How I Understood ‘Design Thinking’ the Right Way — the Story of Airbnb

Arasu Arun
Apr 11, 2015 · 9 min read

Design, design thinking, human-centered design, human-centered innovation… these words are getting too mainstream these days and for good reason — they’re extremely important now.

Airbnb’s story is very inspiring in design, tech and most importantly, social value.

Like lots of people, I decided to be a “designer” without really understand what it means — and “ ” because I still really don’t know what kind of designer I am.

According to the almighty shrine of knowledge, design thinking means:

design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing — Wikipedia

The heck?

I’m just a nascent computer science student. I don’t even know what design really means! I get UX/UI and stuff — that makes sense to me, but then what the hell is “HCD”, then? And how are such principles so versatile they form an umbrella over everything from product design to social services?

The guy who first introduced me to design, a senior from college, gave me a very minimal definition —

design is simply crafting the optimal logic to solve a problem

Okay, this indeed shed a lot of light — I now saw the opening of the cave, but there’s still an entire cavern to uncover.

I tried to read the Design of Everyday Things book which is one of the most inspiring design books, but it actually didn’t pull me that much (I know, I know)— I just was never hooked to the book. But nevertheless, I will start reading it again (someday!).

Anyways, I then struck nirvana— Airbnb. And that completely changed my views— it was like a floodlight that showed me the secrets of the Universe — er, design.

If you don’t know what Airbnb is, I love to think of its idea as:

Airbnb is like crowdsourced hotels.

Does that make sense? I’m not sure. I just really love the concept of crowdsourcing and in a way, Airbnb does that: people put up their homes for rent on Airbnb for tourists to stay in.

The idea sounds really cool but it seems really hard to implement — mainly because of trust issues to overcome from both the hosts and guests and these issues could get serious.

Anyways, I just want to focus on how they enriched the entire experience of travelling.

Yes, enriched: you might think the website is for people looking for cheap alternatives to hotels and I must admit it might have start like that. But, that was never the vision — Airbnb has added a whole new layer to travelling and hosting.

How did Airbnb start?

Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia had an apartment in San Francisco and during the Industrial Design Conference, by IDSA, they found out all the hotels were booked, and they thought of minting some by renting their apartment out.

Joe Gebbia in the center and Brian Chesky on the right. Nathan Blecharczyk later joined as the technical architect.

So, they started by plopping three air beds on the floor. They looked at it and were like, “This isn’t exciting”. Being designers, they then thought about their guests — they became the ‘patient’.

They thought through all the trivial parts of their visit — they provided things like city guides to the guest. They even wanted to do something fun and gave them shirts that said, “I stayed at Air Bed and Breakfast” (which was actually just their apartment.

The most amazing part of this is the change. Their neighborhood had a lot of homeless people on the streets who were always asking for some alms. So, to help out their guests and not put them in an uncomfortable dilemna, they did something superb:

They even gave coins to their guests to give to the homeless on the streets outside their apartment!

The amount of focus and care they put into the entire experience of their guest was just awe-striking to hear about. This story was the push I needed to explore more.

Where exactly is “Outside the box?”

So, what is the problem that design thinking attempts to solve? How does it do it? A great way to answer those is to find out what thinking ‘outside the box’ really means. And there is an amazing way to do that, especially when it comes to experience:

Look at the overall problem statement and find out answers. Take the most blatant answer and eliminate it. Now, tackle the problem.

For example, suppose you wanna “start an amazingly popular social restaurant”. What’s most important for a restaurant to do?

Serve food. Duh.

Okay, then. Don’t serve food.

Now, what do you do? You now look at things like ambiance, seating, positioning of tables, customer service, decoration/themes… well, you get the point, right? You concentrate on these and make it as amazing as possible — your customers will love it.

As long you don’t forget to serve food, that is.

Now, what if you need to “set up your apartment for a bed and breakfast for visitors to a design conference?”

Have beds and provide breakfast?

Nah. Too mainstream.

How about give them city guides, some funny t-shirts and make sure they aren’t stalled by the homeless outside in the neighborhood?

Done. Now, let’s get the beds.

Bring out the inner traveler!

Airbnb provides a great service for those who decided they want to travel to this place. But is that the only segment of people they need to target?

The team thought through the entire ‘mind process’ of the traveler. First, how do people decided they want to visit a place? What pushes them?

So, Airbnb decided to encourage people using “Wishlists”. A separate section on their website that shows attractive listings from a city to pull people out of their homes and make them finally explore their dream spots.

The wishlist feature on Airbnb website.

Now, think about what Airbnb can do for people who just finished an amazing vacation!

Maybe a blog to share their experiences? The possibilities are endless.

Don’t worry about scale or data!

The Silicon Valley mentality is apparently to do things that only scale. But the Airbnb founders got great advice from Paul Graham, their mentor from YCombinator, their accelerator.

Don’t worry about scalability — especially when it comes to designing for human beings.

Don’t understand? Well, another great outcome of Airbnb’s design process shall explain thusly.

