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Mobile Search App Review & Road Test: Hipmunk

Topic: Search | Author: Charles Knight | Date: June 5, 2012

Mobile Search App HipmunkWe continue our series of alternative mobile search app reviews and road tests with Hipmunk, a vertical search engine taking the agony out of travel planning. Instead of horizontally searching across the entire web like Google, Bing and Yahoo! (GBY), Hipmunk searches up and down through one topic area at a time. This laser focus on doing this one thing — and doing it well — allows Hipmunk to play in the major leagues.

Hipmunk was built from the ground up to search for hotels and flights. At one level, Hipmunk can be compared to other hotel and flight search sites including hotels.com, Expedia, Kayak, and Priceline. But there are distinct differences that I highlight in my road test below.

At a deeper level, Hipmunk is about improving the search experience and optimizing the time we spend on Hipmunk. Interestingly, there are other topics that lend themselves to Hipmunk’s deep and vertical approach (shopping, real estate, tickets, job and wine search engines, just to name a few). You have to wonder if Hipmunk doesn’t have expansion into other travel related verticals on its roadmap. (Peggy adds: You are on the money with this one Charles! In this companion post Steve Huffman, Hipmunk Co-Founder, talks about plans to do just this.)

What stands out

Right up front Hipmunk shows off two features the company is quite proud of (and for good reason). First, Hipmunk thinks like a human. Search for a flight and the search results are not simply ranked by price or time of day. Hipmunk knows we take more factors into consideration than just that. To help us make a holistic decision Hipmunk has come up with an “Agony” Index, defined as a mix between price, duration of flight, and number of stopovers. Hipmunk also has an “Ecstasy” Index for hotels, that combines price, amenities and review/star ratings.

Second, Hipmunk is agony-free. The search engine displays your flight results in a colorful, visual timeline, aiding you in understanding your choices and trade-offs and selecting the best flight for YOU at a glance. From there you can proceed to book your flight by leaving Hipmunk and clicking through to the airline website, for example. The most recent update of the Hipmunk app also integrates your calendar and your hotel and flight results, allowing you to see the proximity of your meetings in a destination to hotel options and find flights that don’t conflict with events on your calendar. Now how cool is that?

You can also tap over to conduct a search of hotels. These search results are shown on a map so that people can view where in a destination they will be staying and the landmarks near them.

Hipmunk in action

Hipmunk Flight search resultsNow for the road test, or test flight in this case. Beginning with the iPhone app, the first impression I have is that Hipmunk is a playful, family-oriented travel search engine. It starts with its ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks-style’ icon (which GigaOM dubbed the world’s cutest mascot), which is continued through to the splash page, the hotel search (check out the Hipmunk bellhop!) and so on.

Even the searching timer is a tiny flying Hipmunk. This is great if your audience appreciates a lighter-approach. But I have to wonder how this resonates with the hardened, hard-nose ‘ Up in the Air-type’ business travelers, and if they might not feel more at home with the more corporate look-and-feel of sites like Expedia and Kayak.

But there is also a real value to being different — and showing it. In fact, as we move through this series, I will introduce you to other search engine apps that have chosen this tack. Milo, DuckDuckGo, and Goby all have cartoon animal icons, and — like Hipmunk — they are all regarded as successful and well-engineered apps. Perhaps the very nature of the iPhone and the AppStore lends itself to more whimsical approaches. Disney and Pixar, I have heard, have also been fairly successful.

Hipmunk HeatmapsMy only concern with Hipmunk is that one of its heat-maps, areas of concentrated activity like shopping, food, or walking, is labeled “vice.” That’s like having a liquor store in Disneyland! I would at the very least use a less explicit term!

To put Hipmunk through it’s paces I naturally searched for flights and hotels on an apples to apples basis with the likes of Kayak. Not surprisingly Flight 515 leaves at the same time and costs the same amount on alternate apps.  The same goes for hotel searches, although here not every app had exactly the same selection.  What I found most amusing was that the hotel results were different on the Hipmunk iPhone and iPad apps.

One note about the flight search results, when you do choose a flight, you leave the app to go to Delta, which isn’t so bad, but let’s assume that you have to make the slightest change in your itinerary. You have to conduct your new search on the Delta website. That’s good for Delta, but it means the user has to jump out of Delta and back into the Hipmunk app — and back again.

