On Thursday, February 22, 2018, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky took the stage at the SF Masonic Auditorium to announce some of the biggest changes to our platform in over a decade. He started with some history of Airbnb’s early days, when he and Co-Founder Joe Gebbia offered to share their apartment with complete strangers who were in San Francisco for a design conference. An idea was born, and they got a website up and running. It was a short list of listings, just 16 homes in the entire city.
Ten years and 4.5 million homes later, Brian announced new programs and tools that will make the experience even better for hosts and guests alike. The changes aim to make finding a home that’s just right easier—no matter the location, home type, or reason for traveling.
To create positive impact for both hosts and guests, design considerations were made at every stage—from search through the end of a stay. Alex Schleifer, VP of Design, and Ethan Eismann, Director of Design on Homes, shared insights and lessons learned about designing end-to-end experiences with the community, and their future vision for homes and design.
Brian Chesky recently tweeted about Airbnb becoming a 21st century company. He described this as a company that takes responsibility for the service they provide, and leaves a positive legacy for generations to come. What is design’s role in shaping this legacy?
Alex Schleifer: Being a 21st century company means various things—from the way we operate, to the way we plan our strategy. To me, the most important point is how we define who our stakeholders are. 20th century companies are structured to benefit shareholders, and make decisions to support that.
This served companies well in the last 100 years, but we believe 21st century companies need to broaden their definition of stakeholders. In our case, we’re serving a community of millions of people who we’ve invited in to build this business with us. It’s an entirely new type of organization, with new, community-driven behaviors and values.
Does Airbnb Design play a leadership role across the company?
AS: Absolutely. Design at Airbnb is unique in that we help design the business in addition to designing products. Beyond designing interfaces, design leadership helps map out how we design business units, structures, and teams.
We approach every challenge with a human-centered lens, whether it’s our business or the product we design. The truth is, every organization is a product that people interface with. We use the same design process to achieve the best user experience, whether the output is an org chart or a user interface.
The launch brought some of the biggest platform changes in Airbnb’s 10 year history. What launched, and what value do the changes add for the Airbnb community?
AS: We know that millions of people search homes on Airbnb and never find the right place. The truth is, we’ve always had a wide variety of listings on the platform—vacation rentals, boutique hotels, traditional bed and breakfasts, and unique listings such as treehouses—but they weren’t categorized in a way that made them easy to find. These new features begin to change that.
We announced advanced categorization and filtering, a brand new tier called Airbnb Plus—homes verified for quality—and collections for different types of travel such as family vacations or work trips. Our goal is to truly make Airbnb for everyone—from ease of use in-app or on the site, to finding the needles in the haystack for travel experiences that perfectly suit every guest.
With new categorization functions, we’ve designed a system that fundamentally changes the platform, allowing people to search at a whole new degree of granularity. We’ve also helped define home types so hosts can better understand the difference between, say, a cottage and a bungalow.
Lastly, this spring we’ll launch a new program called Beyond by Airbnb, in which we explore what travel looks like without restrictions—the trips of a lifetime.
The launch also brought the announcement of new host and guest programs. Can you share a bit more about that?
AS: We’re adding benefits to the Superhost program that already exists, and introducing a brand new Superguest program. Superguests will be evaluated by the value they bring to the community, not by the money they spend or points they accrue like the mileage or points programs that exist. Each of the announced initiatives were inspired by the Airbnb community.
“We have the largest design team in the world, because since the beginning hosts have been designing their own guest experiences.”
What does Airbnb for everyone mean?
AS: Our mission is to make anyone belong anywhere. We’ve doing incredibly well with the “anywhere” part, as we’re in over 191 countries. That said, some don’t consider us an option.
So whether we’re making it easy to find an accessible home or homes fit for family travel, we’re committed to doing what it takes to get there. Our focus is on growing a diverse, inclusive community of hosts and travelers around the world, and making it easy for everyone to find what they need on Airbnb.
