Designing for Trust

Observations from my first year at Airbnb

Categories: Behind the Scenes — Charlie Aufmann

This article is a companion piece to “Designing for Trust,” A TEDTalk by Airbnb Co-Founder, Joe Gebbia.

Hospitality isn’t a trade. It’s a craft.

When you think about it, hospitality is a funny business to be in. That’s because it’s not only a business; it’s one of society’s most deeply-held cultural practices, rooted in centuries of tradition and beliefs among all cultures.

Authentic hospitality isn’t created from a template. It’s as unique as every host, guest, and context where it takes place, making it damn near impossible to replicate or scale. Exceptional hospitality boils down to a series of well-timed, small gestures that make you feel appreciated. They make you feel welcome. They make you feel at home. Put simply, being a good host is about being a good person.

Airbnb Hosts in over 190 countries around the world open their homes to provide this kind of hospitality to over 2 million guests per month who, when they walk through the front door, aren’t family, friends, or even acquaintances.

And what helps make this all possible? Trust.

Of course it’s nothing new for a company to talk about trust. Here’s the difference: we’re not talking about when a company behaves in a trustworthy way so their customers trust them or their product. Of course this is important, but the trust that makes Airbnb possible is when hosts and guests trust each other. Just recently, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia gave a TED Talk, and among perhaps dozens of topics he could have addressed, he chose this one. But what does this kind of trust even look like? And, more importantly, how do you design for it? How we answer this question has been important to Airbnb from the very beginning, and it remains a top priority today.

A year ago, I joined this company for the challenge of designing for trust. I don’t claim to be a social scientist or behavioral economist. I am a learner, and I believe in sharing ideas. So, here are some ideas I’ve thought of, heard, overheard, or otherwise acquired from a year of designing for trust at Airbnb alongside a team of the best designers, researchers, engineers, content strategists, and product managers I’ve ever known. Amongst the countless reasons that make designing at Airbnb so special, it’s this group of people that make me wake up every day thankful to have this opportunity.


Theme 1: Design as the “mutual friend”

Imagine your friend invites you to a party and you don’t know the host. Your friend hasn’t responded to your text. You’re due to meet her there in an hour. Questions run through your mind: Is this a dinner party, or should I eat something first? How many people will be there? Will I know anyone else? What should I wear? Should I bring anything? All of this uncertainty builds to anxiety before you’ve even arrived.

Now imagine you arrive before your friend. You wait outside, too nervous to knock on a stranger’s door. When your friend arrives, you walk in together, but you’re immediately separated. It’s just you, standing in a stranger’s home. You start to feel self-conscious, gazing around for a familiar face while trying to play it cool. “Don’t look desperate,” you tell yourself, just as you notice you’re overdressed. You glance around for a friendly face or a gap in a conversation wide enough to slip into. You switch to plan B, no longer looking for a friendly face, instead hoping for a vacant corner to retreat to.

This is what Airbnb feels like when we’re not doing our job.

As product designers, we play the role of the mutual friend who invites you to the party.

Now let’s go back to the party example, only this time your friend takes the time to let you know what kind of party it is, who’s going to be there, and a bit about the host. They let you know what to wear, and even suggest bringing the host’s favorite bottle of wine. Your friend even goes as far as to introduce you to the host a few days before the party. Now when you arrive, you’re confident enough to knock on the door without your mutual friend. When the host opens the door, he recognizes you. He brings you inside and introduces you to new friends and new experiences. You feel welcomed. You feel at home.

As product designers, we play the role of the mutual friend who invites you to the party. This is what makes designing at Airbnb so hard, and what makes it so special. Similar to the mutual friend, Airbnb is there to facilitate introductions not only to your host, but to new places and new experiences. Helping minimize uncertainties and setting expectations online, in the product, is an enabler for a meaningful experience offline, in the real world.  We build products to let users get to know each other;  we also learn what you’re looking for, and with that knowledge, we open the door to new experiences. We set the stage, help make the introduction, then get out of the way. And like a good friend, we’re there for you when you need us.


Theme 2: Design for first impressions

One of the biggest design challenges we face is that, because we’re growing so fast, almost half of our guests on a trip are using Airbnb for the first time. First impressions are important for any business, but for us, it makes up a huge portion of all impressions. Not only are these guests new to Airbnb, but they’re new to the whole concept of home sharing. They’re unfamiliar with things they never had to consider with a hotel, such as the importance of constructing an online profile and confirming their name and contact information, or interacting with hosts in a way that’s appropriate for staying in someone’s home.

That’s where we come in.
For example, look at the two profiles on Airbnb below.

Empty profile

Complete profile

Which of these guests would you feel more comfortable inviting into your home? Full profiles go a long way in building trust on the platform. For the folks on Airbnb who don’t have reviews or previous experience they can convey to hosts, it’s extremely important for those users to convey trust in other ways, like customizing their profile and building a basic identity as a member of the community. Building your profile isn’t a task; it’s an opportunity. And it’s our job to highlight that opportunity for our community.

Although Airbnb requires some information from our users to book, we don’t require disclosure. That is, we ask guests to tell us who they are, but it’s up to them to tell us about themselves. We could, of course, enforce this by requiring a certain number of words in the “about me” section of users’ profiles. But that would miss the point entirely. This leads to the next theme of designing for trust: effort.


