Hot Seat – Rachael Wussow

Rachael is an experience strategist and creative facilitator currently leading the Product Labs team at Hotwire.

For 12+ years she’s been collaborating with organizations to grow and innovate through the human-centered design process—tackling creative, business and systemic challenges of all shapes and sizes. Rachael has experience creating brands, products, and experiences that help startups, Fortune 500 companies, and nonprofits alike take leaps forward by answering the “why”​ and “how” behind design. Some of her favorite collaborations have been with Google, PayPal, Rocksbox, Jawbone, Kiva, Tipping Point Community—and Hotwire of course!

When she’s not discussing the merits of a design-driven organization, you can find her on local Bay Area trails training for her next ultra-marathon or experimenting with her farmer’s market haul in the kitchen.

What brought you into this field?

What interested me initially was the power good design can have to create something useful, memorable and even transformative. What I’ve grown to love about design is how it is a creative problem-solving process. Usually people think of it as a purely visual exercise, but that’s just one application for how you can apply the process. Whether it is a business challenge, a systems problem, or a systemic social issue, this process can be applied to anything. It’s about developing empathy for your end-user, understanding the journey they are on, uncovering latent needs, and really clarifying the problem that you are looking to solve. Then being inspired by those experiences to prototype, learn and iterate—constantly. That’s why I love the design process so much – you can literally apply it to anything. Since joining Hotwire, it’s been my personal mission to leverage this mindset into how we think about product development and the overall Hotwire customer experience.

Back to travel. It feels new – it’s a new application of this background and more of a lifestyle fit because I’m a pretty avid traveler – I go on at least two or three international trips a year. I just had this realization that I’ve been to London most years and I haven’t been to New York in over ten years. (laughs) My default is always international. I’m excited to also be around peers who see travel as a good thing and share that passion to help others do that more.

You collaborate with so many teams at Hotwire, how do you balance various needs and functions to actualize solutions?

A gap I’ve observed at many organizations is the org chart getting in the way of creating a holistic experience for their customer. There are many parts of the business that interact with customers, yet there is rarely a role synthesizing all these different inputs and creating a vision for how all the pieces fit together. We are all trying to create value for our customer, and it can be a challenge to create one connected experience. The task at hand is how to have a more shared understanding of that journey and where our product areas work together to deliver an experience oriented around the customer journey, not how we’re organized.

How does Hotwire fit into that empathetic model for our customers?

Our Labs team’s primary role is to cultivate a deep understanding of our customers—particularly their attitudes, motivations and behaviors so that we can create a product that fits their needs. How we deliver on that is our responsibility to our customers, in collaboration with our partners, to connect the threads across the journey—from awareness, to purchase, to pre-trip, and into the actual trip experience itself. There’s a lot of minutia to pay attention to (and we should!), but there’s also learning about human behavior that we can leverage. Take for example the Peak–End Rule psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience. The point here is that we can engineer the moments that matter most, making sure we spend time creating powerful peak memory makers, not just “filling potholes.”

In a experiment with a partner, we created a co-branded, exclusive check-in experience offering guests a welcome drink at the bar and free amenity. This designed surprise was intended to disrupt the expected, create delight and pique their memory after the trip. We then followed this up with a check-out surprise. While just a prototype, we started to see how much partners want to work with us to ultimately create more of a positive experience for our shared customers. There’s tons more to explore in this arena, so I’m excited to see what we come up with in collaboration with our partners during the in-trip experience.

Does this encourage loyalty?

Absolutely. Those moments can impact repeat purchase, brand affinity, and so much more. We see other good signals from chains that have different notions to create loyalty that – for example Accent Inns had these rubber ducks with different localized characteristics for various hotels and people actually started to want to collect them. I’m always intrigued by offline experiences because in general, user trends point to us being saturated on our devices. They saw an improvement in loyalty based on these crazy ducks so I’m curious what loyalty features could look like for us alongside our partners.

About how many Hotwire customers have you interacted with in your research?

Over the years, we’re talked to people in the thousands – that’s qualitative too, not even including big surveys.

