Where Do You Want To Spell Today?

Jared Spool

March 30th, 2007

I grew up in upstate NY, where summer is just three weeks of bad skating. It’s also the land of hard-to-spell locations, due to the influence of both Dutch Settlers and Native American naming schemes. For example, I lived in Schenectady county in a town named Niskayuna (which, I was told, is the Iroquois word for “high taxes”).

Hard-to-spell locations are the bane of the travel web site developer. The traditional approach to a free-form type-in box puts a burden on spelling-correction technology, which needs to match a user’s notion of an unfamiliar destination to the actually venue.

In the hotel industry, this is even more difficult, since someone may want to plan a business trip to Gloucester, MA (which is pronounced “glosster”), but the nearest hotel property is in Peabody (which sounds more like “P. Diddy” than the more expected “Pea Body”). Not only do they have to correct for all the cities they have properties in, but all of the surrounding destinations someone might want to visit. With the free-form type-in approach, a missed spelling correction results in a “Sorry, we didn’t find any hotels near Glosster” error message, possibly losing a sale to a competitor.

Auto-filled pulldowns at Southwest.com

Over at Southwest.com, they replaced the free-form type-in box with auto-filled pull-downs. Using pull-downs works fine for Southwest because they support only 63 airports, but this method would become quickly cumbersome for a larger airline, such as United or American, which services hundreds of destinations across the globe.

Kayak.com's type-in box

At Kayak.com, a site for finding low fares, they use a free-form type-in box, but with a twist. Taking advantage of AJAX, they use type-ahead completion on the initial letters the user types to match likely candidates. A floating box shows the matches, dynamically changing as the user types. For example, typing “BO” will complete to “Boston Logan Airport (BOS)”.

This works great, assuming the user’s destination is a valid airport in the system. The typeahead gives instant feedback (with the lack of a solution set giving a clue the user may be going down the wrong path).

BestWestern.com's Find A Hotel tool

Over at BestWestern.com, the designers took a slightly different approach. They also use an AJAX type-ahead completion device, like Kayak. When looking for Newburgh, NY, typing “Newb” brings up all the candidates, including our target destination.

Looking for Newburgh, NY on BestWestern.com

What makes the Best Western site really work is they don’t have a property in Newburgh, instead they have one in neighboring Poughkeepsie (pronounced “Po Kip See”). The type-ahead database is populated, not only with the cities of Best Western has properties, but with the likely neighboring destinations.

Discovering we didn't spell Newburgh right on BestWestern.com

What about those of us who are spelling impaired? The database doesn’t seem to have common misspellings, but because the type-ahead gives immediate feedback, the user can quickly see they are going in the wrong direction. Typing Newberg doesn’t produce any NY cities in the type-ahead display, making it clear that spelling won’t work. Deleting characters back to “Newb” shows the desired choices again.

Does your interface allow users to recover as gracefully from their spelling issues?

3 Responses to “Where Do You Want To Spell Today?”

  1. Andy Scherer Says:

    I’m reminded of an early1970’s Albany-area musician (Glen Star??) who had a song called “I’m not stupid ’cause I can’t spell Schenectady”.
    But I sure feel frustrated when I look for a hotel!

  2. thad davis Says:

    Hello there Jarod,

    Can you tell me the name of the group that sang “I Can’t Spell Schenectady” way back around the early ’50s (if my memory serves me)? I was born in ’43 and my mom used to sing that song to me. I really need to know! Thanks a lot.


  3. Jared Spool Says:

    I believe the song was sung by Big Jon and Sparky.

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