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‘We are like a LEGO kit’: How Airtable mastered the art of the open-ended use case and became the premier database platform

March 29, 2022, 2:36 PM UTC
Airtable Chief Product Officer Andrew Ofstad
Airtable co-founder Andrew Ofstad. Ofstad launched the cloud collaboration platform with CEO Howie Liu in 2012.
Courtesy of Airtable

When Andrew Ofstad and Howie Liu first started their cloud collaboration company Airtable in 2012, they aimed to provide people who aren’t programmers with tools to build software. Pieces of that process, they realized, could readily be borrowed from childhood. “We are like a LEGO kit,” says Ofstad, co-founder at Airtable. “You have all the LEGOs and it’s easy to snap them together. But, one day, you want to build the Millennium Falcon. How do you make sure those components plug together in a very complex way?”

Answering that question has brought Airtable and its founders to an incredibly exciting point in the company’s trajectory. With 850 employees and 300,000 organizations using the program every day, Airtable is in extreme growth mode. In December 2021, the company announced $735 million in series F funding (which brought total investment to $1.36 billion) and clocked a valuation of $11 billion. It is, so far, a design-led success story and one that offers a handful of lessons on how to build a product with an open-ended use case.

In fact, use cases could not be more disparate: The April 2017 issue of Idaho Farm Bureau’s Producer details how one McKay, ID-based cattle rancher named Brett Zollinger used Airtable to manage his herd and seamlessly log and connect cattle vaccinations, pregnancy checks, and other records in one place. At the same time Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ effort to launch space vehicles, has used the system to track rocket parts. Others have turned Airtable into a tool to plan marketing campaigns, map out events, and even manage hobbies such as book clubs, craft supplies or recipe databases. Ofstad and Liu have been incredibly successful at striking a balance for their customers between a low barrier to entry and an incredibly high ceiling for innovation. 

Ofstad has said this tension between a low floor and a high ceiling is what differentiates Airtable from its competitors (of which there are now many: Monday.com, Asana, Smartsheet are just a few) and what informed its most recent offering,Interface Designer, which allows anyone in an organization to build visual apps to cover off any number of projects. For a deeper dive into the backbone of the company’s design philosophy, consider the following tenets that help make Airtable a simple interface with infinite possibilities.  

Start with the familiar

“The gravitational pull of the business is to make it more complex and add more features,” says Ofstad. “We will do that; it’s a huge focus. But we have to make sure we aren’t doing that at the cost of product simplicity: the low floor and the high ceiling.” One important way Airtable does that is through design decisions that aren’t about creating novelty, but establishing something familiar and safe-feeling. Says Ofstad: “We start with a known concept and build a bridge from it.” When you first open Airtable, it feels an awful lot like a spreadsheet. That is purposeful and is meant to offer a soft start to new users who may otherwise feel burdened by too many options, or bells and whistles.“

Ramp up with progressive disclosure

As users make their way through Airtable’s offerings, says Ofstad, options progressively present themselves in a slow build; it is called guided onboarding. “You don’t learn Airtable in a day,” he says. “You learn over time. When most people start using Airtable, they don’t know what a database is. They know what a spreadsheet is. Terms like ‘fields’ and ‘records’ are confusing and don’t mean anything to most people. Learning needs to happen in stages.” This notion of progressive disclosure is meant to give new users an ‘aha moment’ almost immediately so they feel successful and in sync with what they’re doing. The total power of how Airtable works and what it is capable of is pretty much hidden at first. Users are only shown as much as they need to take a few first steps to get started. Then, says Ofstad, if you’re maybe entering calendar dates, there may be a prompt to try the calendar view. You could then click on a button for calendar view and the information will be displayed in that way, allowing you to stick with it or revert to your initial plan. This approach keeps novices (and even seasoned users as they progress toward that Millennium Falcon high ceiling) engaged and on track as they build out more and more from the software’s low floor.

Design for approachability

Design is embedded throughout the organization at Airtable. “It’s an all-inclusive, cross-functional way of thinking about design,” says Chad Thornton, head of design at Airtable. From color to form and function, Ofstad says, the design team has obsessed over the software’s look and feel from the start. Plus, every team at the company has the ability to communicate with customers to understand better what matters to them, what hiccups they’ve encountered and what really resonates. It informs the look and feel of the product, from supreme “clickability” to a “consumer-y” vibe that makes the experience of using Airtable fun and uncomplicated, whether that’s inside an organization’s marketing team or at home to plan a wedding or run a book club. Says Thornton: “When people use a B2B product in their personal lives it’s usually a pretty good sign that the design is inviting and simple.”

Nicole Gull McElroy

nicolegull@gmail.com

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