What stands out as an area of opportunity?

There is sometimes a disconnect between what people expect when booking and what they get – sometimes it’s difficult and can be based on subjective reasoning, but at the same time it is a partnership. For example, I’ve had my own experience with an unexpected parking fee as a customer. It’s not a good experience to be surprised with an added cost. It’s hard to say who’s responsible since we are the platform and information is shared. There’s definitely room for improvement for us to share that ownership. The bottom line is what does it look like to make things right for the customer. If the trip-end experience leaves a sour taste in their mouth, the partner doesn’t win, and Hotwire doesn’t win. So we need to find ways to make that right together.

Where are your passions in our customer journey?

A lot of our challenges with customers stem from the fact that when people start booking with us, they have a typical set expectation that aligns with traditional OTAs – enter your information into a farefinder, see some results, sift through a lot of information, maybe look at reviews elsewhere to validate your decision, and know what to expect. Our experience right now looks and feels similar, and yet our product is actually different. One of the biggest things I’m excited for us to explore is creating a different, dare I say better, way of booking that celebrates the differences as added value, not the absence of information.

To say we have the best deal is something we want to own, but that message doesn’t necessarily set us apart from the pack. The opportunity with our Hot Rate is to offer another value proposition, that Hot Rate is even better than the conventional way of booking travel.

With Hot Rates you can cut through the clutter of purchase because we’ve simplified things. You let us know what matters to you in terms of amenities, star rating, etc. and we’re getting better and better at location. That’s a huge proxy for relevance and we are constantly looking for ways to boost customer confidence that their hotel is where they need to be. Most people don’t have hotel name in mind. Unless you’ve been there before, you likely don’t have a specific hotel in mind.

How do supply partners benefit from working with us?

If you want to stay up with these spontaneous, adventurous, experience-driven travel trends, our platform is a helpful way to help you do that. Just because a customer books with Hotwire does not make them ‘cheap’. We actually in some early segmentation analytics, found that our highest clustered group is those that book a high or medium discount – not the lowest cost. We see heavy bookings in the 3-4 star range, not so much the 1 star and 20% recommend. There is a desire for quality. People are looking for value and quality. People like you and I who love to maximize our buck and our experience.

Any surprising insights you’ve found with customers?

One interesting thing we’ve found is just because someone books last-minute doesn’t mean they’re a spontaneous traveler. We actually see people will intentionally wait until the last minute. In some ways we’ve trained our customers to know that some of our greater deals surface then. Other times it’s factors out of their control – they want to know everyone in their travel plans is 100% going before booking. Acknowledging these differences in need and intent have implications for how we evolve the product.

If we think about the person waiting for example, what does it look like to increase their confidence to book earlier, or introduce flexibility in our offering, where they can swap dates for example if things change or give credit. These opportunities are something we are actively exploring.

International Women’s Day is this month. Is there anything that stands out as a woman in your field?

In general a diverse group of leaders allows a greater ability to identify new opportunities and expanded creativity. There’s value in simply offering a different angle or taking your unique experiences as assets only you can offer.

It’s proven that diversity in perspectives build better businesses, better products, and you’re at a disadvantage if you limit yourself or who’s at the table. Some of my favorite women in design right now are literally carving out a DEO (Design Executive Officer) role or VP of Design position – both relatively new to upper management. I see women like Katie Dill who went from AirBNB, shaping their online-meets-offline experience and now she’s at Lyft as VP of Design. There are a lot of women pushing for design presence in business and showcasing why it is important for this discipline have a bigger seat at the table. It’s a win for women and design. We’re capitalizing on a deeply empathetic, creative approach to some of the biggest business problems. It’s encouraging to see women at the helm, doing just that.

Advice for aspiring women or anyone else?

I’m a big believer that all of your experiences give you a unique point of view and I think women second-guess themselves a lot in what they can offer – especially when you feel like the minority in a room. Speak up. What you have to say matters, whether it’s the way you’re seeing a problem, or association. The lens you bring is an asset and it’s worth speaking up.