For booking hotels the user is taken to the hotel supplier such as Hyatt.com or Orbitz to make the purchase.

Overall, what you see is what you get: solid search results arranged in a way that allows us to select what we want —easily and intuitively. But I did spot a few shortcomings. I would have wanted to see my flight and hotel information appear back in my iPhone calendar. An itinerary email to forward to my family or office would have been a great plus as well.

We all have our wish lists but they can be a tad bit unfair. For example, I suggested to Adam Goldstein, Hipmunk Co-Founder, that his app should have a Flight Tracker or an On Time flight board (similar to the features offered by the Kayak app). Not surprisingly he replied that Hipmunk has them covered. They are just located below the (secret) Top Priority project. Reviewers like me make the easy suggestions, but it’s the CEOs like Adam who have to make the tough decisions!

Hipmunk iPad app

Now let’s move on to Hipmunk’s iPad app, which is free and represents a spot-on translation of the Web experience. Put another way, the Hipmunk iPad app is, for the most part, a large version of its iPhone cousin with a few added features. This approach has its merits, but it also conflicts with my guiding principle for Universal or iPhone / iPad app combinations. For those of you do not attend my iPhone / iPad or App classes (currently in Philadelphia) here it is again: The iPhone is for Now; the iPad is for Wow!

Admittedly, following this philosophy can put the burden on companies that have released an iPhone to invest heavily in an iPad app that delivers even more impact and features. Therefore, I can understand (but not entirely accept) why companies choose to simply ‘super size’ their iPhone app as an economical way to get on to millions of iPads.

In my book the prize goes to the companies that take their iPad-sized apps to the next level. A large Hipmunk map could achieve just that with a national map complete with miniature flying airplanes on a flight tracker.

My own research revealed apps that are making the most out of their screen real estate. One app uses the space for a large seat guide, while another searches for hotels with a sweeping radar motif — complete with the beeps. I also downloaded the Priceline Negotiator iPad app which takes advantage of sound and motion, as well as its alternative approach to hotel search. I encourage you to check it out.

Granted Hipmunk is first and foremost about vertical search and optimizing the time we spend searching and selecting hotels and flights. It’s not about cool stuff and graphics. Nonetheless, there are a few improvements Hipmunk could make to its iPad. My recommendation: Allow the long list of horizontal flight results to be swiped to the left, revealing a red delete box so that I can winnow down the list. The hotel search has three ‘Save’ boxes which are functional but nondescript, they could also be swiped away when in list view.

Additionally, the iPhone and iPad apps do not have an (i) information screen explaining the all-important Agony and Ecstasy formulas. (If they do, it is certainly not easy to find!) To my knowledge they are only explained back in the App Store description. Similarly, I had to go through the App Support link to access the Internet website where the useful About and FAQ pages are displayed. All this information belongs on a concise ‘Info’ page within the apps. It would be quick and inexpensive to address both points in an update. Likewise a link to all of the “Tips” would be great.

My take:

Hipmunk started as a snappy, solid flight search engine with a great hook, its Agony index. Now you can flip it over and do a decent hotel search. Using my calendar brought up a bold Conflict! alert; a nice feature. So what does Adam have up his sleeve that is more important than the flight tracker and arrival board that I  personally would like to see? It’s tough to call since he isn’t talking. Hipmunk’s Steve Huffman did talk strategy (roadmap, expansion, biz models — the works) with Peggy in this companion post [I will insert link], so we do have our hunches.

Meantime, I encourage you to download the free Hipmunk iPhone and / or iPad app(s). They have excellent ratings (in addition to my own Seal of Approval which I make official with this post). Another reason to download the apps: you will be automatically notified of each Hipmunk update, and I know that I don’t want to miss’ em!

Next in the series: DDG

 Editor’s note: The mission to discover and promote every alternative Internet search engine in the world took Charles three years and over 4,000 posts to accomplish. Now he’s back with his pick of mobile search engine Apps. If you have a mobile search app or service, or would like to suggest a company for this series, then please reach out to Charles (csknight1@hotmail.com).  Through Appaholics Anonymous (AA) Charles hosts the informal and formal sharing of the very best Apps he has discovered in the Apple App Store, and encourages discussion around the gems that other ‘Appaholics’ have found. What’s the coolest app you have? Let Charles know and you just might end up an honorary member of Appaholics Anonymous!

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