Airninja.com
by Jesse Spears
due February 7, 2011; extension granted by Dr. Bederson
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Introduction

Let me start by saying I love this site. Whenever I was backpacking around the globe, or looking for cheaper flights in the U.S., this is the first website I'd go to. It is the only site I'm aware of that shows the discount airlines that are not listed in SABRE (the backend to Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia). Though it does not fully automate the process, it does show you which bargain airlines are available. AirNinja.com can be analyzed through the five main points of Norman, and Shneiderman's 8 golden rules of design.

Affordances, Mapping, Conceptual Model, and Consistency

The website is clean and clear. There are minimal flash objects and hyperlinks. The user is shown only one form, minimizing short-term memory use and not requiring any complex thought. The affordances of the website are clear: fill the form out, and get the information you want. No explanation is necessary, though a simple one is given: enter flight details. The website somewhat adheres to the conceptual model established by other flight websites; the form is consistent with the conventional travel website, but the results are a departure from this consistency. The user may expect to get a list of prices and flight times upon completing the form. Instead, he or she is provided a list of bargain or regional carriers, with the option to conduct a search on the larger airlines.

Visibility, Mapping, Error Handling, and Feedback


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The traveler can begin typing an airport code or a city name and a list of options will pop under the text area. Visibility of options in this mode is limited; the user isn't sure the city he or she is typing will be a failure until no pop-under option appears. The handling of the error is only somewhat natural-- the user must guess that the city's unreachability is what is keeping it from appearing in the list of options. On the other hand, the pull-down menu option makes it perfectly clear which destinations are available, though it must load the available cities from the website. This operation takes more than one second without any feedback except for the option being grayed out.

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Shortcuts and Closure

The default mode of the website, which allows the entering of airport codes, is best suited to experts who already know the codes of their departure and destination. The less-savvy, however, would benefit from the pull-down menus. Therefore, the designers decided to include the option between the two modes. However, requiring novice users to activate their appropriate mode is backwards, in my opinion. The power users should be the ones to activate a particular mode. That being said, when the form is filled out in either mode, it is not immediately clear to the user that much has happened; a list of bargain airlines is generated. An additional attention-getting instruction should appear, telling the traveler he or she can navigate to the bargain websites to compare prices. A notification like that would give clear closure to the user. Ideally, the website would actually generate a list of prices. Since AirNinja.com has held this format for more than seven years, however, it is not likely to include this obvious functionality.

Conclusion

Though other websites may have a more complete price-finding process, AirNinja satisfies a niche that is left out of the larger travel sites. I have seen no other site that will show availability of bargain airlines, such as Southwest Airlines and Ted. Notwithstanding the incomplete flight-finding experience, the design is largely a triumph of simplicity. It performs its simple function well.