. It places people’s objectives and the way they interact with a product at the center of the design process. HCD can be applied to any product, but for this article, we’ll mostly talk about software.

HCD provides a framework for understanding and addressing the needs, requirements, and desires of the customer at every point in their software experience. Before laying out the full plan for Etta, our designers spent time with our customers and especially their travelers to learn about their needs and how they want to work. Armed with an internalized understanding of customer goals and their challenges in reaching them, designers can anticipate behaviors and build software that seamlessly integrates into a user’s life.

The human-centered design process is a framework that requires agility and the willingness to return to the drawing board for reevaluation and revision. At Deem, our design team is continually focused on the development and enrichment of Etta. While our priority is to empower travelers with the solutions to be more efficient, productive, and happy, we’re always looking ahead, too, trying to anticipate features that users might need next.

Another aspect of human-centered design is the software’s visual, audio, and tactile aesthetics. Does the product look appealing and modern? Is it friendly or chic? When you interact with it, do you like the sounds it makes, or the way it animates?

Screen capture of Etta for iOS, showing unique cityscape illustrations in an inviting color palette.

At Deem, we don’t just think of Etta as just a booking tool, but more like your trusted travel companion. We want it to look and feel the same way our travelers do when they go on a business trip; bold and capable and engaging. Etta has beautiful illustrations, a striking color palette, and uses a very human tone throughout. All that serves to draw people in and help them navigate the product.

What is user experience?

If great aesthetics draw travelers into the app, a great user experience keeps them there.  

User experience, often referred to simply as UX, is about the overall impression a user has of a product at the end of the day. Is the product efficient, responsive, and stable? Is it easy to use and find your way around? Did the app help you accomplish the task you wanted to accomplish?  

If we can imagine what travelers go through when they’re booking a trip or when they need to make changes to their trip while on the road, we can create a platform that is efficient for them to use and increases their productivity.  

An example of this is Deem’s award-winning Travel SafetyCheck feature, which delivers up-to-date safety information to travelers as they’re booking a trip. When the pandemic impacted travel, our team understood that travelers needed to leave the platform to research rules and regulations from the airline, hotel, and car rental they wanted to use for their trip. This was a time-consuming and frustrating process for people already anxious about traveling.  

In creating the SafetyCheck feature, our designers placed the information that’s important to travelers right in the booking flow, where it’s relevant, and presented it in a way that’s easy to understand. Now, the user experience empowers travelers to efficiently make the best decisions for themselves and their company if they need to travel when there are health and safety concerns or greater risks.

Screen capture of Travel SafetyCheck feature in Etta, displaying neighborhood safety scores for hotels in the booking flow.

In travel especially, software needs to be created with a mobile-first approach, to accommodate travelers during any part of their journey, even if they’re already on the road. But many mobile apps don’t let travelers book and manage all parts of their trips, that is, flights, hotel, and ground transportation, the way Etta does. Many others don’t include helpful features like TripAdvisor reviews or amenity lists for hotels. We use Google ITA for flight search because it’s fast and it returns more content for each search. For companies that enable our Automatic Ticket Exchange, travelers can see and apply any unused tickets they have for their next trip, and Etta automatically calculates the exchange. All these little details add up to a more seamless experience.  

Planning a trip requires a lot of information, which creates challenges when you’re on a smaller screen size. Travelers can get overwhelmed if information isn’t presented clearly or in the right context. We designed Etta so that critical information is presented right when the traveler needs it. We made sure that critical action buttons are easy to tap and next steps are always clear. We remove the uncertainty from the inherently complex process of booking a trip.

Accessibility: UX for all users

We also need to ask the question: For which users are we designing software? Our answer is: for as many people as we can. This includes people with vision impairments, hearing impairment or deafness, motor or cognitive impairments, or other cognitive conditions, so they can more fully participate in business travel.  

Accessibility is defined as software that enables people with many differences in abilities to use a platform. And human-centered design means designing for all humans. So, it’s critical to acknowledge that humans possess many different levels of skills and abilities. When we’re considering the design of our product, we need to be sure that the colors, graphics, page layouts and other facets of the application can be viewed easily, by humans or screen readers, and not complicate the process for users who may have physical or cognitive challenges.  

For direction, we used the guidelines for accessibility in web design and applications that are available from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international community that develops web standards.

The power of the Web is in its universality.
Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.
— Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

Etta for iOS meets Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) level AA compliance. Our Android version of Etta will also meet this level of compliance when it’s released in summer 2021. And we’re going to continue to prioritize accessibility as we enhance our platform through the next few years. Etta is making it easier to travel anywhere, for more travelers than ever.

Making software accessible isn’t only the right thing to do, it’s a legal issue as well. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from pizza chain Domino’s, after a lower court ruled in favor of a blind man who sued because he couldn’t access Domino’s services online, even with a screen reader. The lower court’s ruling stands and paves the way for others to file suits. From a story on the case, disability advocates argued successfully that “if businesses do not have to maintain accessible sites, disabled people could be effectively shut out of substantial portions of the economy.”

5 benefits of HCD in business travel software

At Deem, design is influenced by interaction with our customers and travelers. We take pride in understanding their needs before we begin sketching solutions. Our team works hand in hand with our customers throughout the development lifecycle so we can validate our core assumptions before we’re too far into the design process.  

The benefits of creating a traveler-centric platform are significant and impact many areas of the business:

  1. Travelers will adopt the platform in greater numbers because it’s a complete solution for them.
  1. Travelers stay in policy because Etta is configured for the company’s specific needs.
  1. Travelers are happier; they don’t experience frustration when they need to travel, making them more willing and excited to get back on the road.
  1. Travelers are more productive because they have a solution that’s intuitive to use and available to them wherever they go.
  1. Travelers require less support from human connections that cost more and are less available because technology supports almost everything they need.  

As we like to say, business travel is better for business when it’s better for people. We want to empower business travelers to get back on the road with confidence by providing a solution that focuses on their needs now and will grow to meet new and changing conditions in the future. Taking a human-centered design approach means we’re more responsive to the needs of both travelers and corporations as they change.


Harper Lieblich
VP, Product

Harper is a product and design leader with more than 15 years of experience in helping established brands and start-ups reimagine their products. Most recently the senior director of product experience at Deem, he was instrumental in launching Travel SafetyCheck and accessibility features in the Etta platform. As vice president, Harper will evolve the company’s strategic product vision, and align and execute that across the organization. He has previously worked with companies including Bloomberg R&D, Mission Motorcycles, and Clear Channel Media.

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