Designing Humans: A Service Experience

by admin on September 25, 2011

I recently tested the service Airbnb, “a startup that allows people to rent out their own spaces – everything from an extra room to a private boat, a castle in Italy or a treehouse overlooking the San Francisco bay” (CNN, Money). I sketched out a mindmap of the service, and describe it below.

The Culture of Trust

The experience of Airbnb begins for most people, as would-be travelers, on the beautifully designed homepage. First time users are welcomed by a slideshow featuring moderately priced, delightful rooms in nearby and faraway places. This is the first impression in a series of interactions that serve to shape the tone of the culture of the service. While most of the interactions occur online, when hosts and travelers finally meet (the culmination of the airbnb service), they have been inculcated into this culture which in turn shapes their interaction with each other; something that Airbnb cannot control directly, but that they do nevertheless through the subtle influence of the online experience.

The culture of trust is built around allowing users to develop their credibility in incremental steps. As a first step, both hosts and travelers can add a photo and link their twitter, Linkedin, and Facebook accounts to their Airbnb profile. They can also ask friends to write a general recommendation vouching for their character. This provides proof that the users are who they say they are as well as drawing on some of the social equity of their friends and the social networks to which they subscribe. In this way, the service could be described as connected.

Airbnb further promotes trust by always maintaining the appropriate level of transparency between hosts and travelers. When a traveler is viewing properties, they have just enough information for evaluation. They also have the option of initiating a dialogue over the in-application messaging service, or even requesting an encrypted phone call, protecting the phone numbers of both parties. The location of the property is only alluded to by giving the street name and general vicinity, but not the address. Only when reservations are confirmed do both parties receive each others direct contact information allowing the interaction to progress organically without the mediation of the service. In this way the service gently raises the translucent vail of anonymity as the intimacy grows between once strangers.

The Adaptive Learning Curve

Another quality of the service is the continual influence on users to improve themselves as both travelers and hosts. This is done primarily through reviews, responsiveness ratings, and a search algorithm that takes into account the number of accepted reservations. The service could also be described as responsive to users, because for example, if a user becomes inactive and stops responding to inquiries from travelers or never books a reservation, their listing will fall to the bottom of search queries.

The market of Airbnb is unique because the products of competitors (namely properties of other individuals renting on the site) are completely visible to all users. The tendency of hosts to ‘one-up’ competitors makes the experience for travelers exceed their expectations for their stay. For example, a host family I lived with recently, made me breakfast and served me coffee regularly; granted they were genuinely friendly people, but it certainly didn’t hurt that I was more likely to write them a great review, which in turn would improve their profile. Likewise, as a host myself, I felt obliged (not required) to do little things to make the visit special for my guests including buying soaps at Sabon and having a friend design a local map of some of my favorite West Village spots.

The open market visibility also allows hosts to copy each others marketing (including photography art direction, copy, and even amenities), and generally drives up the quality and drives down the prices. Airbnb amplifies this phenomenon by featuring especially well-priced and/or incredible properties through collections, such as “Airbnb Top 40,” “Unique New York,” “oui, oui, Paris,” and “Planes Trains and Automobiles.”

In addition to peer-to-peer education, Airbnb offers top-down training through guides such as the 6 Golden Rules, FAQs, and even host educational meetups with local Community Coordinators. Contact Sheila Karaszewski for the next meeting in New York! Airbnb also guides users right up to the point of human-to-human contact, by emailing reminders of upcoming reservations, and maintains an open channel of communication throughout the duration via 24/7 customer support.

Again, while most of these interactions are occurring online, through the digital component of Airbnb’s service, they are influencing the human-to-human interaction, the piece that Airbnb cannot control directly, and can only remediate through costly PR clean-ups such as the now infamous vandalization in July of 2011.


One final valuable characteristic of Airbnb is it’s ability to draw-in users and elevate their level of participation with the service. While the entry point for most first time users may be as travelers, they are quickly converted into more advanced users (i.e. hosts). By offering free photography, and limiting the costs of hosting to only the 3% credit card processing fee, Airbnb leaves very little reason not to give the service a try.


It is partly for these reasons that Airbnb not only raised an initial $119.8 million from series A investors including Sequoia Capital, Greylock Partners, and SV Angel, but also, recently, another $112 million from venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz, DST Global, and General Catalyst.

Onward and upward!
(no I don’t work for Airbnb)

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