Designing for a changing world

Inside our mission to revamp the product for shifting consumer needs

Categories: Behind the Scenes, Case Study — Airbnb Design Editorial

Fast facts:

  • Airbnb consumer behavior has shifted and inspired product changes
  • Frontline Stays, Monthly Stays, and Online Experiences were launched
  • Lessons were learned about evolving product while being more nimble

Community and connection are central to the Airbnb brand, and being mission-driven means that we design for a world where social inclusion and trust is at the heart of everything we do. This belief in the power of belonging drives our product innovation and touches every aspect of the campaigns we ship to a world of hosts and travelers in 220 countries.

Although barriers to belonging have always existed, the current landscape has forced us to lean on design thinking to address the new ways in which our community uses our platform. It’s also helped us diversify our product offerings in unexpected ways, allowing us to design for inclusion and create better products for those we serve. Read on to discover how we’re addressing this unprecedented challenge the Airbnb way.

Assessing a radically altered world

With travel at a standstill from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, Airbnb faces a very different consumer landscape from the one in which belonging and travel went hand-in-hand. The COVID-19 crisis has left vast populations unemployed and shelter-in-place orders have required an estimated 1.7 billion members of society to quarantine at home. 

In this new reality, we’ve observed three key ways in which consumer behavior has shifted:

  1. Frontline professionals have special needs: With caregivers around the world risking their lives to protect others, self-isolation from their families is key.
  2. Travel and physical connection are on pause: With more than 100 countries worldwide enacting social distancing measures, people are unable to share their love of hospitality and travel.
  3. Airbnb visitors are searching for longer-term housing: Many guests are looking for monthly accommodations due to travel guidelines and a variety of safety needs.

 A before and after of the Airbnb homepage.

Mapping out relevant product solutions 

It’s no surprise that these radical behavior shifts on our platform have impacted all aspects of our business. To address them, a cross-functional team banded together from product, localization, design, policy and engineering. We knew our response had to be rapid and nimble in a world where remote collaboration was the new norm. 

In under three weeks, our team mapped out a few timely product solutions: 

Stays for frontline workers: Inspired by a community of hosts who were willing to open their doors, Frontline Stays was born. With its launch, we worked with our host community to offer comfortable and convenient places to stay to first responders (including healthcare staff) and their families in need of accommodation. 

Heartened by the incredible generosity of our hosts, we wanted to offer a solution that allows medical staff to stay near their patients and still be safely distanced from their families. And of course, cleanliness was top-of-mind: eligible hosts have agreed to follow a rigorous checklist before and after each stay, with 72 hours between guests. In doing so, we leveraged and scaled the empty inventory on our platform while allowing first responders to keep a safe distance from their families and loved ones.

Virtual community for a world on lockdown: In partnership with hosts from around the globe, Online Experiences was launched to allow people to connect despite their separation. Guests can now attend a tango concert with a Latin Grammy nominee or cook alongside a Moroccan family in an intimate setting. And hosts like Nonna Nerina—an 84-year-old grandma who once shared her family’s pasta recipes with guests in the physical world—have made the leap to cooking classes in the virtual one. This has allowed our guests to connect while in quarantine and has provided much-needed income for hosts. 

Shifting the concept of home: As the world continues to shelter in place and experience economic disruption, we believe we can be of service to guests around the world who still need places to stay. Inspired by the search behavior on our site trending towards longer stays, we built an easy way for hosts to accept longer stays—which 80% of hosts have accepted—and launched a new monthly stays search option, enabling guests to easily find comfortable and affordable homes for a month or longer.

Left to right: Generous hosts from Guadalajara, Nairobi, Milwaukee, Mexico City, & Cambodia share their space for Frontline Stays.

Three key design challenges

With limited resources, remote teams, and a changing global landscape it was necessary to evolve our internal processes and lens on product development to create the most significant homepage redesign we’ve worked on in recent years.

Challenge #1: Developing relevant design solutions that were both regional and global 

During a time when nearly every population around the globe was struggling at varying levels of crisis in different time zones—creating relevant design solutions was never more paramount. Travel guidance from various sources was continually changing, governmental regulations were also in flux. 

