It is widely acknowledged that travel marketplace Cleartrip, was the early benchmark for product design and experience in India. When its sale to Flipkart was announced recently, there was an outpouring of appreciation on social media, thanking the Cleartrip team for inspiring a generation of creators.
Hrush Bhatt, Co-founder and Head of Design, Sunit Singh, were the duo behind the Cleartrip experience. Both moved on from Cleartrip several years ago and are now partners at consulting firm, Design Capital. We spoke to them to understand their approach at Cleartrip and what advice they would give to anyone building a product today.
Tell us about the approach to design at Cleartrip. How were you able to accomplish what you did in terms of product design and experience?
HB: There is only one way in which a company can consistently produce good design and that is if the founders believe in it AND care about it enough to make it happen. At Cleartrip, Engineering, Product and Design (headed by Sunit) were all equally important and reported to the founders.
In most companies, design reports to product and this results in a muted design voice. This is also a function of the lack of senior designers in the system and will take a generational cycle to sort out.
Cleartrip has a clean, minimal interface, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom that Indians are more comfortable with clutter. How did you manage this?
SS: There certainly was pushback, especially from the Marketing team, who would say that in the absence of lots of banners, “dukan khali lagti hai” (the store looks empty).
HB: The way we addressed this initially was to show screenshots of Yahoo and Google side by side, to demonstrate that the more minimal interface was also the more successful one. That allowed us to test our design hypothesis and launch the product the way we wanted to.
After launch, there was enough signal and data to show that the design approach was working. For example, our airline partners told us that our conversion rates were double that of our competition.
When you are pushing through a somewhat radical hypothesis internally, showing examples to illustrate your point can save the day. But after launch, if the results don’t back you up, nothing can help.
Tell us about specific product features or design interventions that were new for the time and worked well at Cleartrip
SS: Cleartrip had many firsts, but here are a few notable ones:
Split screen for round trips
One of the biggest pains of booking a round trip flight was estimating total fare. Travel and airline websites required the user to select the onward and return flight in two separate steps, to see what they would be paying in total.
Cleartrip solved this problem by allowing travellers to select flights on a single screen, displaying the total fare in real-time. While this was easy on the desktop, the mobile had its own set of challenges due to the lack of real estate, but we eventually cracked it.
Single page checkout
After deciding their itinerary, the user must typically go through a 3-4 step process, which includes reviewing the itinerary, providing email address, entering passenger details and finally making the payment.
We were seeing a lot of drop-offs in this funnel, so we decided to reimagine the checkout process in a way that it lets you focus on one task at a time, yet encourages you to finish your transaction.
There were several little details that went into making this experience as seamless and delightful as possible. We saw a lot of sites, even non-travel sites, move to this pattern after we introduced it.
Rescheduling flights online
It can be stressful and cumbersome to make changes to your flight tickets.
Prior to us making this available online, a traveller could do it in two ways, either call customer support or cancel their flights and rebook. Our online rescheduling workflow was as easy as booking a flight, where the user had only pay the difference in 2-3 steps.
Make My Trip, Cleartrip’s biggest competitor, dominates the travel market and has a fairly busy interface. Did you ever feel compelled to take a leaf from their book?
HB: No, because the data never pointed to a conversion problem, which could be attributed to design.
Make My Trip had a massive advantage in terms of top-of-the-funnel traffic, and that is a result of marketing spends. Design or product can help to convert, but even that is limited, when the end-product is commoditised. When the end-product is the exact same flight or hotel stay, most people will book it from the place that offers the best deal.
SS: In fact, it was the opposite. Our design approach brought us loyal customers who appreciated the Cleartrip product and were not only looking for discounts and deals. They would say things like “Cleartrip is like a breath of fresh air.”
People point to Amazon’s interface and say ‘look how successful they are with crappy design.’ What would you say to them?
HB: I would say you don’t understand what design means. Good design solves problems and delivers the desired functionality, with the least amount of friction. It’s not about prettification. Aesthetics are important but can only enhance, not replace a flawless experience.
Do you think design is being taken more seriously in the Indian startup ecosystem now?
HB: You certainly have second-time founders who are now launching much better designed products. For instance, Cred has a bigger focus on design than Freecharge did (both were founded by Kunal Shah). Similarly, Jupiter has a much better user experience than Citrus did (both were founded by Jitendra Gupta).
This also has a lot to do with mobile usage. For one, Indians are downloading and using global products – they have come to expect a certain experience. Secondly, the mobile interface, which is still hard to navigate, is pushing people to think harder about design.
What advice would you give to anyone building a product today?
HB: To think carefully about everything needed to make your product a success.
It is, of course, crucial to build an amazing product, but think about the entire customer journey and of all the moving parts that need to work to make the product win. This includes marketing to generate demand, partnerships to deliver product capabilities or distribution, customer service that goes above and beyond, operational efficiencies, pricing strategies and more.
Product and design are just the surface level of what customers buy and experience. The proverbial nine-tenths of the iceberg that is invisible is more important than ever.
What are you up to at Design Capital? Can you talk about any of your clients or projects?
HB: At Design Capital we help startups of all shapes and sizes to create and evolve their products.
We are now working on a startup ourselves, as founders, which we aren’t really ready to talk about yet as we are still at an extremely early stage. We’re really excited, more to come soon…