Discovering vacation rental product cultural and market fit for Japan
Vrbo, formerly known as HomeAway, is a leading travel platform that connects travelers with vacation rental properties like homes, apartments, and villas. It also provides homeowners with the opportunity to list their properties for short-term rentals, enabling them to earn income from their spaces. In 2020, Vrbo attracted approximately 28 million unique monthly visitors, boasting over 1.1 million property listings and achieving annual gross bookings exceeding USD 4 billion, resulting in profits surpassing USD 2 billion.
Japan holds a pivotal role in the travel industry, both as an inbound and outbound market, displaying a strong demand for vacation rentals. To address this, the Asia-Pacific (APAC) design team undertook a project to thoroughly understand the Japanese market, offering product design adjustments and strategic insights tailored to this unique market. With Airbnb's notable presence in Japan and the emergence of local competitors who better understand the preferences of the Japanese audience, it becomes essential for Vrbo to comprehend the market's significance and determine its potential entry, along with the most effective market-entry strategies. Additionally, Japan's distinctive commercial and digital design aesthetics, as well as its distinct consumer behavior patterns, make it an ideal "test bed" for Vrbo's potential expansion into other Asian markets like China and South Korea.
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- Proposed research and secured budget
- Prototyped artifacts to test
- Planned day-in and day-out of the user tests in Japan
- Synthesis (together with agency)
- Crafted Japan Design Playbook
- Presented the findings company-wide in a Quarterly Design Review.
- Discover first-hand what Japanese user experience and digital product design is all about
- Gather insight as to how these Japanese-specific design would influence HomeAway’s product design direction
- Product playbook or recommendation that can allow the design team to design for broader audience, including Asian users
Getting stakeholder buy-ins
Cost is tight as always and it is our first time conducting on-site user interview with complex trips and hiring local research teams to guide us. We had to really carefully consider the budget and implication to the team who will be benefiting from this.
Coordination across geos
Our team based in Singapore (APAC), collaborating with core UX research team in Austin, TX, for the first-time, produced some challenges like how to coordinate the trip and how to decide for the local guides/fixers.
Bridging design team, design system & processes to the product and engineering team.
Product design and research
I had to work with a Senior Designer and Intern, and had to discuss, assign and allocate work, as well as review in-progress design.
We also wanted to introduce research into the mix, which the previous team didn’t do as much, in order to build insights especially to the major flows. Previous research was limited to certain UI context, e.g. filters.
Securing approvals and budget
We were pretty new into the research organization even when we had spent two years in the company. This is because the HomeAway Singapore team operated almost independently from HQ, with our own design, product and engineering teams deciding on our own. However, 2018 came and we integrated more and more into the HQ UX team, including research team.
So, the first thing to do was to actually introduce ourselves to the research team, and walked them through our projects and this particular intent of doing research in Japan.
To our surprise, the Research Director himself welcomed us openly and helped us plan it directly. Because of this research leadership support, we managed to secure approvals including budgets. We still had to justify our projects to the local APAC leadership who eventually supported paying for it.
Planning for the research, prototyping Japanese POS
We then proceeded on planning for the research. This actually happened almost concurrently with securing approvals and budget. We drafted a research plan that was refined with the help of the research team. We also figured out we don’t have a hands-on help here in Singapore, so we looked for help from a research agency in Singapore who also has contact in Japan. This helps us plan recruitment and translation smoothly.
Our test plan included:
- General travel habit and profile
- Travelers: Testing the discovery and shopping flow for travelers
- Partners (Homeowners): Testing the homeowners’ dashboard
We prepared translated prototypes on Invision as we didn’t have any Japanese language POS back then. This proved to be a big challenge for our team.
What we did
We took a trip to Japan, to visit travelers and homeowners who host on HomeAway. We conducted two research studies in Tokyo and Nagano, and interviewed four travelers and four homeowners each in the cities.
We came ready armed with questions, prototypes and locations that were fixed by our locally-appointed fixers.
It was a great 8-day of trip for us and to know exactly the answer of what we’re looking for in the location itself!
When we flew back to Singapore, we spent more time synthesizing data and reviewing drafts within the team.
After a few while, we had an official readout attend by the design and product team at HomeAway, and soon after the larger org during a Quarterly Design Review.
The design team in Singapore also presented a parallel deliverable which is a “Japan Design Playbook” that consists of principles and anecdotes of designing for Japan (and East Asia).
We also worked together with the product and engineering team to propose some design changes aligning with the findings.
Better conversion (traffic est.)
Soon after the release of MPV V1 with short-term fixes, we saw 5x uplift in traffic. We made changes in:
- Reorganization of checkout form
- Global picker for currency and language
- Image curation
- Messaging fixes on checkout to reduce ambiguity
Informing better decisions
Research efforts this year have led to shareable insights that are informing the Design and Product team
- Stakeholder workshop to influence decision-making on product roadmap
- User research on shopping funnel, discovering what works for travelers when they shop
- User research on booking flow, discovering what works for travelers when they book
- Design playbook for Japan
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- Mathew Wong, Senior Designer
- Karl Steiner, Research Director