The corona virus has decimated the travel industry, and Airbnb, the rental company that recently appeared unstoppable, has not been spared.
While the headlines focused on the measures taken to store cash to make up for its losses, the almost 12-year-old company has been diligently redesigning its products behind the scenes. This includes rethinking the home screen and app landing pages to reflect a world that includes short-term stays and longer-term stays, including for medical professionals who need to be quarantined by their families.
We spoke to Airbnb Alex Schleifer, Chief Design Officer, to learn more about what has changed behind the scenes and how. Our chat has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
TC: Airbnb's homepage suddenly focuses on three things: online experiences, monthly stays and what you call the "frontline". This is an area where hosts can provide shelter to healthcare workers and first responders. How was this design process and how long did it take?
AS: Our team worked it out in less than three weeks. At all times, a few hundred people worked on the project – people from the areas of operations, products, localization, design, guidelines and technology. It is a complex operation (here). Everything we have to do has to be done in 60 languages. Because of the scope of everything we do, the idea is often the simplest piece.
The difficulty was exacerbated because the crisis hit us too. Everyone worked from home. For example, there were questions about how we do childcare. But there was still immense energy, also because thousands of hosts contacted us and said, "We want to help."
TC: Where exactly do you start with a redesign like this?
AS: You define the scope of it. You can put a banner on your homepage or talk to hosts and governments to understand what kind of help they need and if this is something they want. Then start building. Part of this is real-time viewing of guests' behavior on our platform, which changes every day. It's also about talking to other travel partners and seeing what they're doing.
Ultimately, we decided to take over a fairly large amount of real estate so that people on the frontline knew where to go. They also use our core search, but we want to make sure that they have a specific place for people who want to donate or support the program. We had a goal of 100,000 homes that would be made available, but we achieved that goal faster than we thought.
TC: Are these rooms offered free of charge?
AS: They are donated or offered at reduced prices.
TC: Another new section is now dealing with “online experiences”. Are these hosts who offer their own courses on cooking and other things?
AS: Yes, like "Sangria Mixing with Pedro", a cocktail mixing show with a lot of entertainment. Airbnb is all about connection – it's based on hosting. But if not everyone can travel, the question arises: What options do we have here? We discussed a lot of ideas, but the way we worked as a team (remotely) and connected and lived online with the family made this idea more concrete for us. So we contacted hosts, did trial runs with these hosts with microphone setups (and everything else that is required), and started with 50 people. Now we have nearly 100 hosts that offer experiences online, and thousands more that have offered to host experiences. Some of the most popular offers – not one-to-many experiences where you see a show, but an interactive experience – are already sold out.
(Above the Airbnb homepage before the updates.)
TC: Do you see that this will become a significant part of Airbnb's business in the future?
AS: It's only a few weeks old, but we really enjoyed it even for a product in the first version. It has exceeded expectations and I think it will be big business for us to get out of the pandemic as it allows hosts to host both online and real-world experiences.
TC: I am sure that many ideas have been discussed. How do you choose what you want to orbit?
AS: We are lucky enough to sit on a lot of data, but you can only test as much. You need really strong and quick decisions so that management and management team meet every day.
The other thing that I appreciate as a designer is that we have taken care to remove abstract levels of communication. We not only loaded a Google document, but implemented it using Figma (the tool for collaborative interface design) to view all designs and quickly create prototypes and screen shares, whether with the Experience team or me or ( CEO) Brian (Chesky) to see what customers would see and make decisions.
TC: You mention Figma. What other tools did you rely on more when working from home?
AS: We like to use as few tools as possible, but Figma changes the game because people can see how decisions are made live. Google Docs is very powerful for us. Slack also enables us to work asynchronously, which is important. And zoom was vital for everyone.
TC: Things change from day to day. Parts of the world open up while others remain closed. How does this affect your work?
AS: We built the product and website in such a way that they are really modular and can also be aligned to regions, because you are right. The world will open on different schedules with different restrictions and permutations and we want to make sure that we can offer people what is available to them. In some cases, they may travel (be handicapped) within a certain distance or air travel may not be open. That's why we want to help people find things nearby.
We're also continually building other parts, some in direct response to the crisis, including a hub that tells and hosts our guests, what's happening with travel and what's happening after the storm.
As a global company, we are used to adapt to changes. This is of course a different scale.