How Airbnb Bridged Cross-functional Teams

“Product organization is on one canyon. Marketing is on another canyon and they’re connected by a long, narrow suspension bridge. Every day, a few brave souls will attempt to walk across. What we need to build is a solid bridge structure like the Golden Gate Bridge where there’s high volume of traffic daily going across on both sides.”
– Brian Chesky, Co-founder and CEO of Airbnb

Following my previous post on “An Extroverted Conference For The Introvert Designer” where I shared about the value of stepping out to meet and learn from different people regardless of your personality, this post will touch specifically on the second night’s panel session at Epicurrence — The Montues.

The Airbnb team shared very valuable insights on their rebranding process, their journey working across marketing-product-engineering-design teams, as well as how they setup their teams and organizations for success and effectiveness.

I had the opportunity to speak to Katie M. Dill, Head of Experience Design at Airbnb and one of Airbnb’s Experience Designers, Alvin Hsia. We hit off on several different topics ranging from previous startup experiences, points of view on social economics in Asia and Singapore, and trade insights into how each of our team works. In typical Silicon Valley serendipity, I met Alvin again the following week at a Greylock Design community event and decided to follow up with more specific questions.

Team Structure
Airbnb’s Design team is made up of 4 main pillars — Experience, Production, Insights and Content Strategy. Otherwise known as EPIC. Katie leads the Experience design team which is likened to product and user experience designers in the industry. The ratio of Experience to Production designers is about 10:1. More on the relationship between Experience and Production designers later in the post.

Airbnb’s Belong Anywhere rebranding was initiated and driven by marketing. One tip Katie gave for large organizational rebrands was that it would be good to have someone from the Executive team to push forward for you. This is helpful especially when working with several cross functional teams. Having support from upper management could potentially help resolve any questions on the why and when we should do it.

When Airbnb first started working on the rebrand, the color palette worked great for print but did not necessarily translate well for Airbnb’s web and mobile products on digital screens. If your organization has separate brand and product design teams, learn to communicate and get each other involved in different stages of the process.

Flipping the Switch
Airbnb decided to flip the switch all at once — new homepage, new website, new mobile apps. It took them around 5 months to implement all the redesigns and changes, with designers and engineers maintaining and work on two separate designs and codebase during that period.

Bridging Marketing and Product
When a company grows beyond a certain stage when teams start running in various timelines and their individual roadmaps, communication becomes a challenge, especially in a high-growth agile company whereby plans change on-the-fly, finding clarity and making sure everyone’s working towards the same goals and on the same page gets harder as it grows.

Photo by Erin Conger

Q&A with Alvin Hsia

Q1. How big is the Airbnb Experience design team today?
The Experience Design team just crossed over the 50 person mark, which is about double where we were at last year at this time!

Q2. Katie mentioned OKRs during the panel, what does it mean to you? Can you share an example of how OKRs are used and measured?
Every product group and their sub-teams have a yearly OKR, which are then broken down into quarterly instrumental goals. An example of an OKR for the Guest Love team would be the number of nights booked in 2016, and for Hosts and Homes it could be to get X% of trips to 5-stars.

Q3: How do designers measure success and growth?
Generally I think there are two ways designers measure success and growth. The first is whether the projects they work on are successful or not, from the perspective of team metrics and goals. The second is whether they learn new things, sharpen their skills, and grow personally. The best team fits and opportunities give you both!

Q4. Can you talk about the Experience designers’ relationship with PM / Engineering. How much time is spent amongst designers vs the scrum teams on a regular week?
I’d say designers at Airbnb spend 70% of their time with their immediate team members; PMs, engineers, researchers, and data scientists. I meet with this group super frequently, generally about twice a day, in various groupings depending on the stage of the project.

The entire design team meets once a week for short standup updates to get a pulse on what’s happening across the various teams. These are done via Google Slides, which is really useful for going back and following up with someone who’s project may have overlap with something you’re working on. For more detailed feedback and critique, you meet with a smaller group of designers (8–10) on your team, e.g. Guest Love, Hosts and Homes, and Product Growth. Members of other functions are invited to attend these as well. Finally, there are periodic design reviews with Katie Dill (Head of Experience Design) and Alex Schleifer (VP of Design). For really big stuff Brian Chesky will also be involved.

Q5. Can you share how Production Designers and Experience Designers collaborate and communicate? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced or solved?
Production designers create tool kits and workflows that enable experience designers and engineers to move faster and better together. They’re part of a larger team called Design Ops that also includes project managers. They do everything from getting us new test devices, to creating redlines, to cutting production assets. We’re constantly experimenting with new plugins, internal tools, and process improvements. They cut down on the ‘overhead’ and make it easier for experience designers to focus on solving real user experience problems.

Q6. How can Production Designers stay relevant to the user story / problem in the process? How are they involved in user testing?
That’s a good question. Production designers are relevant to user problems by helping us stay connected to people who might not be using the latest iPhone. They have various devices on tap for us to see how designs flex across the Android landscape. They’ve recently come up with a tool that lets us import real data into our prototypes, which makes user testing much more real.

Thanks to Alvin Hsia and Katie M. Dill for sharing the insights and reviewing the post.

✌This post was also featured on Tech in Asia.