Building for China

Three lessons learned from designing for a new market

Categories: Behind the Scenes — Vivian Wang

A year ago, a small group of designers, engineers, and product managers gathered together for an off-site meeting in Shanghai, in an Airbnb overlooking the Pearl Tower. Our goal? To imagine how they could enable every Chinese traveler to belong anywhere in the world.

A year later, that small team has now more than quadrupled in size. So much so we launched a news business in Beijing so we could be immersed in local culture and iterate more quickly. We unveiled a new Chinese name, 爱彼迎 (pronounced as Ai Bi Ying), so more people can pronounce and remember our name. We learned through our own hard work that building a product for the Chinese market is difficult and that introducing a global brand into the Chinese market has its own particular set of challenges. Here are three lessons we’ve learned along the way.


Lesson 1: The importance of brand differentiation, find your own voice in a sea of competitors

When I first arrived in China, people warned me about the fierce competitive landscape that awaited me. While there might be two or three live video apps competing with each other in America at any given time, there will be over 100 companies trying to win in this space in China. The competition forces everyone to move really fast—the app developers are known to race each other in feature releases. They often share exactly the same functionalities, and sometimes even look identical to each other. For most Chinese technology platforms, brand differentiation doesn’t become a priority until they become a leading player.

Since we wanted to bring a new way of traveling to the Chinese market, we couldn’t simply imitate other travel and accommodation providers. We needed to celebrate what makes Airbnb unique, but do it in a way that still met the needs of Chinese travelers. This required us to dig deep into what values Airbnb brought and to listen to potential travelers about their needs, rather than simply eyeing what competitors are doing.

Take the way we represent Homes on our platform for example. Most Chinese travel platforms display their accommodations in a dense list, with a small photo thumbnail. This is because most other travel platforms also offer hotel accommodations. For hotels, rooms are typically standardized across a property. While photos convey some information, they aren’t as important to surface as other components of easily-comparable information. On Airbnb, each home is unique. Photos are the most telling way to set expectations of what guests will experience when they stay in an Airbnb. After searching for a destination on Airbnb, our search result pages are dominated by photos of the homes, showing very little structured information.

We wanted to showcase who Chinese travelers are by providing context about how they live and what they care about, rather than purely through sharing our work.

As we were thinking about how to design the search result experience for Chinese travelers, we could have simply taken the common list view approach, but that would not be enough to let each home’s unique character shine through. We didn’t want the list to be dense for the sake of being dense, but we knew we needed more information to meet their needs. We talked to our users and dug into what they cared about, and redesigned how Homes are displayed in search results with more information—information that our travelers found helpful—and kept the large photos. In the end, we added information about how many rooms, beds, and bathrooms are in each home, tags for Chinese speaking hosts, and more details about user reviews, all information that highlights our unique offering.

When designing for a unique market, it’s surprisingly easy to let go of your own identity to quickly become what people are used to. It’s important during the early days to take some time and clearly understand who you are, what you represent, and what your potential users need.


Lesson 2: Turn opportunities into an experimental playground for new product ideas

Because technology in China changes so rapidly, Chinese users are also way more adaptive to new ideas and new iterations. There is a common term for the way Chinese companies build products, 试错, which translates to Trial and Error. While I don’t personally recommend adapting this mindset directly (I still value thinking through your problem and potential solutions before putting it out there to let your users decide what’s best), this presents an interesting opportunity to try out bolder product ideas in early-adopter environments, like China, first.

When some U.S. companies first came to China, they’d create a different app experience just for China, which enabled them to rapidly develop new paradigms. At Airbnb, since the global brand and global destinations are our differentiators, we made a decision to keep a unified experience, but we also developed China pilot products that only people in Chinese locales would see first.

Recently, we launched a stories platform, our very first step to build up a community where like-minded travelers can share their unique travel stories and be inspired by others. In a market where most people still don’t know Airbnb, we needed the community to come together and help us educate more people on this new way of traveling.

A hand holding a phone, which displays the Airbnb Stories app with Chinese text.

While this started in China, the lessons can be applied to other markets down the road. Imagine a future where people can see what it means to belong anywhere through the lens of travelers and hosts from around the world, where their own stories can inspire so many other people like them.

To enable China to be an experimental playground for the world, the team needs to strike the right balance between autonomy and collaboration. The China team needs to have enough freedom and leeway to try new ideas, take the product in different directions, but also needs to be inline with the bigger company strategy, so what’s learned in China can be useful for global experiences. This brings me to the third lesson.


Lesson 3: As a global company, everyone at Airbnb is building products for global guests and hosts

As we have a unified app design no matter where you’re from, much of the core experience in the app, done by designers from across the company, will be used by Chinese travelers. Just like the China team needs to be aware of the global strategies, we also needed the global teams to be cognizant of Chinese users’ behaviors and needs, so the product can be designed with them in mind from the start.

We made it a priority to connect and share what we’re learning in China with the global design team. We sent out monthly captures of industry trends and research, incentivized everyone to download WeChat by sending them actual money with the digital Red Envelope feature in WeChat, and hosted happy hours to celebrate Chinese festivals. We wanted to showcase who the Chinese travelers are by providing context about how they live and what they care about, rather than purely through sharing our work.

A group of people sit around a table making Chinese calligraphy.

We’re fortunate to work for a company that values inclusive design, encouraging everyone to learn about and discuss different cultures. It’s important no matter what company you’re in, to represent the voice of your users.


We’re only getting started

Airbnb is bringing travelers from all over the world physically together, creating an environment for people to step out of their comfort zone and into another’s world. To be able to bring this new perspective of traveling to the Chinese travelers is truly a once in a lifetime experience.

The road to enable every Chinese traveler to belong anywhere has only just began. We’re still in the process of figuring out what we build and how we build, so we can strike the right balance between a local experience with a global lens, where we can try bold ideas while holding true to our brand differentiation. We’ll continue to share our lessons, and we would love to hear your stories of how to build a global product.


Vivian Wang is an Experience Design Manager at Airbnb.

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