As Airbnb’s user experience design manager, Jenny Arden is tasked with the job of helping create a seamless experience for all Airbnb hosts, and that includes her mom, a self-employed writer living in Ashland, Oregon, an artsy hamlet at the southern end of the Rogue Valley, just north of the California border. “She adores meeting people and providing pastries and great coffee for them,” says Arden, adding, “Baby boomers renting out a small room are actually a key demographic for us.”
And Jenny’s mother has actually offered her daughter some advice on how to improve the host experience. “My mom has a warm personality, and she gives me feedback on how the platform can help match her with people who want that graciousness,” says Arden. “To get the value of her particular style of hosting is to be into coffee, pastries, and exchanging travel stories.”
Further personalizing the stay experience is central to Airbnb’s ongoing mission to connect people to places. It’s also tricky: How do you best match 160 million visitors to four million homes hosted by 2.5 million people in 191 cities? It’s a Rubik’s Cube puzzle, and Arden leads a team that aims to better support the growing number of hosts in a way that allows them to run their homestays as small business owners.
“Our guests, on average, use our platform maybe a couple times a year when they’re planning a trip and traveling, whereas our hosts, on average, open up our app several times a day,” says Arden. “Just the frequency alone changes the entire nature of the experience and what you have to design for.” Adding another level of intrigue is that about 90 percent of the host experience is offline – the product is the stay, the business goal is a great experience, and the technology is simply the enabler.
Ninety Nine U spoke with Arden about how Airbnb is designing for the superhost, what her team is learning offline that they are applying online, and how the line between design and business is so blurry these days she can’t even see it anymore.
One idea that has been born in the Airbnb community is that of the “professional host.” How has this come to be?
The big shift I’m seeing is that it’s not like one day you’re an amateur host and the next day you’re a professional host. It’s a gradation; there’s a spectrum. Some will enter into a market where you can have multiple homes, and they may choose to host for many people, and that gets into our co-hosting initiatives, where you can actually host on behalf of someone else. Interestingly enough, on LinkedIn there are 60 people whose title is “superhost” – they put that as their actual job title. I’m thinking about how professional tools can support those people to be killer superhosts and go from just the one-on-one [host experience] to thinking about scale.
One key digital tool in particular for a superhost is the easy-to-use calendar. Your team went through about 40 different prototypes of the host calendar before you got it right. What issues were you working through there?
When I talked to my team about that particular project, I kicked it off by saying, “If you nail the calendar, you won this entire project.” Other things are important, yes: reservation management, communication. But quite honestly, designing for a messaging system is easy, and it’s been done before. Coming up with a really robust calendar for hosting – that’s a new challenge.
Why was it so difficult?
The reason is because every single person thinks about their day differently and structures it in a different way. The construct of a calendar is pretty finite, like days and weeks. How you use a daily view, a weekly view, or a monthly view: That’s what changes. So what we ended up doing is, rather than saying there’s one solution, we created four different views to support what we found were the major buckets in the ways that people were using the calendar.
When hosts are looking at a monthly or yearly view, what they’re really trying to figure out is, Have I booked up my place? They want to make sure they have no availability. Maybe they see one week and no one’s booked it. Maybe they’ll drop the price a little bit, just for that one week, to get a booking in there. They’re optimizing and they’re trying to run their business, making sure they’re getting all the bookings they can.
On the weekly view, hosts are coordinating with the people that help them host, like their cleaner. They’re coordinating. Then on the daily view, hosts are looking at what’s happening today, who they need to greet, errands they have to do.
With the majority of the hosting experience being done offline, what’s one thing you’ve recently seen in how people host in the physical world that you have applied to the digital platform?
We’ve launched a new check-in feature, which is the result of a workaround we saw people doing. Our hosts were using a new mobile app feature that launched in November where users had the ability to send photos through messaging. What people were doing was essentially taking a bunch of photos in sequence to make a check in guide: Look for this store; look for that flowerpot; the keys are under there. Here’s the lockbox; punch this code. And they were drawing the code on top of the image. So we decided to make a photo-based template so hosts can show guests how to check-in to their Airbnb. This completely transforms communication between a host and a guest because it’s standardized. Every time you stay in an Airbnb now, you can look for the check-in guide and it’ll walk you through how you get into this place.
This seems like such a benefit for international travel, where language could be a barrier.
Absolutely. This was coming from our Asian markets, in particular. There are some parts of Asia where their addresses are not like how they are in the U.S., where we have specific pins on a map. In some Asian countries they have areas or blocks only, and the guest has to figure it out. Visual instructions are the only solution, so a picture guide was really the only way for those particular hosts to translate exactly where their Airbnb is located.
Your team designs for host problems that need to be solved. Why does this work fall into the bucket of design versus more traditional customer service?
