Design thinking and how it transformed Airbnb from failing startup to billion-dollar business

Very interesting conversation with Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb. I share some insights I got by watching the 2013 video.

  • First insight: they were 3 founders in California with a stagnating company (Airbnb), they could have kept staying in their office trying to improve the site, write more software code and instead what did they do? Realising that apartments in New York all had horrible photos, they took a flight (from California to New York!), rented a camera, knock on doors of Airbnb users in New York, took better photos of their apartments and replace them on the site. As Joe says in the interview, “for the first year, we sat behind our computer screens trying to code our way through problems”, instead going to meet their users is one of the pillars of design thinking, its very human-centred focus. Just after this intervention, revenues which were stagnating at 200 dollars per week went up to 400 dollars per week. Near the end, Joe says “if you ever want to understand your product, go stay in the home of your customer” (well, this applies only to Airbnb … and maybe also to Couchsurfing ;)
  • Actually the previous suggestion was given to Airbnb founder by Paul Graham (of Ycombinator, I loved his “hackers and painters” essay!) which suggested it’s okay to do things that don’t scale. What is the meaning? I think it’s again about being very human-centred, going out of the building, develop empathy with specific persons and really understand him/her. So that you can make improvements that really satisfy real needs (of at least one real person!). Scaling to millions of persons will come later, if needed.
  • Another suggestion by Paul Graham was go meet the people which again is the very human-centred side of design thinking. The interviewer asks “what if your company is not for < go out and meet people?> and Joe replies “well, be pirate”, a sort of “do it anyway” but then I asked my self how do you get it accepted? This reminded me of the pragmatic book Undercover User Experience Design.
  • And what can the employee bring back from this “go out and meet people” to the company? Joe replies “visible, tactical, tangible insight that came from somebody is consuming your product or your service”
  • Joe suggests to become the patient (of your service/product). For example, every new employee at Airbnb, during the first week, makes a trip (using Airbnb of course), document it and share insights with his/her new department. Wow!
  • Joe also cites the stars vs heart icons story: when you start as new employee at Airbnb, you ship (a new small feature, something) on day one, so that new employees can experience shipping on day one. A newly hired designer was given the task of looking at the star functionality (an icon you click in order to save a listing you find interesting). After few hours he or she comes back with something like “I think the stars are the kinds of things you see in utility-driven experiences. Instead Airbnb is so aspirational. Why don’t we tap into that? I’m going to change that to a heart.” And Joe “Wow, okay. It’s interesting” and they just shipped the new feature, to the entire userbase (not a/b testing or just shipping it to 10% of the users)! They also added some code in it in order to track it and see how behavior change. And the next day they checked the data and the engagement with the icon increased by over 30%, that simple change from a star to a heart increased engagement by over 30%! In short, let people be pirates, ship stuff and try new things.