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Meet the jetsams: UX for connecting travel companions

8 September 2016

Shortly before I left for a recent Japan trip, I encountered an iPhone app dedicated to connecting travellers and their plans. As a habitually solo traveller, this could potentially be a valuable tool for creating adventures! So what happened?

Shortly before I left for a recent Japan trip, I encountered an iPhone app dedicated to connecting travellers and their plans. As a habitually solo traveller, this could potentially be a valuable tool for creating adventures! So what happened?

Noun "Unwanted material or goods that have been thrown overboard from a ship and washed ashore, especially material that has been discarded to lighten the vessel."

What a fantastic word for describing solo adventurers!
We drift from shore to shore, following the trade winds and the stars. And often we cast off our excess baggage to lighten our load. I had to ditch my lovely old biking jacket and spare computer gear in Osaka because it was all too cumbersome. It's just stuff, right?

Let's describe this style of traveller as a "Jetsam".

No, not The Jetsons. Jetsam.

The Jetsons. Image license: unknown, via
The Jetsons. Image license: unknown, via

What this one Jetsam traveller looks like 

First things first, let's understand me as a traveller, and what I would expect from an app promising to connect travellers and their plans.

I typically travel alone, largely because I'm a introvert who happens to have extrovert tendencies. Throngs of tourists pressing around the gates of a temple will drain my enthusiasm faster than Pokemon Go draining an iPhone's batteries. 

Time is a luxury I treasure. I can take the time to absorb the architecture of Edo period temples in Nikko. I will amble, which is a pace that many of my friends don't seem to be comfortable with. Contrast this to the German guys who literally ran 22km across Kyoto in the height of summer-time humidity to visit five different attractions in a single day.  

Plans come second to whimsy. I'll read about some interesting places in the area in advance, but I always find the best adventures and experiences happen spontaneously.

On any given day, wandering around a temple or a palace or a museum, I'll have eye out for other Jetsams. They're usually the other solo traveller(s) who look like they'll appreciate a quip or an exclamation of delight, and then a beer at the end of the day. A random Jetsam interaction will commonly start in one location and then lead onto other locations and experiences - and these subsequent experiences are almost always unpredictable and the most memorable.

A tool to facilitate finding travel companions for the day is an alluring promise.

An alluring promise for Jetsams

"A social network for travellers and trip planning"

It's the tagline of the existing travel app. I'm legitimately excited by that premise. 

As much as intentional spontaneity is a hallmark of a Jetsam traveller, there are times when travelling solo becomes lonely and stressful. As an introvert, I'm not great with with opening up a cold conversation. An app like this could lighten that stress.

What if Jetsams could get advance notice about:

  • Other Jetsams in the area
  • Local events which don't appear in the guidebooks
  • Groups of people planning similar adventures in a similar timeframe

For example, when I pulled into Kawaguchiko at the base of Mt Fuji, I stayed at a hostel. Basically no one goes to Kawaguchiko except for Mt Fuji (and Fuji Rock music festival for that one week in summer) - so if somebody is staying there, it's for one purpose. Yet despite the constancy of travellers' intentions, I still ended up hiking Mt Fuji alone because my plans missed other people's plans by a day, or even half a day. I'd love to reduce those kinds of 'missed connections'.

The opportunity

Did the app deliver on its promise? Well, no.
I'll talk about my unmet expectations next time.

It's such an attractive premise for an app that I want it to succeed. I want this app in the world. 

So over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to develop my take on the app as a case study in my UX design thinking process.

I have a set of hypotheses about how the app could change... but these hypotheses are untested. They also don't yet take into consideration the app developer's internal business decisions and discoveries, and they don't yet take into account a business development strategy which doesn't involve up-ending the existing app. Monetisation also needs to be considered.

Here are the proposed stages in this case study:

  1. "I am not my users." - Paraphrased from Killer UX Design by Jodie Moule.
    Document the hypotheses. By declaring these up-front, it will help filter out my biases. 
  2. Research
    Develop a questionnaire to collect insights from other travellers
  3. Explore similar products already in the marketplace; explore the business models of existing products and their customers
  4. Conduct user observation sessions around the existing travel connections app
  5. Insights
    Crunch numbers; discover insights; distill data into six provisional personas
  6. Develop journey maps, storyboards, wireframes
  7. Strategise around transforming the existing app into a customer-centric, monetised product
  8. Concepts
    Conceptualise the UI
  9. Present the solution

Come with me on this journey, traveller. Let's see what we can discover and experience! And at the end of the day, let's sit down in a pub and laugh about what we found along the way.