How Evaneos accelerates its user research, interview with Marine Crespel and Arthur Boulanger

Marine Wolffhugel
March 4, 2020

Created in 2009, Evaneos has been reshaping the tourism sector for 11 years by offering travel lovers the opportunity to create a tailor-made trip directly with local agencies. Today, the company has more than 220 employees and is the leader in the European online travel market.

Evaneos attaches great importance to integrating the traveler at the center of the product design. We wanted to start this first episode of our interview series with this great success story, especially in terms of user experience.

Marine Crespel and Arthur Boulanger, respectively Product Designer/Lead UI and Head of User Experience at Evaneos, reveal the place of user experience in this French start-up.

Let's start by detailing your backgrounds and understanding how you arrived at your current position.

M : After a degree in visual communication (LISAA Nantes) with a focus on print (editorial graphics such as advertising campaigns, posters, illustrations), I took a first professional degree in web graphics (webdesign and code) and then a second degree at Gobelins l'Ecole de l'image in mobile user experience. I then started with some experiences in agency and freelance to understand different projects, it seemed easier. It was very creative but I was frustrated to see the project taken over by other people or sometimes even die because of lack of follow-up. At a certain point, I wanted to accompany a project over the years, help it grow and be proud of it rather than launching several projects with less investment. So I turned to Product Design and joined Evaneos, a company with a product. Today at Evaneos I am in charge of the Inspiration part of the website, aimed at travelers who don't know where to go yet, to guide them towards destinations. In terms of design expertise, I work on the UI part, that is to say, I take care of the Design System [Editor's note: the set of elements that form the visual language of a product] which is in place on the site and on the whole B2C part.

A : I studied product design and interactive design at Strate College - I learned to design any kind of experience, physical or digital. My first job in a small agency in Bordeaux - Design For You - allowed me to validate this experience on the physical product side. The agency was steeped in Ideo's methods and really put the user at the center of the thinking. For each project, we made an effort to meet users in the field, to experience their daily lives and observe them in their context, even when there was no budget. I was really immersed in that. I could see directly the impact it had on the creation.

I joined Evaneos 8 years ago to structure the whole design, conception and project management part. There were about ten of us at that time. I grew up with Evaneos. At some point, we had to create this product expertise in the broadest sense, so we recruited. Today we have a team of 4 Product Designers, a Head of UX and 6 Product Managers. We even have a product director on the board.

What would be your definition of UX in your job?

M : My job has a big part of empathy. You have to understand the person who uses our product and then offer him a solution that corresponds to both what he expects and the company's vision.

Then, there is a whole part of bringing together the different professions (developers, product owners, product managers, etc.) to make them converge towards this common vision that the user will experience.

More generally, we need to show empathy throughout the user experience, not just at one point, to ensure overall consistency.

A : For me, user experience design is about finding the simplest way to meet the needs of users. To do that, you have to understand those needs very deeply. This is the step that must take the most time in our process. Once we have understood what is really decisive for him, everything else is faster because the constraints are very clear. The creation is very directed. We just have to find the simplest way. On the UI side, we are more and more equipped and supported by a Design System so we spend less and less time on this aspect.

And at the same time, as Marine said, we also have to serve the company's objectives. If we take the case of Evaneos travelers, we can observe many "pain points" to be solved throughout their experience. But we need to prioritize and focus on those that are in line with our mission, namely "Free people's curiosity for the unknown" and the company's annual objectives.

What are the different challenges the Evaneos design team is currently facing and how do you organize yourself to achieve them?

A : There are many and that's what motivates us in the team every day! The first challenge we have set ourselves for the next 6 months is to make the interfaces for travelers and agents more coherent by gradually deploying our Design System.

Then, we have a huge challenge on the user research. We want to go much further, even if we have always done it since the beginning of Evaneos. The next step is to internationalize it and scale it up. All our key projects have to be fed upstream with very advanced user research, with users not only from France but from all the markets we operate in (German-speaking countries and other countries).

All our key projects must be fed upstream with extensive user research, with users not only from France but from all the markets in which we operate (German-speaking and Nordic countries, USA, UK, Spain, Italy and France).

Another goal of the design team in the coming months is to bring all product teams together to create a unified understanding of the overall Evaneos experience. For example, not all teams name things the same way or divide the user journey steps in the same way. Through better documentation and more complete user paths, we want to bring all the teams together towards the same vision of the Evaneos experience for agents and travelers.

M : The challenges Arthur mentioned are the transversal objectives of the UX team. Each designer is also attached to a multidisciplinary team with specific projects, and therefore has objectives related to these projects. For my part, I work on the traveler's inspiration part and therefore, the first challenge is to attract people to the site, to give them an added value to consult it. To do this, I define the project objectives with the Product Manager and then I work on the design. It will be shared with the other designers to align with the coherence of the whole site. Then the development phase begins. Of course, there is a lot of sharing with all the other professions to explain what we are going to do and to ensure that everyone is aligned with the project vision.

How is user research integrated into all these projects and how do you proceed?

How is user research integrated into all these projects and how do you proceed?M: Today we don't have a well-defined process for user research. For each question we have, we think about the most efficient way to answer it. Sometimes, we go through user tests recorded on video. We have a platform that selects the right travelers and sends us the videos once the tests are done. With the French ambassadors of Evaneos who come to our offices, we do either face-to-face interviews to discuss the global needs or user tests. Finally, for small hypotheses, we'll do tests with people we know, on animated prototypes, for more interaction.