The founders realized that one of the problems that discouraged people from using the service was the poor quality of photos uploaded by the hosts — some were taken on bad phone cameras, or had poor lighting or didn’t have a pic at all or whatnot. People weren’t confident in booking such rooms.

So? What can Airbnb do? Go to every host’s place and take quality pics for them?And maybe stay over there and talk to them and get valuable personal feedback.

Hell no!

Um, yes. They did.

And they also doubled their profit within a week.

A big difference a good quality photo makes!

The two founders planned an entire week to visit all the hosts in New York, talk to them and get their experiences in hosting and also took professional pics for them.

Of course, this can’t scale. They can’t go to each and every host forever and talk to them personally and take good pics for them — and for free, at that. But Airbnb still does that! You can book a professional photographer and the site will send you one for free.

Paying attention to small things like these can make a huge difference at the end. And you can’t be a slave to scalability when it comes to design.

Analogy to Quora:

Quora believes in answers of only good quality — in meaning and writing. In the beginning the admins would look through answers and then take out stupid, poorly written or bad ones.

But, this wasn’t sustainable at all and would crash when Quora got big.

However, thanks to the lively Quroa community, this is now crowdsourced among the users — ‘downvoting’. Quora, too, puts a lot of emphasis on a social impact — unlike Yahoo answers.

The Chicken, the Egg… or the Farm?

Ah.. the everlasting feud between engineers and designers. Who’s more important? Joe Gebbia gave a brilliant answer when asked, “Who comes first? The designers or the engineers?”

Well, we need to set up the farm first.

By farm, he means the place where the chicken and the egg interact — er, the designers and engineers can be synergetic. I believe this is where their company culture comes into play.

Airbnb focuses on making sure that designers and engineers synergize.

The ecosystem is that neither side should compromise for the other.

This is Airbnb’s office in Portland. Lot’s of companies have interesting and innovative workplaces.

Let’s take a story Joe Gebbia told: the designers at Airbnb wanted the pics on the site to be large and high quality… but they also wanted infinite scrolling. That was very hard to do cause it’ll bring the server to it’s knees.

But, the engineers understood how strongly the designers felt about it and they worked on it. They came up with infinity.js which is a tool that speeds up scrolling and keeps big feeds stable. They even made it open-source so other companies can use it!

In fact, many engineers and designers from outside were so impressed with infinity.js and the values behind it that they wanted to hop on board and work at Airbnb!

Brian Chesky wholly believe that only such a culture is sustainable for generations to come:

the founders built the product first, but now, they need to build a company that’ll build the product now.

Be a pirate! Stars vs Hearts.

Airbnb gives immense attention to each and every employee. In fact, they give all employees $2000 every year to go on a vacation and explore. They want them to build experiences and enrich their work and company mission.

They ask their employees to document their journey and present it to their team. This adds an intangible value at first and also puts them in the shoes of a traveler — who are the users of the product.

In fact, they wanted everyone to ship from their day 1! Every new employee tries to make a change — like a small bet on new features. Airbnb ships it out and if it works out, they send more “pirates” in that direction.

Let’s take yet another story: Airbnb once hired a designer and asked him to experiment around with the “star” option (if you like a listing, you star it to save it to look at later).

The designer immediately came and suggested something — he wanted to change the star to a heart! The team wanted to try it out and changed it immediately.

There was a 30% increase in clicks on those icons within 24 hours.

This small change actually pushed the company faster towards their ultimate direction:

a “social” enterprise over a “search” enterprise

In fact, Airbnb is now not a company for people who want to save money and avoid hotels. It’s for people who want a whole new experience when visiting a place — staying with welcoming guests, learning about them and the place from a first hand view.

A vision to connect the world together!

5th times the charm and blow things up!

Airbnb’s first 4 launches didn’t work out. It was only their 5th launch that was stable — although the profit was initally small and stagnated for months. This is a bit common for most companies — just don’t falter from your vision and be persistent.

Another thing that Joe Gebbia said that I found interesting was,

“If you find something glimmering, throw a dynamite on it and blow it out of proportions.”

Even a small, near trivial change, like the star-to-heart thing, could make a big difference at the end and add more meaning than you can imagine.

He also believes in dreaming large scale. When starting out anything, imagine it to the full scale — that vision alone can guide you on and on.

So… that’s quite a long story and of course, there is a lot more to Airbnb here. But let’s get back to the main topic: understanding design thinking.

My dad once told me that examples are more powerful than you think- and it truly was the power of this example that showed me the ‘light’. No amount of reading about design or hearing short anecdotes about it could’ve helped me understand the big picture.

But following the story of Airbnb, whose ultimate goal was to give it’s own users a story of themselves to tell… that was the most enhancing way to learn design and I’m glad it happened that way.

If you didn’t know about design thinking before, I hope my story inspires you guys to explore more by yourself! And please note: I’ve never done any real design project — I just felt like sharing how I got introduced to it!

So, experienced designers, kindly excuse the ignorance. :-)