Because I’m part of the functions that create, that build, I have the power to actually make it happen. It’s one thing to listen, and those supportive roles are absolutely critical to success. I can’t do my job without them. But my job is to execute, and to choose and decide and ensure that the most important and meaningful features will be built. Even as designers we have our bias. We’re still always going to be skewed by our own perceptions, travel experiences, and history. A great customer experience partnership will be that sense of truth. They’ll keep you in check and make sure you’re actually doing the right thing.
In terms of hiring, what do you look for outside of the requisite design skills?
I may not be the norm in recruiting here, but I definitely look for dark horses and people who are misfits. I look for quirkiness – maybe they had an off-the-beaten path trajectory for how they got here. Everyone has to meet a particular bar, so I’m looking at what’s above that, and that’s usually purpose, and the number one prerequisite: heart toward people who are trying to make a living out of home sharing. Designers that are good at system designs, those who think horizontally and can see how one thing they do can percolate across the entire company – those designers can weed through the mess of feedback from all different sources; take that chaos and find that golden nugget idea, the actual problem, and execute without getting distracted.
On a career note, you worked for JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs early on, then at Google on self-driving cars, and now Airbnb. What is the thread that has connected these jobs in different sectors?
What I get excited about is creating tools for people so they have a better day. That’s a commonality between all of these industries, and, particularly with my career, what I’ve focused on. The second area is ambiguity. Every one of these companies and industries has had an intense amount of ambiguity. Earlier on in my career in banking, if I had ambiguity I would get super stressed. I would sit there and I’d say, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing” and I’d get really scared and frustrated. Now when I see ambiguity, I’m excited, because it means we’re doing something that no one has done before and we don’t have the solution yet. And that’s an opportunity for us to be inventive. I look for those moments more than for the moments of clarity.
You have a graphic design degree from Rhode Island School of Design, a degree in physics from Brown University, and you completed a business program for creatives at Harvard. How have those three disciplines fit in to what you do?
I’m definitely left brain, right brain. I found early on that art was not going to satiate me intellectually and science was not going to satiate me emotionally. I needed both. This led me to find user experience design before that term was even invented. I also broke every rule you can think of in college when it comes to academic careers. I was that first person ever to do a double major between RISD and Brown University at the same time. Now it’s an actual program, but you should’ve seen the look on Academic Affairs’ face when they discovered this was my plan. They asked me, “What are you doing? These are not the same schools.” My response was, “I know; I just don’t care.” I see what I want to do, and that is the path I will take.
Careerwise, I have not done all the right things. I haven’t climbed ladders. I haven’t done the politics that a lot of people find themselves falling into and hating because there is nothing in my personality that will support that.
How important is it for a designer to have a business brain?
As you become more senior, it’s a requirement. In fact, the lines are so blurry I can’t even say business and design are two separate things anymore. What you’re looking for when you’re creating a great business model is a need for it to even exist in the first place. You can monetize lots of things, but if no one will want to put money toward that. And what design does is find the reason why someone should put money toward that. So a lot of people think of design as just being the front end, the execution of a plan. But what it really is is finding the human need for it in the first place.
Do you consider yourself a designer, or have you evolved more into a business executive with a design perspective?
It’s funny that I still see myself a designer because I literally – as many people at my level will say – haven’t opened a design [software] program in a year and a half. As you get more senior, execution is not your primary task. Your job is to push for stronger ideas as quickly as possible. So it’s a combination of those two – pushing, pushing, pushing, and focus, focus, focus.
If I were to put a label on myself, I am a hard-core entrepreneur. It will always be in me. At Airbnb I feel like I’m at the forefront of a new business model and a leading technology, and a company that’s making a lot of change. I’ve always seen myself as a founder, someone that’s diving into the unknown, doing something that’s new and scary.
Airbnb was founded by designers, as were Pinterest and Kickstarter, and there is some talk in Silicon Valley that we’re entering the era of the designer-founder. What’s your take?
These days I find that almost every single person I hire says they want to be a founder. They want to own their own company one day, which maybe is part of our process in finding the people who are very ambitious and very A-type. But in that, I’m starting to realize that the next generation of designers are not design practitioners in the true sense that we were seeing five, ten years ago – people who were going through traditional graphic design programs. What we’re seeing now are designers who are thinking business. They’re thinking, “How can I take something that matters to me, that I actually experience pain or excitement about firsthand, and use my skills as a designer to create a business for that?” That is a major shift among designers ages 22 to 30 these days.
Let’s end with where we started: What’s the best food your mom serves at her Airbnb?
Her cranberry nut bread with Irish butter – she’s Irish.
This interview was originally published in 99U’s special issue for Adobe XD.