A : We also use tools like Hotjar to ask open-ended questions about certain parts of the site, for example if we see quantitatively that a page is not working. We ask ourselves what the traveler's intention is when he arrives on the site, what he's really looking for, and so we ask him directly, and it works quite well.

M : There is another medium that we don't use enough: our Customer Care. It could be a source for getting to know our users better.

A : This is also one of the challenges of the year. Currently, Customer Care gives us verbal feedback at regular meetings. We would like them to go directly into a dedicated tool (ProductBoard). This process already exists on the agent side, and we want to extend it to the passenger side.

The designers have user research objectives in their job description, so it is mainly carried out by them, but we don't want it to be too rigid. In an ideal world, all the people who do design and develop the product should have contact with the users to better understand them. In practice, we see everything. Product Manager and Product Designer tend to form a strong pair, working hand in hand especially on the initiation of projects - to determine what questions to ask the users, what we are going to try to understand and how to get it. The Product Designer is then more involved in the operational part of the project, but the Product Manager needs to take ownership of all the material collected, so the analysis will be done jointly. Sometimes, the Product Manager also participates in certain interviews.

M : I can even think of a certain team where the developers themselves conduct interviews - of their own free will.

A : Particularly for the tests on the premises with the agents: all the people on the team will participate - developers, product manager, designers. The designers will prepare the protocols and brief on how to conduct the test. At Evaneos, the employees are very involved and are very much focused on meeting the needs of the users.

What vision for user research do you want to implement at Evaneos?

A : There are 3 dimensions on which we want to move forward. First of all, internationalization, which we mentioned earlier.

The second point is to make it systematic. Eventually, no project should be created without a minimum of user research. This is normally already the case.

Finally, the last point is to develop complementary techniques. Last year, we really focused on remote user testing. This is good and useful, but we need to vary the methods. I really believe in the complementarity of the different techniques because they all have a bias, they all have their limits.

M : For example, video tests are very focused, whereas in a physical interview, we can bounce back and discuss other subjects.

A : Now we have to improve on the regularity of physical meetings - tests as well as interviews. It's important to re-establish the human contact between the designer and the potential user. It's an empathy and a culture that we must continue to cultivate over the years. The more they develop, the better we are in our profession and in what we design. And that means meeting people.

At Evaneos, it's easy to connect with travelers: just talk to them freely about their next destination at the end of a test. That way, we better understand their deeper aspirations.

In the ideal vision, we also need to bring together qualitative and quantitative approaches in the research phases. Today, we do a lot of quantitative work at Evaneos. A whole data team helps us to go further and further in this area. In terms of qualitative research, we are speeding up the process. But we are still too much driven sometimes by data, sometimes by quality. One of the future challenges will be to know how to combine these two approaches in a harmonious way. We have tools at the borderline between these two worlds, like ContentSquare. The challenge is on the organizational side of research and the collaboration between researchers and data analysts. I really believe in this back and forth between the data, which is capable of pointing out where there may be problems or things that need to be improved, and the qualitative side, which will dig into these things and provide answers.

M : Another important dimension is to make everyone at Evaneos benefit from user research, to deploy it outside the product. We can be convinced of the value of user research, but if we don't manage to make its results and interest known, we won't necessarily be supported by the other teams. It takes time to share information and align everyone with the same ideas.

A : Yes, to make sure that it is useful to as many people as possible at Evaneos. For example, recently our marketing team was looking for a name for the magazine section. After endless discussions, we suggested they use our remote testing tool. By showing mock-ups with different name proposals, they were able to gather the perceptions of potential users.

M : The only thing that was complicated was getting new people used to the tool. But once they got used to it, they were able to get opinions from real external users. This goes against their usual approach, with endless exchanges on their business expertise. It's a first step for them to accept to take users' opinions into account in their thinking. It's not easy, it's not necessarily in their business logic. That was what I wanted them to understand.

Looking back, what advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your career?

A : My advice would be more for those who work in a start-up environment: when the start-up is running, things can go very fast and you can get carried away by the flow. Establish a routine, for example every month, to refocus on why you want to go to work in the morning, what drives you in your job, what you want to contribute.

The important thing is to stay in tune with your desires and not to let yourself be taken in ways you didn't necessarily want to. Always take a step back from what you're doing.

M : To bounce off of that, I would open it up more broadly to anyone who is just starting out in the working world. Everyone should be able to test several ecosystems (agencies, freelance, or within a company for example) and say to themselves "What is best for me?". We shouldn't be afraid to experiment to understand what we like and not think "I won't try it because it's not the traditional pattern we were taught in school."

A : For designers, I would advise spending 90% of your time understanding your users, even if it's an ideal. The rest of the process should be as efficient as possible, automated. Today, with technology, we can do almost anything we want. The question is not how to do things but rather what to do. And for that, you have to understand the user's problem. Even if it can be very tempting, you should not get bogged down in too much technicality. Many trainings are oriented towards mastering all the functionalities of a software for example. But you must not forget to be interested in the real experiences of people's lives. You have to be passionate about a lot of things: sports, wine, culture... It's great to read business books, but it's also great to read novels, because they describe people's lives, which allows you to create empathetic connections.

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