Theme 3: Trust takes effort

As with most things in life, you get out of Airbnb what you put into it. Trust on Airbnb is shared; it goes both ways. We’ve found the more effort a guest can signal to a host, the more trust a host is willing to give that guest.

There are many opportunities in the product for guests to provide these signals to host. The most valuable signal a guest can show a host to build trust is a positive review. One positive review shows hosts that you’ve done this before and you understand it’s different than staying in a hotel. You’re staying in a home, and with that comes responsibility and respect. But, if you don’t yet have a review, the “About Me” section of the profile is something we’ve found to be a very strong indicator of effort. We have seen that the more guests add in their “About Me” section of their profile, the more likely they are to being accepted by a host.

Another example of where guests show effort is in the messages they send back and forth with their host even before the reservation is made. Our research has shown that these pre-booking messages may be a good signal of effort and trustworthiness for guests.

A few months ago, I was in Europe on a research trip trying to understand how hosts assess trust and fit in their guests. One participant in our focus group said,

“If people take care with their first message to you and say a little bit about themselves…you relax a bit about it…trust takes effort.”

Here’s another quote from a host from a different research project:

“I like that she has a reference. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a reference on Airbnb. Reviews and references are different because your mom can write you a reference. But it’s nice to know she made the effort.”

A lot of the information guests submit with their reservation that gets relayed to the host is structured (travel dates, number of guests, check-in time, etc). The message, on the other hand, is free-form and allows the guest to share more details about themselves and the purpose of their trip. Messages also reveal a bit of the character and personality of the writer, which helps hosts and guests alike begin building a trusting relationship. Though not quite the real thing, messaging provides an opportunity to “meet” each other even before the trip. The more effort and care a guest can show in the pre-booking and booking phases, the more likely they are to be accepted.


Looking forward

Just last summer, over 17 million people traveled on Airbnb. On New Year’s Eve, over a million guests from almost every country in the world spent the night with hosts in over 150 countries. These people chose to stay in neighborhoods with locals, rather than staying in city centers with visitors.

Deep, cross-cultural connections being formed through Airbnb is the true beauty and innovation of what our product and community can do for the world. Staying with a stranger in a foreign place creates an opportunity for authentic understanding for someone completely different from you. With trust as the social glue to keep it all together, the relationships being formed on Airbnb provide us an opportunity and challenge way bigger than anything we could have imagined: making the world a more welcoming place.

However, this opportunity doesn’t come without an opposition.

I was in Paris for a week in November with many of my colleagues for our annual Host Open conference. In my 9 days there, I saw the worst and the best of humanity.

On a beautiful, star-lit Friday night in Paris along Canal St. Martin, what couldn’t have been a more perfect night suddenly took a sharp turn. I was sharing dinner and stories from the week with close friends and colleagues. Our server approached our table and told us there was a shooting down the street. As we all pulled out our phones to monitor the situation on social media, what we initially thought to be a small, isolated incident slowly evolved and emerged as an event I will never forget. Just down the street from where we were eating, a restaurant and bar I attended the previous night in Republique was shot up by terrorists, leaving several innocent civilians dead in the streets. As more and more incidents around Paris trickled into our news feeds, we realized this was significant. The restaurant locked their doors and turned off the lights. Everyone was in shock.

At first, I didn’t know what to think. I couldn’t attach meaning to anything. I kept asking myself, “How?

How, after a week of such beautiful experiences with such beautiful people in such a beautiful city could something so gruesome and devastating take place? How could someone feel so compelled to do such awful things to innocent people? How could I ever look at the world in the same way?

This final question stuck with me. I had a choice. Everyone in Paris and around the world had a choice. We could choose a more pessimistic view of the world we live in after what we witnessed. Or we could choose to see things differently than how they may be portrayed on the surface.

My faith in mankind grew stronger from this experience. What I witnessed in Paris before, during, and especially in the few days after the attacks was a beauty that could outshine any amount of darkness.

First, the hospitality and camaraderie I experienced in that restaurant was indescribable. Strangers from all over the world were huddled together in a restaurant fearing for their lives. Everyone embraced one another. The night of the attacks, I also witnessed something incredible happening online around the entire city of Paris. An organic movement of hospitality sprung up around the City of Light that was completely unorchestrated by Airbnb. Using the hashtag, #PorteOuverte, which means “open door,” Parisians opened up their doors as shelter to those in need of a safe place to sleep.

The very next day after the attacks, I took a walk expecting the entire city to be shut down. Instead, I saw the same lively Paris I had come to love so much. Families, friends, and children walking and playing in the streets. Playgrounds full. Cafes still buzzing.


Left: Some colleagues and I standing outside of Le Carillon, one of the restaurants attacked. Right: Standing on the same street corner two days later.

On the surface, Airbnb may seem like just another accommodations service; a website you visit to find a place to stay on vacation. But I see it differently. We provide accommodations. But we also provide and guide people through transformational experiences that could change the way they see the world.

In closing, let’s stop for a second to reflect on the fact that while you’re reading this sentence, there are close to a million people sharing their homes with others in over 190 countries. Our mission is to help the people of this world belong anywhere, and the one thing that helps make it all possible is trust. I choose to trust that people are good, and I take pride in my job to help others see the world this way, too. Welcome to the party.

Thank you Matthew Pearson (research), John Campbell (content strategy), and Shane Allen (design) for your help with this post.

Charlie Aufmann is an Experience Design Lead at Airbnb. He loves sitting around a campfire contemplating the Fermi Paradox.

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