Applying the Airbnb model in different and unique ways.
I worked at Airbnb from 2013 to 2014 as a senior designer. I began my time there as part of the Trust and Safety team, thinking about how trust plays a central role in the Airbnb exchange, and how we might design for an even safer, richer experience for both guests and hosts of the platform.
About midway into my tenure, Airbnb began focusing on radical new initiatives that would benefit users in compelling new ways while growing the company in different and unexpected directions. I was asked to join a team that was focused on expanding the reach of the "traditional" Airbnb business model of connecting travellers with local hosts who offer accommodations.
How might Airbnb tap into locals who love "hosting," but can't (or won't) offer their homes to those visiting their city or town? Can't or won't was a different design problem; I was focused on helping uncover what it meant to be an exceptional Host in all regards, and how Airbnb might find ways to let local Hosts utilize the Airbnb platform to offer experiences that both locals and travellers might find interesting and enjoyable – and worth paying for.
The Airbnb experience is predicated on trust. The company is an established, admired brand with a proven reputation system and trusted payment platform. My team and I were tasked with understanding what it would take to extend the Airbnb business model to allow for “Hosts to host outside of their home” and for travellers to live “even more like a local.”
We started out with an assumption that Airbnb travellers who are visiting a city might be interested in discovering great accommodations and experiences in one central, trusted location
Airbnb leadership already had a hunch on how to do this: create an “Experience Marketplace” – or a marketplace where locals had the opportunity to use the Airbnb platform to host classes, tours, hikes and more – that build upon the proven Airbnb marketplace.
We started out with an assumption that Airbnb travellers who are visiting a city might be interested in discovering great accommodations and experiences in one central, trusted location – but, what does it mean to offer an “experience” on Airbnb?
Because of timing and personnel constraints, we only had a single week to plan and conduct all research for the Experience Marketplace. Luckily, I was working with Katherine Chen, an excellent Airbnb design researcher who quickly tapped into the greater Airbnb community in order to find Hosts and Guests that we could learn from, fast. Katherine put together a recruiting document, and from that, we ended up scheduling hour-long sessions with 15 people from all across the world.
Katherine and I put together a list of open-ended questions that helped guide our sessions while still leaving room for the organic flow of conversation. We completed all of our interviews in the Airbnb office or via video chat. We were eager to conduct in-home observations, but time didn’t permit the exercise. We needed to move fast, and in this case, conduct just enough research.
We then spent time meticulously capturing what we heard, and began the design synthesis process to make sense of the chaos. This work yielded a set of insights and actionable items that we presented to Airbnb leadership, and that helped set the team up for success in later product design and development.
Our research indicated that people in the Airbnb community were already behaving in a way that the Experience Marketplace could support. We talked to Hosts who were already playing with the idea of offering experiences to their Guests but are unsure of how to proceed without Airbnb platform integration. We also talked to Guests who already pay for experiences while traveling and would choose an Airbnb Host over a 3rd party company if given an option. In order to make the Airbnb Experience Marketplace a success, we needed to leverage the Airbnb brand, as well as the existing trust platform, payment infrastructure and search and discovery systems.
Through the pilot process we were able to hone in on successful aspects of the Marketplace, as well as identify areas for improvement.
We decided that the best way to proceed would be to conduct a pilot project in San Francisco and Paris. We wanted to start small, and work with group of hand picked experience providers intimately to understand the constraints and opportunities of the Experience Marketplace in real time.
Katherine and I went to work finding people in the Airbnb community who we could work with to pilot. We interviewed over 20 people and talked with them about our plans and goals for the Marketplace. We expressed to them that we were willing and able to work with them directly throughout all phases of the pilot. The graphic I desiged above is a flier that we circulated in Paris to english speaking Hosts during Airbnb meetups and events. It was translated into French, and helped support our early recruitment needs.
Our process proved successful, and was replicated with considerable help outside of the US. Soon we had over 5 pilot experiences in each location up and running on a hand-coded page on Airbnb that was being facilitated exclusively through email and phone calls. We prototyped the experience process ourselves, and ran small experiments where me and other Airbnb employees attended the experiences Hosts were offering. Through the pilot process we were able to hone in on successful aspects of the Marketplace, as well as identify areas for improvement.
As we continued to learn from the initial pilot phase, we decided to scale up both the number of experiences being offered in the Marketplace and the quality of the early product itself. Upping the number of experiences was logistically complicated. We brought in additional Airbnb team members to help manage the relationship between the company and the experience Hosts. This effort turned out to be a full time job for some of the team – a task that I was happy to delegate as the project scope increased. I was sometimes spending half of my day on the phone or emailing, talking with Hosts and documenting their feedback. I was eager to start desging the product itself.
We A/B tested a dazzling amount of visual and copy changes, and we had the ability to measure success or failure on an swift and ongoing basis.
Improving the early product quality also proved to be quite a challenge. Airbnb was then ramping down its rebranding effort, and we often needed to design to both the old style guide as well as the new. I initially led the design for the visual expression of the Marketplace. As the excitement around the project grew (all of our work was being seen by the company – work was posted on foam core and we discussed status in daily stand-ups) the visual aspect of the Marketplace was distributed across a few key designers, with me still remaining at the helm. We approached designing the product from 3 angles: web, mobile and email.
Email was (and most likely is still) a powerful conversion and growth tool for Airbnb. As the number of experiences grew, we began designing emails that would be subsequently sent to a certain percentage of Airbnb customers who met relevant conditions in hopes of increasing conversion rates. We A/B tested a dazzling amount of visual and copy changes, and we had the ability to measure success or failure on an swift and ongoing basis. The screens you see above are screens that I designed that ultimately shipped.
The goal was to expand the Airbnb business model to give more people the ability to Host outside of their home, and to allow more people in the Airbnb community to “live like a local.” I feel that to a certain degree we achieved some success on both fronts.
It’s worth noting that Airbnb runs a lot of internal initiatives – and many don’t always see the light of day. Although the product never became a core feature to the company, the Experience Marketplace is still live on Airbnb’s website, and it looks like it’s still being maintained to some degree. I’m quite proud of that.
Having the ability to design something from the ground up is an incredible experience. Being able to pilot an entirely new service, and make real-time adjustments to the product in motion is as thrilling as it is challenging – especially being able to do so with a company as exciting as Airbnb. I’m proud to say that to some degree I helped Airbnb expand and grow in different directions.
Having the ability to design something from the ground up is an incredible experience. Being able to pilot an entirely new service, and make real-time adjustments is as thrilling as it is challenging.
Some of my biggest challenges came from the process of scaling the pilot. We were a small and scrappy team, and most likely understaffed to begin with considering the task at hand. Managing design time with the the appropriate level of pilot engagement was a constant struggle, and one that helped me focus and prioritize daily tasks in ways I’ve never had to do before. In addition to the design vs. communications tension, watching the size of the team skyrocket was something I didn’t have much experience with as well. When we began the project, the core team consisted of only a handful of people. By the end, there were 15+ people working on the Experience Marketplace full-time. Internal communications in a high-growth team inside of a hyper-growth company poses it’s own unique sets of challenges.
But ultimately, the most rewarding part of the project was working so tightly with so many different types of people. I was working daily with product managers, front-end and back-end engineers, designers, hospitality professionals, customer service professionals and throughout all – company founders. I think that Airbnb is a fascinating company, and that the Experience Marketplace was (and could be, still) a compelling addition to the service.
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