Designing a service to support community collaboration.
Ask any digital designer their title and you’ll hear a dozen variations on a theme: Product Designer, UX Designer, Interaction Designer, Visual Designer, Visual Interaction Designer… despite the evolution of our craft into more specialized fields, we all design for screens. At Airbnb we’re Experience Designers, and this title serves as a constant reminder that although we design digital interfaces, the experiences we create extend beyond the screen. The products we build enable hosts to share their homes with guests from around the world.
When I joined Airbnb as an Experience Designer over a year ago, I was given the chance to build a new service from the ground up. The goal of this project was to create a new type of offline relationship: we wanted to connect people who have a space to share, but not the ability to host it themselves, with others who could host on their behalf. It was a rare opportunity, and it’s not often that one is able to apply service design methodologies at a tech company.
Imagine you could go on vacation for free—your entire trip paid for by earnings from your Airbnb listing. Guests could still book and enjoy your space, which would be taken care of by another host while you travel.
As a marketplace, Airbnb relies on a healthy balance of supply and demand from our community of hosts and guests. As our community grows, we must scale in sync with growth in order to keep our occupancy rate in the right range. If our occupancy rate gets too high, it becomes difficult for guests to find the right Airbnb for their travels; too low and our hosts find it difficult to keep their spaces occupied by guests.
While our guest growth has been phenomenal, host growth poses additional challenges—millions of travelers enjoy the ability to stay with local hosts and find belonging in the places they visit, but not everyone has the ability to actively participate as hosts. We’re constantly improving our tools to make hosting easier, but let’s face it: hosting—both on our platform and offline—is hard work. It involves responsibilities like changing the sheets, replacing the towels, emptying the trash, messaging and coordinating with guests, meeting them at the door to check them in, and so much more. Every day I’m inspired by how many people open their doors to guests as Airbnb hosts. So many meaningful experiences arise when we welcome people into our homes, and yet many people who try hosting struggle with the demands it places on their busy lives. For some, these challenges prevent them from becoming an active part of our hosting community.
We knew that successfully scaling supply at Airbnb meant we had to crack the challenges of hosting to make it easier. Our hypothesis was that if we could accomplish this, perhaps hosting could cross the chasm and become more widely adopted across cultures in our busy, modern world.
Ah the beginning… A greenfield project. A designer’s dream. But also, an incredibly intimidating situation. We stood at a fork in the road. We knew the general direction we wanted to move in, but there were many paths before us. How could we figure out which would be the best to take? One way we reduce ambiguity is to field sacrificial concepts. A sacrificial concept is best described as a raw idea that is visualized to provoke a response from an audience.
We brainstormed three divergent sacrificial concepts around our goal: an Airbnb-branded professional service, a directory of hospitality partners, and a marketplace of hosts from our community. All three ideas were rooted in existing products, research, or past experiments. We then tested those concepts with potential hosts, keeping their descriptions intentionally vague so we could stay as open as possible to the hopes and fears we heard as feedback.
We found that people wanted the support of a professional company, but also the attention, local knowledge, personal relationship and entrepreneurial drive that individuals from our host community possess. When picking a professional service, brand matters. Our brand is trusted, and it was an easy choice to follow that path over the model of property management companies, which can seem too focused on high-volume business rather than personal experiences.
Importantly, the idea of individuals co-hosting a space resonated with us and our research participants. It just felt the most Airbnb. When we thought of Airbnb, we looked to our mission and our aspirations—to create a world where people can belong anywhere. Through their amazing hospitality, our hosts connect with travelers in ways no hotel or most property managers can, helping them feel like locals. The marketplace concept just felt right.
Core principles began to emerge from the feedback we heard:
• Facilitate personal relationships with trusted individuals.
• A great co-host is someone nearby and a local expert.
• Align host and co-host incentives.
• Empower co-hosts to be entrepreneurs.
We knew the difficulty would be in getting people to ask strangers to co-host their spaces. So we took it to the next step: we had to figure out how it would all work.
We looked to analogous experiences for inspiration— If people can trust a stranger with their dog (e.g. Rover) or their children (e.g. UrbanSitter), there must also be a path toward trusting someone with their home. Out of our sacrificial concepts, analogous inspirations and design principles, we mapped the journey and storyboarded it to visualize an ideal product experience. Then, we prototyped it.
Rough prototypes of divergent models allowed us to explore how a host could go about finding and requesting services from other hosts. It also uncovered what they found useful during their decision-making processes. For instance, our principles dictated that we would have to facilitate personal relationships between hosts and co-hosts, and that a great co-host is someone nearby who is a local expert. Our prototypes explored ways of showcasing each co-host’s unique approach to hospitality, their qualifications and their expertise. It was important for our system to search by location so we could return the nearest available co-hosts.
From the beginning we knew it would be incredibly important to get to a working proof of concept as quickly as possible. Because so many of our hosts’ experiences are offline, we needed a working model to facilitate real people matching, enabling hosts and co-hosts to talk and work together. It would be several months before we could design and implement the components of our service, so in order to test the concept we launched a service prototype in Tokyo. Service prototypes often use roleplay as a tool to simulate the service experience in order to “learn by doing”. In our case, we worked with our operations team on the ground in Tokyo to recruit real hosts and co-hosts to prototype our program with us. With our journey map and prototypes as a framework, we hacked together the matchmaking service through emails, forms, and spreadsheets. Our ops team facilitated the matches manually so that we were able to observe and learn from the process.
Despite some hiccups with translation, we were learning. The feedback we received helped us distill our value propositions by understanding what messages resonate and what don’t. It helped us hone in on our service pricing and packaging strategy by understanding what services co-hosts would want to offer and at what price. It also validated our hypothesis that proximity, local expertise and establishing personal connections make the most desirable co-hosts.
Iterate, iterate, iterate
Over time, we were able to release the features that would form our service, piece by piece. We expanded our pilot program to Toronto, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. next. By then, the gaps in our product experience were filled. What was once a manual process handled entirely by our ops team was now fully automated. People could sign up to become co-hosts, and hosts with homes could find and contact co-hosts to request help hosting.
Building our new service felt like a startup inside the company. It wasn’t until we had a complete funnel that we were able to really start iterating on it, and nothing validated our product faster than real people in our funnel. No matter how much research we did, the moment of truth came when we started to see the metrics trickle in. That’s when our momentum began to build. At first, we saw only a trickle of inquiries for hosting services, but that trickle quickly became a torrent. All before we had even began to promote or integrate co-hosting deeply into our core product.
These metrics helped us see where people were dropping out of our flow and whether requests for co-hosts occurred as we predicted them. They also helped us understand how co-hosts would respond to these requests. At the same time, we ran frequent qualitative testing with users to understand why they were doing what they were doing. Using these learnings we were able to run experiments to optimize our funnel, such as redesigning our email templates, adjusting the content for our calls to action, and simplifying our flows. Improvements and adjustments that previously required months of development became weekly sprints, shipping iterative updates on the regular.
Airbnb Co-hosting is still in its early days. While we set out to scale our host community by making hosting accessible to all, time will tell if our hypotheses are up to the challenge. I’m confident in our approach and the momentum we’ve gained—and continue to build upon— with every iteration and refinement.
In the beginning, I thought of this project as a rare opportunity to apply service design methods to a tech company environment. In the end, it was far more than that: we were able to bridge “design thinking” with hacker culture, reconciling design vision with minimum viable product.
As a company, our mission is to help create a world where everyone can belong anywhere. Our host community is the key to delivering on that promise. If we’re able to help more hosts connect with travelers, and to help those travelers experience life like locals through this project, I’d say it’s a job well done.