Skyscanner's Journey with Bots and Voice search
Recent technology has moved at pace and within the last year messaging, chat bots and voice platforms have entered the fray. These services have brought with them the possibility for brands to meet users and interact with them on the devices they use daily.
The messaging and voice search economy is an area which we think contains incredibly important evolutionary features for the travel industry, and indeed all industries. For travel search specifically we believe that travellers will migrate from click-type-tap patterns common in apps and sites, to more of a conversational format, and ultimately to asking casual, but fully-loaded questions.
This assumption has led Skyscanner to embark on a journey with chat and voice travel search. Starting back in 2015, our teams began to experiment with how to engage travellers using more conversational search formats. Here, we take a look back Skyscanner's journey in the conversational space, from the first Telegram bot through to our Skype Chat bot.
Telegram Bot, 2015
Back in 2015, Skyscanner experimented with an early iteration of the Bot experience through a hotels based search on Telegram bot. This early example was able to comprehend some natural language date entry forms in addition to full dates, for example ‘Next weekend’, ‘Next Friday’, ‘September’ or ‘January 1st 2016’. Our first foray into the world of travel search in message conversations gave us great insights into the potential for this sort of platform, and informed some of our knowledge for the bigger platforms that were to come.
Amazon's Alexa Voice Search, March 2016
The next stage for Skyscanner in the conversational search journey was developing a voice search skill with Amazon's Alexa service, launched in March 2016. Skyscanner's voice skill was the first to be launched by a travel search engine and allowed users to ask for flight details and prices using their Amazon Echo devices.
Voice interaction in technology is become increasingly common - with applications like Alexa, Siri and Cortana all becoming more commonly used. Voice search does, however, throw up a new set of challenges that in many ways are harder to manage than text-based searches. Luckily, our multi-cultured and international work force allowed for lots of internal testing, with over 50 accents able to use the bot effectively.
Facebook Messenger Bot, May 2016
Following our adventures in voice search with Alexa, our next challenge was Skyscanner's Facebook Messanger bot, which launched in May 2016. This bot provides inspiration for users who need it, as well as live flight prices, and then supplies a link which users can follow through to our site in order to book their chosen itinerary.
The thing that sets this bot apart from anything we'd done previously is it's ability to provide inspirational destination suggestions, based on user search trends and cheapest pricing. We were also able to build on what we learned about natural language from the Telegram bot, in order to allow the Facebook Messenger bot to interact in a natural conversational manner; this bot understands 'human' phrases like "not sure", for example.
One of our findings from this bot was that as people became familiar with the bot, their conversations became shorter, and the users became a lot more specific about what they want. This suggests that while the bot may have been used as a novelty to start with, it's value has become more apparent to those using it, and we now see a great retention rate with users returning to use the bot more frequently than they did to start with.
Skype Chat Bot, August 2016
Our latest bot is the Skype chat bot, which launched in August 2016. It's our first bot to offer interaction in a group setting; users can simply add the Skyscanner bot into the chat and interact with the bot naturally, as if it were another group member. The bot searches for flights, returning live prices and route options within Skype, as well as the top deals for a particular route.
The group aspect of the Skype bot has been a particular draw for users, as it allows a high level of collaboration when booking a trip with friends or family; the video below shows how easily the Skype bot interacts with a group. Interestingly, we've seen a similar pattern of interaction as we saw with the Facebook bot initially, in that users tend to have longer conversations with the Skype bot. We believe that as people become familiar with the Skype bot, as they did with the Facebook one, conversations will become shorter and more intent-driven.
The Future of Chatbots in the Travel Industry
Skyscanner has been an early adopter and pioneer in the exciting world of bots and messaging in the travel industry. We believe that bots are much more than a gimmick or a novelty; we think the messaging economy is an area which contains important evolutionary features for the travel industry, and that bots have huge potential to enhance the way people search for and book travel.
The video below features our Head Bots Developer, David Low, discussing some learnings from Skyscanner's bot journey in more depth, as well as some do's and don'ts for developing your very own bot.