What I excitedly learn from Airbnb’s new product, Trips.

Moke Supavong

I was excited to know that Airbnb launched a new product. Airbnb is one of my favorite product, but it’s not just because of its company valuation or title ‘innovative disruptor’ in accommodation space, but because of their passion for building a great product.

Jony Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, once said “we had a theory that people will sense the amount of the care that we invest in the object. And actually, people do care. They really do if they’re given the choices” and I think this is true for Airbnb’s product as well.

Introduce Trips

Airbnb’s new product is called “Trips.” To simply explain, it’s a marketplace for local people to create and offer trips ranged from a couple of hours to multi-day trips to the tourist. This is not something really new. Some other companies in the tour industry also offer similar kind of local tours. However, what make me excited about this Airbnb’s new product is although, at a glance, it seems like the other existing products, in my view it is actually new kind of product. It’s not just mere local trips.

Normal tour product will focus on talking about what kinds of local activities and attractions tourist will experience during the trips. They will be able to experience what locals do. This is a conventional way of thinking about the local trip, and it makes a lot of senses. However, what Airbnb offers is different. They focus on “local people,” not local activities. When opening the app and tap on ‘EXPERIENCES,’ you will see beautiful photos of your “local guides” who create the trips in the setting like a movie poster. They are categorized by the kinds of the trips (social impact, arts & design, entertainment, etc.) or the cities they are in (Tokyo, Havana, Los Angeles, etc.). These movie-poster-style images are the first step to making these local guides look cools and interesting. They are like actors or actresses from Hollywood movies.

Airbnb’s Experiences. Source: Airbnb app.

I tap on a trip called “Speed Artist” by PONZI. I am firstly greeted by Snapchat’s story-style video about this guy named Pozi Jason showing off his tattoo, walking in the lively lights of Tokyo, staring at and raising his eyebrow to me. This video also shows me glimpses of how his trip is going to be like. It involves music, artists, who are probably his friends, and painting. When the video ended, I think “wow, this guy seems pretty cool. He dresses up in his own unique style, hangs out at the cool bars, knows local artists and makes his own painting.” Then my next thought pops up. “I want to know more of him !” so I scroll down to see further detail. Airbnb seems to know what I’m looking for, so its first section is “About your host.” It explains who this guy is. This is the description from the app.

“I’m 20-year veteran of Tokyo’s indie art and music scene. My live art performances have been featured at Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I have collaborated with artists and the world over.”

Ponzi’s Speed Artist. Source: Airbnb app.

This amplifies my idea of “this guy is cool.” I feel more curious about what his trip will look like. In “What we’ll do” section, it explains rough plan of the trip such as meeting at Studio Alta’s, walking through Golden Gai. But unlike the conventional way of presenting trips in the usual websites or apps, this is actually not about my trip, but it’s about his trip’, Ponzi’s trip. He will present what he want to share with me like what his favorite places and activities are. These places and activities will be told via his perspectives.

“I’m cool and unique. You are welcome to experience where I like to go, what I like to do and whom I know in Tokyo.”

If I were interested in art or music, I would not miss this good opportunity to connect with and learn from Tokyo’s local artist like Ponzi. It will make my trip experience unique and memorable from the other tourists. Of course, I am considering it as local experience by locals.

This Airbnb’s Trips is, in general, trips by local people that, by the concept, look like what other companies offer but Airbnb can create the entirely new concept of product disguised in the form of local trips. This triggers my curiosity “what approach and ideation process Airbnb uses to come up with this different (and better) product, which can offer their guests unique experience from what are already defined by the market incumbents.”

What’s behind “Trips”?

I hope I can find some clues to the Airbnb’s process behind Trips in their product launch presentation and I’m lucky. Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO, talked about it. It’s called “Hero journey.”

Hero journey is a “story” of one main character going through a journey from his beginning to an end. Along the way, he has experienced many events and interacted with other characters. In the end, he comes back to where he start with his transformation whether it’s his attitude, view or knowledge.

Airbnb’s first prototype for mapping Hero Journey starts with a guy named “Francisco.” He is gay. He was born in Chile and found it difficult to live in the country that still treats a homosexual as a second-class citizen. He decided to make a trip to San Francisco. In the video, his first-day trip didn’t seem an ideal. Although he visited popular attractions in the city, he didn’t feel fulfilled. In the second day, Airbnb brought him to the host who shared his perspective with Francisco that being gay is acceptable here in San Francisco. His host also introduces him to the gay community in the city. They shared their stories, had dinner and went to party together. At the end of the trip, Francisco described his experience as a meaningful trip that changes his perspective on his life. Being able to meet and share ideas with like-minded local people gave him one of the most memorable trips of his life. Above all, he felt that now he was a part of San Francisco. He felt local.

From Francisco’s Hero Journey, Airbnb has found the important element of memorable local experience. It’s “magic is in the people.” What makes memorable local experience is not just local activities, but getting to know and having interaction with locals who shared the same interests are the key.

By starting the ideation process from the Hero Journey of the traveler’s experience with the question “what does memorable trip for a tourist look like?”, Airbnb can create a new kind of product.