One of our primary goals was to communicate quickly and accurately with our community, in each host and guest’s preferred language to ensure safety and inclusion were prioritized. In order to revamp the Airbnb homepage to address these challenges, the team was hyper-focused on ensuring it met the critical needs of our hosts and guests. 

To accomplish this, we adapted on multiple levels:

Modular merchandising: The new homepage was redesigned for modularity, enabling us to quickly customize it for the needs of our community in various regions worldwide. Both the homepage and the app were updated to align with our current brand messaging while making navigation easier to find for key product updates above the fold.

Messaging crafted for the community: Connecting authentically with hosts and guests around the world requires a massive localization effort. In less challenging times, we translate content into 62 languages with a normal turnaround time of 72 hours.With policy changes shifting every day, that timeframe wasn’t going to cut it. Our localization team quickly instituted a new process which reduced translation time from 72 hours to 6 hours. 

Content teams also built a new lexicon as the virus spread. For example, the Airbnb Writing team had to make the shift from “Coronavirus” to “COVID-19,” and reflect that evolution everywhere within the product. Our teams also worked alongside partners from Legal and other departments to create extensive new language guidelines that were both tactical and trauma-informed. 

Challenge #2: Crafting a nimble product development process during unprecedented times

How do you collaborate and produce compelling creative work when the usual tools of time, budget, brief, and human contact aren’t readily at your disposal? 

Cross-functional teams leaned into Airbnb’s existing collaborative environment, and  began working  as a single unit, to deliver quickly on urgent projects. We leaned hard on tools like Figma to speed up stakeholder alignment. In response to slow Internet bandwidth, creative team members working on our Online Experiences launch experimented with analog methods of file sharing—like biking across San Francisco to enable a creative producer to Airdrop host footage to their phone. Since time was a luxury we didn’t have, we learned how to produce without production and share toolkits instead of customized components for design. 

This moment in time has also taught us new and surprising lessons about on-the-fly production. For instance, we’re experimenting with filmmakers and photographers creating content within their homes, using their family members as models. In this extraordinary time, finding new ways of making up for production shortfalls has enabled us to continue generating quality work. 

Challenge # 3: Address gaps in our current systems, product, tools, and processes

There was no playbook for handling a crisis that occurred in nearly every country around the globe simultaneously. We used this as an opportunity to innovate and update our existing protocols. For example, at the beginning of the crisis, the team was not prepared to handle content creation at the speed of changing information. COVID-19 challenged the systems we had in place for updating UI/UX content like banners, a formerly cumbersome system that required high-touch polish from engineers, QA staff, and others. We needed to become more nimble and so the team now manages them in our new CMS that can publish targeted content to specific locales.

As policies shifted, the localization team reduced turnaround time from 72 hours to 6 so they could speak to communities around the world in their language.

What we’ve learned:

We’ve adapted our platform to meet the changing needs of our guests and hosts; we have made significant design updates for what our community needs now. In this new era of limited travel, we’ve relied on a design-centric approach to diversify and adapt our business internally and externally. We’ve all been forced to think like designers. Doing so has impacted our internal processes and opened our eyes to a few valuable lessons.

An evolved product has redefined success: Before COVID-19 became a daily struggle, a booking between a guest and host was a symbol of success. But in this unprecedented time, designing for a unique set of incentives has made values-based decision-making ever more critical. 

More nimble product and campaign development is key: The crisis has forced us to become more adaptable and improve our tools. Production constraints and shorter timelines have pushed us to find new ways to address challenges and launch our products and campaigns.

The takeaway:

At Airbnb, our love for design problem solving is well-documented: it drives our culture, it’s how we build our teams, it’s the way we connect with a world of travelers. And it turns out that our value for design might be even more relevant in a world where ingenious solutions are ever more necessary.

Stay tuned for more deep dives on creating during crisis. We’ll share insights from content writers, architects, product designers and others across the organization. 

To learn more about our efforts to support our host community, visit the Airbnb Newsroom

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