Revolutionizing UX: How Airbnb Is Making Users Feel at Home
By Laura Bolt
Header Image
Revolutionizing UX: How Airbnb Is Making Users Feel at Home
By Laura Bolt
Revolutionizing UX: How Airbnb Is Making Users Feel at Home
By Laura Bolt
Header Image

Call it the start-up mentality: diverse teams united by boundary-shattering global perspectives. It’s the kind of forward thinking that powers Airbnb’s in-house product designers.

Working on large teams of up 80 or 90 people—from designers, to data scientists, to illustrators—Airbnb’s designers work across disciplines to co-author the app, website, and essentially everything that makes the travel company such a behemoth in the industry. Leading such a large group composed of diverse skill sets sounds daunting, but at the core of the team is a focus on design.

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Schleifer oversees over 120 people divided into five teams—research, product design (UX designers), content (writers), global translation, and design operations (project managers and custom tool architects). For Schleifer, who ran the design for media company Say Media before joining Airbnb last year, having this in-house team gives the company the insight and agility to stay successful. “The way we’re structured, we are working for a client, but we also are the client,” he says. “We’re able to have a lot more impact and to think deeply about the challenges we’re facing. If you’re at an agency you get maybe a year or so to see how your design evolves.

One of the more unique facets of working at Airbnb is the effect of the company’s rapid growth; according to one report, over 17 million people stayed at an Airbnb last summer, a 353-fold increase in just five years. In the last 18 months since Schleifer came on board, the company has hired over a hundred people, a growth rate that’s allowed him to focus on building accessible internal tools so that “designers, whether across the office or across the world, can change something and learn from it, and contribute to the system with our most up-to-date assets. Even though we have such a big team, this allows us to keep things fresh.”

One of these tools is Airshots, the newly revealed system that helps Airbnb visualize how their app looks on “any screen on any device in any language.” Airbnb already supports more than 20 languages and operates in 191 countries, so a tool like Airshots is invaluable, enabling the team to create designs users can actually, well, use.

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The focus on usability and user experience means Airbnb’s designers are constantly negotiating the tension between form and function. “It’s the eternal challenge, ensuring that you correlate your creative vision with that of a great user experience,” says Schleifer.

Not only does their product have to work well, but it also has to resonate with users across the world. “A lot of our design work is very typographic, and we think a lot about colors and language and white space,” he says. “We always ask, can we show this to anyone and have them understand and use it? It’s a little bit of art and a little bit of science.”

While they have a lot of bells and whistles at their disposal, (Schleifer estimates Airbnb’s collection of home photos is larger than the Library of Congress’), one of the most effective design tips Schleifer employs is simply getting out of the way. “We want to create little moments of delight every so often—just to remind you you’re using something different. The way a page transitions to another, or how an icon animates, or the messages that come through when you make a payment. We really respect Disney and Pixar and actually lay out our storyboards the way you would a cartoon. But our mission is to create a system where anyone can go anywhere, and getting out of the way to allow individuals to exhibit themselves and their homes is really important.”

airbnb-inhouse-design-aiga-4.jpgWith a diverse client base, it’s important to keep an equally diverse team, which is why Airbnb regularly brings in freelancers to round out the team. “We want to work with the best people in the world,” explains Schleifer, referring to freelance illustrators, filmmakers, photographers, and animators who boost Airbnb with fresh ideas.

For Schleifer, a clear message and supportive environment is key to keeping the team running smoothly. “I feel like a lot of companies don’t know how to work with creatives,” he says.”They don’t know how to frame the request, or how to give feedback. We’re a heavily designed focused company—two of our co-founders are designers. So when creatives come into our space, they feel comfortable.”

Essentially, it’s the same welcoming environment both guests and hosts have come to expect from the company that’s making the whole world feel a little more like home.

“Design is taken very seriously here,” says Alex Schleifer, VP of design. “It’s on the same level as product management or marketing.”
“We design kind of the way engineering does—investing in a system which we continually update. Being integrated into a company allows us to do this.”
“We design kind of the way engineering does—investing in a system which we continually update. Being integrated into a company allows us to do this.”

Tags Article INitiative product design ux design