Brian Chesky was presenting traveler’s Hero Journey in Airbnb Open Los Angeles 2016. Source: https://youtu.be/efNyRmTLbjQ
Brian Chesky: “Magic is in the people.” Source: https://youtu.be/efNyRmTLbjQ

How can Hero Journey help us to innovate again?

So how does “Hero journey” help Airbnb to create a new unique solution for travelers? Here are 3 benefits of Hero journey.

1.It helps us not to jump to conclusion and solution, which are likely to be conventional or mainstream ideas, too early.

When we start thinking about new product features or ideas, we are likely to come up with the ones that we have seen before or get familiar with. These ideas tend to fall into conventional ideas. Dangerously once the ideas seem right and acceptable, we are likely to stop thinking and settle with them. Hero Journey will help us to step back, look at the problem in the big picture and spend more time pondering about new solutions. As in the Airbnb’s case, if we asked ourselves “what will make travelers feel locals,” our quick answer would be “do what local people do.” As a result, we will fall back to offer the product that focuses on “local activities” and would never get to the point of the new product concept. Local activities are not wrong, but they are not the only right answer.

2. Hero Journey ditches the covering forms of product features and digs into the real value of product. These increase the flexibility and novelty of final solutions.

The features and product that we see and use right now are real product’s values disguised in the perceivable form factors. By looking at the product via the lens of Hero Journey, we can see through the form to real product value. Once we realize what the product’s real value is, we can give it a new form that results in the better solution and utilities for users.

HotelTonight is the last-minute hotel booking app. Unlike usual hotel booking apps, its filter is not in the form of tapping icons or sliders. HotelTonight users can just type in “emojis” that represent each kind of conditions to see their relevant hotel offers.

100 = max price $100. Clock = Solid hotel only. Glasses = Hip hotel only. Source: HotelTonight app

This emoji-style filter is fun and different. It challenges the conventional perception of what filters should look like. By starting with Hero Journey, we can map out each step of user journey in the app in the narrative form. A user opens the app with the goal of booking a hotel for his vacation. He has already had the budget and hotel facilities in mind. He communicates these conditions to the app. Hoteltonight returns hotel offers relevant to his conditions. He is happy with the results. From this short narrative of ideal user’s Hero Journey, we can notice that the real value of filter is “the communication tool” between a user and the app. It receives what user want (input), send to the app and the app will return output under those conditions. If Filter value is a communication tool, it isn’t necessary to be in just the form of icons and slider. It can be anything that enables users to communicate with the app such as voice, image, and emoji. The final solution for filter becomes more flexible and novel.

3. Embrace new trends and technology for new kind of solutions.

Hero Journey help envision what the ideal experience and value users are supposed to receive from using the product. Sometimes those ideal experiences are not able to be achieved with the available trends, technology or our knowledge. With the Hero Journey in mind, once those trends, technology or knowledge arrive, we can be quickly aware of, capture and apply those changes to execute our product’s goal and fulfill our vision. The best example of this will be Foursquare’s new Marsbot, the bot that recommends restaurants, nightlife or places via SMS without users’ command. Dennis Crowley, the founder of Foursquare, explain in his blog, Marsbot. (aka: some thoughts on the types of things only Foursquare can build, that Marsbot is another important step toward what Foursquare want to be when it grows up. This is Hero Journey that Dennis explains for a user experience of using Marsbot.

“An app you never have to use, but one that can nudge you when you walk into a new neighborhood or whisper in your ear when something amazing is around the corner.”

Current Foursquare app. User has to type in location and select type of places. Source: Foursquare app.
Source: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/marsbot/id1055022967?mt=8
Marsbot recommends you a place before you even realize you need it! Source: https://twitter.com/dens/status/753336350036922368/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

However, the technology and user behaviors were not available to achieve this goal back then when Foursquare started in 2009, so they had to build and evolve Foursquare with the available technologies at each moment. As a result, Foursquare has been evolving in many forms over the past 7 years starting with check-in app, then tips & recommendations based on your location and currently a search engine that will recommend you places once you type in your location and what kind of places you are looking for. Now 7 years have passed. The machine starts to be smart enough to accurately know where users are without users’ inputs and be able to recommend personalized information to them. In addition, users are getting used to interaction with bots because of Alex, Siri, Google Now and Facebook M. Over years, technologies and trends have been developed to enable Dennis’s vision of what Foursquare should have been 7 years ago. By having Hero Journey as a northstar, Foursquare can be quickly aware of these potential technologies and the shift of user behavior and apply them to finally fulfill its vision of what Foursquare want to be when it grows up. Marsbot can now learn users’ habit and locations and intuitively recommend users relevant places without any users’ initial actions such as cafe for coffee in the morning while the user is on the way to work.

More work ahead

By going back to the holistic story via Hero Journey, it requires more work and sometimes even slow down the progress of the product development. Hero Journey cannot 100% guarantee that it will yield the new innovative ideas for the company’s product. However, some companies like Airbnb are willing to put more effort to go back to the beginning of user story again and again with the faith that it is the meaningful and important approach to creating the product that gives the best user experience. Maybe Airbnb agrees with what Jony Ive believe. “people will sense the amount of the care that we invest in the object.” At least, for myself, I can say “I actually do.”

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