Co-designing Travel

How community partnership creates cohesive experiences

Categories: Behind the Scenes — Katie Dill

The most successful community-based companies are those with platforms that tell a strong story. It’s this cohesive story that allows individuals within the community to get the most out of their experiences. But what happens when you’re not in control of each of these moments? How do you deliver a great user experience?

In my role leading experience design at Airbnb, this is something I think a lot about. We’re the UI and UX designers that bring our digital product to life. In reality, though, these pixels are just a means to an end. The real user experience is brought to life through the interactions of our hosts and guests in the offline world.

Here’s how we use design to enable reliably great experiences in partnership with our global community: We start by backing up and taking a look at the big picture.


Zooming Out

Like a jigsaw puzzle without a cover, it’s a nearly impossible to put together a cohesive user experience without an endgame in mind. At Airbnb, we keep that mission in mind though a storyboard that depicts archetypal guest and host journeys. Sharing this storyboard across departments reminds us that user experience is not just a design problem, but a whole company problem. Making it visual helps everyone stay on the same page while understanding each team’s individual roles in achieving our goals.

We use the storyboard to see how each moment in the journey connects and to understand where opportunities for improvement lie. It helps us see where we’re in control and where we’re reliant on our Guest and Host communities to help create great experiences. The storyboard is a benchmark we refer to, not only to gauge progress, but to help us look ahead and tackle potential problems down the road.


Looking Ahead

A storyboard can help you solve problems before they begin. For us, the moment a Guest arrives is the “moment of truth”, and if their listing isn’t what they expected it can negatively impact their travel experience. What if there’s a twin bed when they’re expecting a queen? What if there are too many stairs for someone with accessibility issues? What if their expectations do not meet reality? While we can’t dictate reality, we can set expectations.

We keep that guest journey in mind during our design process and utilize moments earlier on to solve problems like this further down the road. This is why our listing page is designed to make it easy for Guests to get a great understanding of each space through large imagery, descriptive text and reviews. By doing this we can set expectations long before they arrive and ensure the greatest happiness with their experience.

None of this is possible without a foundation. Our digital platform is the foundation, and to build confidence in it we must provide stability and continuity– both online and offline. This is partially about putting guardrails in place, but it’s also about knowing when to step back and let our community create their own great experiences. The platform is there to help Guests and Hosts connect, to handle bookings and communication and to allow our community to do what they do best.


Sharing the Spotlight

Remember MySpace? Everyone had free reign over their page design. Back in the early days, this Wild West approach to design was sort of fun, but the overall experience began to suffer as a result. The design possibilities were endless and most pages became frustratingly burdened with features that rendered them unreadable. It turns out not everyone is a good designer, and this lack of continuity is a perfect example of what happens when a platform does not provide enough guardrails.

Alternatively, we can look at what Facebook did. They provided a clean and consistent container for featuring their community’s content. This better celebrated the content because it was readable and clear. The layout didn’t get in the way and the experience was better for everyone. This is what a brand platform should do: Support the community by highlighting their participation, bringing calm and solidarity to the experience.

Part of that support comes from the next step, which is keeping it real.


Keeping It Real

The beauty of community based platforms is the uniqueness and authenticity that each person brings to the experience. Rather than hiding the fact that parts of the journey are unique, be honest– embrace that texture. This is one of the best ways we can build trust.

The other night my friends and I grabbed a Lyft. It was a typical Tuesday night until the driver turned on colored lights, a disco ball and dance music. Our Lyft experience was completely transformed by this driver’s personal touch. We had a ball, and it got me thinking…What if the experience had been more controlled? What if all Lyft drivers wore uniforms? This would only detract from the uniqueness of sharing a ride with someone in the community. It would set the wrong expectations, and it would also hide the platform’s greatest value: personal experiences. Instead, embracing that texture highlights members of the community and makes it clear that these are real people engaging with one another.

At Airbnb, we use messaging as a tool to engage Guests and Hosts early on in the process and help them build trust with one another. Getting people talking, and encouraging them to do so through the platform is a way to to ease the shift between the digital world and their real-life experiences. And you’ll find most “sharing” or “gig economy” companies highlight people throughout the platform to make this human connection all the more clear.


Open Up

How do you make a successful team? It’s not through force. It’s through encouragement, information and inspiration. Creating successful community experiences can be done through the same actions. We seek to educate and equip hosts through tools like the dashboard, which shows them how they’re doing and how they can can take steps to improve their individual success. We celebrate our best hosts, and empower them to help each other. Their success is our success.

We work for our community. They are the ones who have the capacity to create amazing real-world experiences. Their interactions extend far beyond the digital platform and have a lasting impact on each other and on us. By building a platform that provides continuity, structure and guardrails, while remembering to step back and let our community shine, we can let individuals and their real world experiences take center stage.

Katie Dill is the Director of Experience Design at Airbnb. You can find her on Twitter at @lil_dill.

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