Five-star service: an interview with CTO Stuart Hughes

By Danny Palmer
19 Jun 2014 View Comments

For CTO Stuart Hughes, the customer is key. Hughes joined the hotel room booking specialist in October last year and has set out similar strategic objectives to those he advocated in his previous CIO position at The Hut Group; namely, to make online retail as simple and as satisfying for the consumer as possible.

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It's a strategy that relies heavily on regular, small service improvements by his 140-strong, mostly Manchester-based team.

"We do releases once a month and each release generally contains feature enhancements. We have a small amount of fixes, but we've got pretty good stability," he tells Computing, adding that the main aim is always to enhance usability.

"We're releasing features every couple of weeks and each feature improves the application. But the key to what we're trying to do is making the application as simple as possible and as easy for the customer to use.

"We're not trying to create an app that does everything, we don't want to create an app that's a Swiss Army knife, we want to create an app that makes it easier for you to find and book a hotel room," says Hughes.

To make service upgrades even simpler, is shifting to a new more responsive online platform for both desktop and mobile users, because "targeting three sizes of screen isn't good enough anymore".

Previously developers had to code for two separate websites, one for mobile and one for the desktop, which meant building everything twice.

"The rationale with the new platform is to build things once and make it mobile first, so the developers build the user experience for the smallest, iPhone-sized screen first, then they start layering on necessary features so we ensure we don't clutter up the screen with unnecessary things," he says.

One of the main drivers for this change is the fact that people visit on a wide range of different devices at different times of the day, Hughes says.

"Now people don't visit your site once, they visit in the morning on a phone, then in the afternoon at work they might visit on a desktop or a laptop. And then in the evenings we definitely see a trend towards tablet use, so browsing on the sofa, making leisure bookings.

"The key is we're trying to make our site respond to the user and the device in a way that means it's more relevant and easier to find what they want," he says.

That philosophy also feeds into's approach to analysing and using data, with Hughes describing how within months of being appointed he adopted data analysing tool Google BigQuery in an effort to gain a better understanding of customer needs.

"We're capturing lots of information about how customers are using our site and we're mining and utilising that data to improve search results and how the website is displaying information.

"We're trying to optimise the information that the customer sees and the way that it helps them find what they want in a quicker, easier way to make our site more relevant to them," he says, adding that his team have already used feedback from BigQuery to improve the website.

Despite his appreciation of the benefits analytics tools like BigQuery can bring, Hughes says he hates the term "big data", saying it is "a phrase people abuse to mean different things". To Hughes, it's about "using technology that lets you answer specific questions much more quickly," rather than crunching every bit of data an organisation has into Hadoop and just hoping for the best in terms of getting answers.

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