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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Community Product Development

In a competitive industry such as business travel, are off the shelf tools best or build your own?

At Conferma we don't believe we have an "off the shelf" product, where we are the designers and everyone gets the same tool. We have a community developed product, Hotel Booker, which is flexible and used in so many different ways! Here is a quick overview of the Hotel Booker V4 development:-

The Conferma community consists of our technology partners, customers and their corporate clients. Hotel Booker is used every day by thousands of travel agents and corporate users, ensuring the new V4 (launched last July) was going to be accepted well had to be carefully considered by the team. We started our development in March 2010 with a number of meetings with the development and support teams to outline what we would change in the current V3 and the biggest frustrations our customers had with the current site. With a constructive list, the lead developer on Hotel Booker set off to design some rough outlines of how the site may look and function. Each week we would meet up and review the outline of the site, how our new amendments functionality was going to work, how clients were going to be selected, how best to work the hotel search from any page, what fields should be mandatory, etc... Lots of thought was given to the new site; for the first four weeks not a single line of code was written!

Once we felt we had a practical vision of the new site we consulted our agency customers to gain reaction. Overall the feedback was very positive! Customers liked the fresh new design, with some commenting (internally we knew this) - they thought we'd completely forgot about look and feel in V3! Our customers gave us some good points to consider and also requested functionality they wanted which we hadn't even thought of. In some cases customers gave comment on the same features but with slightly different feedback that the other hadn't thought of, it was then down to Conferma to take all the feedback and merge it into one solution as effectively as possible.

Over the coming months, we developed the design into a working site, checking back in with our customers to gain further reaction. The excitement we were generating was a little unbelievable; our customers really engaged with the products development and couldn't wait to use it in production.

After three months of development we moved the site into our live environment for beta testing with a few key agents. We released beta 2 a few weeks later after some key feedback, including further enhancements and fixes. It was encouraging to see our customers support us through this busy stage.

In late June we announced to the world V4 was now live and ready for action. Our customers began to flood to the new site - new corporate users loved it and agencies were beginning to win more business off the back of a strong customer facing booking tool and productivity gains. The development was a success thanks to the community!

So our customers have a great tool, but they are all competing with each and how can a corporate decide between which agencies to use? The fact is our customers may use the same platform but each one brings their own bespoke adaptation. Implementation strategies vary enormously with our customers; some are very self booker focused, some agency only, some use our Booking API and access our hotel content from other booking tools, the levels of integration depth with GDS and data hand-off all vary, some take advantage of CSP and some don't, some allow self bookers to amend and some don't... The agencies own business practice is taken into consideration; pricing, commercial relationships, other services such as VIP access and CSP reconciliation. The corporates have a lot to think of. The entrepreneurialism and creativity of our customers together with the flexibility of Hotel Booker gives our agencies the ability to remain unique. That’s what community based development is all about!!

Does community based product development work for Conferma? Absolutely, but more importantly, it works for our customers.

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