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How Airbnb’s human-centered software design helped it win the pandemic

November 30, 2021, 5:23 PM UTC

Airbnb Co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia are dissimilar from so many Silicon Valley founders. First of all, they went to design school and have famously leaned on their training to re-imagine the world of travel. Second, investors liked their ideas, but couldn’t envision either of them running the show. Initially, no one was truly betting on their success. Now, 13 years in, Chesky, who serves as CEO, is quick to point to the founder’s letter he wrote for a December 2020 IPO when characterizing what has given Airbnb such longevity. “Airbnb was born with a creative spirit,” he says. “It’s one of the most defining parts of the culture. Starting the company was a creative act. We were dreamers, but also pragmatic.”

Chesky had originally written the founder’s letter for a hoped-for IPO in March 2020. Instead, Airbnb lost 80 percent of its business in just eight weeks of pandemic fallout, and Chesky found himself writing a very different type of letter to his team in May 2020: one lamenting struggle and layoffs. The world had changed and the company needed to scale back to find its footing. What came next, though, was ultimately a design-driven rebound that helped formalize an IPO and cement Airbnb as one of the most inventive companies to be born from Silicon Valley in the last decade. “We came back from the holidays into 2021 and figured we couldn’t sit on our laurels,” recalls Chesky. In fact, he says, more than 20 percent of trips booked on the app between July and September were for at least a month’s stay and 45 percent were for no less than a week. What’s more, the Wifi filter was used more than 288 million times in the last year, making it clear what was at the top of every Airbnb user’s mind. Chesky says: “There was a huge travel rebound over the summer because of the vaccine. We knew there would be pent-up demand. This was a once-in-a-century opportunity for us.” 

The company’s The Summer of Responsible Travel campaign landed in April, detailing safety protocols for Airbnb hosts and travelers (a global ban on parties, a 24/7 neighborhood support hotline and discounts for hosts interested in noise detection services from Minut), followed in May by an additional 100 new features on the app that played up flexibility in dates, property matching, and destinations. Most recently, on November 6, Airbnb dropped its Winter Release, its latest iteration of upgrades and designs to make the user experience even more intuitive and simple. The result is a series of more than 50 upgrades that are both beautiful and incredibly handy, addressing precisely why and how people are traveling during the pandemic. Herewith, a few lessons gleaned from the collective effort.

Find the opportunity in the problem

When Chesky talks about approaching Airbnb’s post-pandemic revival, he seems to always root back to problem solving. “We have so much data in Silicon Valley,” he says. “To design really well, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re designing for. People can become statistics, mass experiments, cohorts and metrics. We try to bring it back to being human. What do they need? What is their journey?” For the vaccinated traveler, that journey involved faster Wifi, flexibility on timing, traveling (and, really, living) with a family, maybe even pets, longer stays, and a willingness to consider a wider range of destinations. For the host, that meant greater security, a deeper connection to other hosts for advice and help, ease of communication across language barriers, and a cleaner process of onboarding as a host. Problem solving, says Chesky, is not just about how things look in the end, but how they work to deliver, in this case, a connection beyond travel to create “a system of trust that allows strangers to live together.” The factors brought on by the pandemic obviously made that end more complicated, but the designer-led approach to addressing new needs and answering new questions allowed the company to create and better meet the needs of its users.

Keep it simple

One of Chesky’s great design heroes is industrial designer Dieter Rams. “Design is truth,” says Chesky. “When people think about great design, it is simple. It is not about less. It is about truth; reducing ideas to their fundamental essence, to where they can’t be distilled any further.” In so many ways, says Chesky, technology can make people feel silly, or that they don’t know something they should. With these new additions to the Airbnb experience, the team made certain to build them in an inclusive way. Simplicity has been a major driver over the life of the business, but especially the last year of growth. Chesky is quick to acknowledge that while he doesn’t consider himself a great designer, he acknowledges he’s done one thing well–built a community. That community is where he’s been able to develop a sound business model and meet his end users (travelers and hosts) where they are. Before COVID, people leveraged Airbnb to take vacations and see the world as a break from their lives at home. Now, as more office workers spend less time working in an actual office, Airbnb has become a tool for relocating life and work for longer periods of time—with all of the trappings of it (kids, pets, career demands) in tow. Keeping that truth of the user experience as the through-line of the company’s design and innovation engine has helped it grow and evolve amid challenges.

Move in lockstep

Designing hardware carries with it various constraints. Software design, on the other hand, can often be considered a broader, more free process, says Chesky. At Airbnb, the team has tried to impose the constraints of hardware on software design to keep themselves on task and push their work to be better, says Chesky. That mindset requires everyone on the team to be entirely on the same page. “Designers are viewed as aesthetic people,” says Chesky. “They are subservient to engineers and product managers and don’t always have a seat at the table. That’s the first problem. The second problem is decentralized teams. Engineering and marketing are going to work together here. Marketers are often treated like waiters and engineers are treated like chefs. Marketers can’t go in the kitchen without getting yelled at. There’s a better way. We have to tell a story of what we’ve built. We try to work backwards from the story. The things we design are for people and they have to hear about it and use it.”

Nicole Gull McElroy


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