Karl Steiner’s lab in Austin, Texas, looks like a CIA interrogation facility. Surveillance cameras monitor every corner of the windowless room. A row of mannequin heads wearing electrodes stare into the unforgiving fluorescent light. Its most distinguishing feature is a pane of one-way glass along a wall.
Hard to believe that it’s all for fun, but it is. Steiner heads a secretive 20-person research team at the vacation rental site Vrbo.
Their job: to help you have a better vacation.
Here, in a laboratory called “Voyager A,” scientists conduct focus groups and customer interviews. And yes, it’s also where they hook you up to electrodes and eye trackers to monitor your interactions with a website, mobile app or TV commercial.
Steiner likes to call the gadgets his “cool toys.” He’s usually on the other side of that one-way glass, taking notes, monitoring vital signs, and looking for ways to improve Vrbo’s user experience.
“We’re trying to understand the pain points that travelers experience when they book their vacations,” says Steiner, a bespectacled Ph.D. who runs Vrbo’s Innovation Lab. “The research we’re doing helps us gain more direct empathy. It’s all about the customer.”
Vrbo recently opened the Innovation Lab in its new headquarters, and this is the first time it’s shown the mysterious facility to a journalist.
You wouldn’t know it, but the lab might have already helped you have a better vacation. It’s quietly fixed an ad that wasn’t performing well and sparked the idea for one of the site’s most useful collaboration features.
How Vrbo is helping you have a better vacation
Steiner arrived at Vrbo, then called HomeAway, three years ago as its first director of global customer insights. At most companies, that’s the kind of job title that would keep you glued to a computer screen, staring at analytics for most of the workday. Not for Steiner, an expert on human-computer interaction. He took his department in a different direction, gathering a team of experts with design, marketing and product knowledge. Then he built the Innovation Lab.
Among his first projects: figuring out why no one wanted to click a button to book on Vrbo. No matter what the site’s designers tried — moving the buttons, changing the color, even animating them — customers refused to click.
Steiner’s team ran a series of tests using electromyography (EMG), a diagnostic tool used to record the electrical activity produced by muscles, and electroencephalogram (EEG), which monitors the brain using electrodes. The scientists tracked eye movement and asked their subjects to describe their emotions as they used the site.
Finally, researchers tried to change the timing of the buttons, making them appear a few seconds after the page loaded. “That made a difference,” remembers Steiner. “A slower reveal made people click.”
Vrbo won’t say how much revenue the slow-reveal discovery was worth, but after that discovery, Steiner and his team were off to the races.
Why is nobody watching this ad?
The Vrbo Innovation Lab specializes in finding and solving problems that no one else can. Take one of its latest ads, for example.
People’s attention began to drop about halfway through the first version of the ad, missing the important call to action at the end.
“There was originally a swimming pool scene where we noticed attention was starting to wane and it correlated to the dropoff in viewership,” says Steiner.
The Innovation Lab found test subjects and ran a barrage of tests. They used eye trackers to see where subjects were — and weren’t — looking. They tracked emotions. And finally, they identified the exact point where viewers started to drift.
Their recommendation: Replace the entire scene with something that made more of an emotional connection.
So that scene with the mom and her son at the 19-second marker? The one where she finds out about the girl he likes at school? That one, it turns out, sustained viewer interest.
“The ad performed much better after making the change,” says Steiner.
Building a trip board for better vacation rentals
Perhaps the Innovation Lab’s most significant credit to date is helping Vrbo create a new feature that allows vacation rental guests to tag, share and vote on their favorite properties.
“Trip boards originated with our empathy exercises,” says Steiner. “We heard some of the feedback from customers. We started by just asking them to tell us a story about their last trip.”
Innovation Lab scientists heard stories about the frustration of trying to share vacation rental options with a large group in the planning process. That prompted even more usability research, which resulted in a product idea: Vrbo would be easier to use if people could share their rental options with a group.
In March, Vrbo unveiled Trip Boards, its new collaborative feature. When you search for several properties in an area, Vrbo allows you to save them to a Trip Board and share that board with anyone and invite others to collaborate. Group members can add their favorite homes to the list, and then everyone can vote on their favorite properties
I’ve used Trip Boards to rent two homes. The feature has saved me hundreds of keystrokes and helped my family find the best vacation rental quickly.
Why Vrbo is trying to help you have a better vacation
So why did Vrbo develop a secret lab for this type of research? Why keep 20 scientists on staff, half of whom have PhD.s?
Certainly, having experts on hand to test ads or help place buttons can give a vacation rental site like this an edge. Steiner declined to share metrics on the success of his department, although he said they do exist.
But you’re left with the impression that the Innovation Lab would exist even if there were no measurable return on investment for Vrbo. Asking customers what they do and don’t like, about the site is just good customer service. And Steiner says that’s part of Vrbo’s corporate DNA.
“We have a customer focus,” he told me.
So the next time you book a vacation rental and say to yourself, “Hey, that was easy!” think of Steiner in his secret lab with his cool toys. He probably had something to do with it.