The New Normal

Creating services to keep our travel community safe

Categories: Behind the Scenes, Case Study — Anna Hartley

In the spring of 2020, a global pandemic quickly changed the rules for how we live, work, relax, and travel. Airbnb, like many businesses, had to pivot its priorities to meet the needs of travelers and hosts who had a new set of behaviors and constraints. I experienced this turning point when we kicked off a project to help hosts understand how to remain competitive during the pandemic, and to help keep their guests safe. A cleaning protocol was born. Not only was this work critical for the health and safety of our community, but host livelihoods – and our business –depended on it.

At Airbnb, I’ve worked on service delivery of complex operations, from the Real Estate team to Airbnb Plus, and I spent the years prior to Airbnb designing services across industries at IDEO. I value the complexity and constraints of systems challenges, but I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that the global shifts of 2020 have tested and stretched those skill sets.

For better or worse, COVID-19 has caused the world to reevaluate many of our core services, from getting groceries to designing the new office setup. As designers, we have the opportunity to proactively design services that meet a new (and evolving) set of needs, and deliver a meaningful experience along the way. Service design is a newer practice at Airbnb, and we’d like to share what we’ve learned so far. In a moment when it can feel like everyone is in reaction mode, here are a few tips on how to approach today’s service challenges with a designer’s mindset.

Drawing of a person surrounded by icons for various travel services. On-image text reads Service Design takes a holistic approach, choreographing multiple objects, systems, people, and spaces to deliver a complete service experience

5 tips for thoughtful service delivery

1. Tame the complexity by making it tangible

Let’s be honest: designing services can be overwhelming. This is because there’s simply so much to design. When I joined Airbnb Plus, I spent my first few weeks interviewing everyone on the team, from my design peers and operations leads, to our internal staff that supports hosts. I used these interviews to populate a service blueprint. Why? Because everyone had been so focused on their corner of the work, that we didn’t have a clear sense of how all the pieces connected. Similarly, when I worked on health delivery services at, we always started by mapping out the current state of the world, shoulder-to-shoulder with the medical staff who did the work every day.

Creating a tangible artifact (such as a service blueprint) helps tame the complexity, and creates a starting point for important team discussions. If you’re worried about scheduling a full-day workshop to do this, simply schedule time with people and map their knowledge and experiences onto a shared resource.

Design team sprint using dot voting and sticky notes

2. Identify the biggest friction points to focus your design

After fine-tuning your service blueprint, use it as a tool to host a prioritization session. Invite team members with various roles and perspectives to “dot vote” by placing different colored stickers on the service moment that correlates with each of these questions:

What’s the biggest pain point for our core audience?
What point in the journey causes the most drop-off?
What’s the biggest pain point for the on-the-ground staff that enables this service?
What is the most “expensive” part of the process?

When I ran this voting exercise with the Airbnb Plus team, an interesting thing happened: everyone agreed that we needed to design for the installation moment of an Airbnb Plus upgrade, but it took a collaborative conversation to identify this focus area. Instead of taking a scattershot approach, design had a clear direction, and our cross-functional partners were aligned on the opportunity.

3. Get curious about how your audience is already adapting to this challenge

Our fellow humans are infinitely creative, and they’ve probably already come up with solutions you haven’t considered yet. Once you’ve identified a key pain point to design for, go out (or hop on Zoom) and understand how people are already solving this challenge. For example, when we did user research for our enhanced cleaning protocol, we spoke to hosts who had already created their own cleaning standards, checklists, and training processes for their cleaning partners. These hosts were ahead of the game, and helped inspire our approach to product solutions. You can also look to analogous industries that are great at service delivery to jump-start your own designs.

4. Identify short-term milestones that support the long-term vision

A service designer’s best friend is their operations partner. I’ve found that while design can help clarify the service ecosystem and build towards a long-term solution, our operations partners have a bias towards action and seek short-term wins that have immediate (and measurable) impact.

While this can sometimes feel like a tension, a successful collaboration brings the best of both worlds. In fact, I authored the first enhanced cleaning protocol in partnerships with two operations leads. Together, we created a 5-step cleaning framework and identified cleaning principles, which resulted in Airbnb’s enhanced cleaning process. This unique collaboration served as the foundation for our different workstreams going forward: operational efficiency, Airbnb partnerships, and product solutions.

For example, our operations team used the cleaning framework to launch pilot programs with professional cleaning networks across the United States, as an additional host resource. Because we were already aligned on the process and outcomes, these short-term wins were in line with the larger product and program vision.

5. Consider content opportunities at every level of your service

Last but not least, I see content as the fabric that laces great services together. As a UX writer, I believe in crafting content that meets the needs of every audience in the service ecosystem. During my time at Airbnb, I’ve built messaging guides for Airbnb staff who regularly speak to hosts, authored complex training materials for hosts and cleaning partners, and crafted printable signage that help elevate the visibility of cleaning practices to guests when they enter a space. Each of these is aimed at creating a seamless experience that complements the digital touchpoints.

How will you embrace our new normal?

We’re in a moment of creative destruction to the “way things were.” Destruction can be challenging, but it also represents an opportunity to make things better for our businesses and our fellow humans. Remember that cleaning project I was tasked with? By August 2020, more than a million hosts had committed to enhanced cleaning, and today we’ve launched a global process around cleanliness, along with education and partnerships to help hosts achieve this standard. What started as a set of challenging constraints has now evolved into a major differentiator for Airbnb – experts agree that Airbnb listings are safer than hotels during COVID-19.

So go forth and design the services and systems that will define and ease us into our new normal. As designers, it’s our job to keep people at the center, and maybe even deliver some support and care along the way.

Anna leads writing and service design for the Quality team, and helped launch Airbnb’s internal coursework around service design. She’s a habitual tinkerer with a toothless dog named Gomez.

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