What is Airbnb Plus, and what was the impetus behind building it?
Ethan Eismann: Airbnb Plus is a program with homes that are verified for quality and comfort. We have guests that expect higher level of quality during their stay, and hosts with beautiful homes that provide a level of hospitality that goes above and beyond. With Plus, we’re matching these guests and hosts.
How does Airbnb Plus work?
EE: The design team has played a huge role in crafting this product. We have a 100 point checklist with standard and additional amenities that we use to qualify Plus homes. We met with hosts to provide design consultations, gave tips for interior design improvements if necessary, and had each home professionally photographed.
Plus homes are profiled differently in-app, as well. We created a system and tools for hosts to really show off their homes, and call out what makes them unique. With the new design, guests can take virtual tours of listings, too.
What were some of the interesting challenges the Homes team encountered during the design process?
EE: Setting up operational processes to help hosts verify their homes, and making it simple for them to make changes in order to meet standards, was an interesting challenge. We’re creating a supply chain for homes we don’t own. Our hosts have beautiful homes that they’re incredibly proud of, and rightly so.
Through this process, we learned a lot about the psychology of language, host perspectives, and what incentivizes or disincentivizes people.
“Knowing the right time to step in, and the appropriate tone to use when making suggestions, is important. The hosts need to feel good about it.”
Were there any failures or surprises along the way? How did you move forward, and what lessons did you learn?
EE: It’s super tactical but photography was an interesting, surprising challenge. The best merchandising is done by making people feel like they’re there, or in the experience. Each home is entirely different than the next, so setting a style guide that worked across each home—being shot by many photographers—was more complex than expected.
Setting the style and achieving the right mood through photography took some trial and error. What’s the best way to light the room or crop the images? We had to iterate quite a bit.
The fun thing about this is that what we learned can be applied across all of Airbnb. Plus served as a testbed, and will impact the future state of all homes. For example, any host can look at Plus listings and have a better sense for how to best photograph and showcase their own listing.
What’s your overall vision for the future of Airbnb’s homes business?
EE: Airbnb has 4.5 million homes listed, millions of hosts—each home and host unique with a story to tell. With this launch and our future vision, we’re providing tools to help tell the story, and to help hosts showcase their homes. Setting standards and providing helping tools is especially important as we continue to scale.
I’m also focused on how we create an experience that helps guests find exactly what they’re looking for, and inspires them to travel. How do we communicate that Airbnb is great for families, work travel, weddings, and more? I have two kids, and I’m excited for a future Airbnb where I can say, “I want to take a family trip.” and Airbnb says, “This is our POV on family travel, and here are some amazing places for you and your family.”
I’m also exploring a future state where we provide hosts access to quality products at a good price, and even further, where guests may ‘shop the home’ via an AR experience.
Internally, we talk a lot about designing the end-to-end travel experience. Can you provide context about what that means for the design team, and how it can improve the user experience?
AS: For us, the journey extends well beyond the booking moment—both before and after. We provide an environment for hosts to list their homes, and the Airbnb team has a lot of experience designing and building incredible office spaces. With Plus we’re lending our environments team’s expertise, which is a concrete step toward connecting online and offline experiences. It’s also important that we give advice that’s representative of our hosts’ cultures, experiences, and characters.
Because we’re looking at the entire journey, all the way through the end of a guest’s trip and after, every single discipline needs to collaborate to make every stage of the experience seamless, ideally with moments of surprise and delight. Our considerations span across communications, industrial design, spatial movement, visual design, and even trust-specific research that considers the psychology of arriving in a new place.
“We don’t get there through automation, we get there through people—by connecting the right people and creating better experiences.”
We need to use technology where we can to reduce the painful elements of travel, but not so much that it disengages people from the world. This can only be achieved by connecting a team of varying perspectives, backgrounds, and disciplines. That’s what we’re trying to do every single day.
Illustration by Jeannie Phan