As IT recruiters, we are in regular contact with a wide range of techies/geeks/geniuses. The things they do are marvellous and make an enormous difference to our world. Consequently, while not endorsing any specific company or product, we are always happy to consider guest blogs from the people at the sharp end, those who work in the real developers’ world – with all the challenges, opportunities, difficulties and successes involved. We also think these real life illustrations from companies that use technology productively for our mutual benefit make fascinating reading. Now, over to David for the full story…
Last year at Skyscanner, we published a report called "The Future of Travel" - a look into the crystal ball, forecasting how travellers would search and book their journeys in ten years' time.
The primary focus was around the notion of "travel buddies" - assistants who know your preferences, your travel history and your upcoming schedule - pro-actively making suggestions or even making reservations for you, to save you the pain of searching.
That goal of booking travel before you knew the need for it is some way off at the moment - but we work hard to spot ways to inch ourselves forward and bring 2024 to life a lot earlier.
With this in mind we have recently taken up the challenge of developing 'conversational search', to let our users look for travel in an environment known to them. From a business perspective, we’re looking for innovative ways to expose our product inside familiar interfaces.
This type of search is nothing particularly new - free text search interfaces have existed for years. Think of how Google revolutionised search and now almost expects people to ask 'human' questions rather than game the system with keywords. Indeed Skyscanner had its first stab at voice and free-text search with its Windows apps in 2012, so we have some previous for this.
However with the advent of our Skyscanner for Business team, we are keen to use our well-established API to push these types of service and really advance the whole 'assistant' model - by showing the art of the possible for our development partners - and giving users an early taste of how it can benefit them.
This started in the summer with a 'chat bot' installed into the fast-growing Telegram app. Telegram - a rival to WhatsApp trading on the security of its conversations - makes it possible to have 'bots' which, although clearly not real people, can conduct conversations to get quick answers to problems in a platform they already use routinely.
Leaning on the API, my colleague Richard Keen put together a bot very quickly to prove it's both simple but quick and powerful for both sides of the conversation - and providing simple "low, medium and high" prices for hotels and flights - in seconds. The important thing though, was jumping on a platform rapidly gaining adoption, and use it to lower the friction of travel search.
Then in the summer, a friendly developer at Amazon showed us how simple it could be to enable something similar - using voice search - on the Amazon Echo device. We jumped on this because it was clearly another way to get people thinking about travel early, and another step closer to that 'assistant' goal; searching when it comes into your head, without even picking up a device.
And to be honest, building for "Alexa", the conversation engine deployed by Amazon, is not particularly difficult. The challenge is all in making the conversation a little bit more human and natural. People don't like talking to robots any more than 'pressing 1, 2, 3, hash' when phoning their bank.
You soon come up against challenges, such as the basic principle that bizarrely enough, people can be polite. Every phrase you train Alexa to hear, such as "ask Skyscanner for a flight" - has to be tuned with the word "please" at either end. Alexa then has to reciprocate by being polite in response, thanking the user for their input at each stage - but without sounding repetitive (and yes, robotic).
Technical challenges then balloon as a result, but ultimately the user reaction when it all falls into place, is something to behold. Because users aren't staring at a screen or concentrating on what to click, tap or type, you can see every step of their journey etched in their faces.
The belief is that having bought into the service, they will be that bit closer to Skyscanner as a company and use our other services. In time, we will surely take the voice engine through to booking when technology allows, and remove the need for those other platforms.
Our Alexa search will soon be deployed in the US, where Amazon currently operates the service and sells compatible devices, but we hope some day soon it will be made available in the UK so we can let more people use and improve it.
But more than that, we've proved a concept and opened up a new paradigm of search for Skyscanner which makes that 2024 goal a lot nearer all of a sudden, thanks to Moore's Law and the flexible platform we've worked so hard to put together. And many more of these services we can spin up quickly as a result.
David Low, Developer Advocate at Skyscanner