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As travelers search for accommodation, instead of looking for hotels, people have got another choice — to stay in a stranger’s home. It is cheaper, offers a sense of home, and probably most important, a kitchen. It is Airbnb. What has made Airbnb such a worldwide success? This paper will de-blackbox the technological design principles behind Airbnb as well as how these principles combine systematically to work a whole symbolic cognitive artefact. The writer shall utilize the knowledge learned from this lesson and scholarly articles, explore the points from a designer’s perspective rather than merely users.
Figure 1 symbolic meaning of Airbnb
Airbnb operates an accommodation marketplace that allows hosts to list their available places to be rented by users who seek a short-term lodging. It serves as an inter-mediation to connect people who want to rent their dwelling places and who want a place to stay. It dedicates to create a world that inspires human connection and redefine what it means to be home.
The technologies embedded in Airbnb include search engine, online accommodation database, digital calendar, digital map and GPS, digital media, translation tool, messenger, online transaction, visualization tool. As Brian Arthur pointed out in “the Nature of Technology”, technologies, all technologies, are combinations. (Arthur, 2009) None of the technologies were invented by Airbnb. Airbnb just combines these existing technologies in dynamic of balance and interaction to achieve designers’ intention, to show the “magic”. There is a built-in “ratchet effect” in human systems of artefacts and technologies. As Prof. Irvine indicated, the metaphor “ratchet” describes “a memory function in technology development that enables a society to use the “mental models” of already developed technologies as the starting point of new developments” (Irvine).
How did Airbnb combine the technological components? Why does it become such a powerful and popular application? The author will deproductize its interface and affordances, design principles in multiple layers.
From Webpage to Mobile Application
The first and most basic definition of technology is a means to fulfill a human purpose.
— W. Brian Arthur
Airbnb started as a simple website that provides bed and breakfast, to satisfy the need of looking for accommodation resources for travelers who cannot afford the expenses of hotels. Airbnb was born to fulfill a human purpose. The interface of Airbnb is clean and simple, guiding users to enter required information, as modules should be designed to hide their internal complexity and interact with other modules through simple interfaces. (Lidwell-Holden-Butler, 2003)
Figure 2 Airbnb history
The Airbnb website was built in 2008. Airbnb follows the web design principles from web browsers to mobile applications. Firstly, a distributed network system across unlimited client/server implementations. (Irvine) A “server” is just a computer on a network that serves up responses to other computers. Since Airbnb is a global application for traveling, the only way is to connect remote users with remote resources in an open and scalable way. Secondly, extensible of unforeseeable future applications. (Irvine) Airbnb was launched in 2008 while the Internet has already evolved for almost 30 years. The Internet has bred numerous applications, one of which is Airbnb, utilizing the shared house renting information through the world. The globalization of the Internet provides worldwide access to Airbnb. Thirdly, scalable for adding new users, nodes, agents and Web-deliverable services. (Irvine) For future expansion, it allows the system to alter the number of users, resources and computer entities. So it did. In March 2009, Airbnb had 2500 listings and close to 10,000 registered users. But now Airbnb provides access to 5+ million unique places to stay in more than 81,000 cities and 191 countries.
As Airbnb grew in popularity, it launched internationally and released an iPhone application in 2010. The major differences of the Airbnb website and application are result from the different size of screens, as flexibility-usability tradeoff should be considered in the design process. (Lidwell-Holden-Butler, 2003) Computers have larger screen so that it can perform more functions, more flexibility at the same time. Mobile devices such as smartphones have smaller screen. Although it cannot afford too many functions at once, it has higher usability — more efficient to handle. The superior affordance of Airbnb webpage users over mobile application — due to the screen size constraint — is the collaboration among different modularity. If the user changes the range of housing price, the house listing information and their location on the digital map change with it. For mobile application users, although they could only view one page at one time, the number of houses is shown as soon as the price range changes, which helps users to narrow their targets down to specific houses efficiently.
Figure 3 flexibility-usability tradeoff on the interfaces of Airbnb website and app
What makes Airbnb worldwide
The best design is that you do not even aware of it.
— Donald A. Norman
Everyone has cultural biases, expectations, and value judgments that are the result of living in a particular society or subgroup. It is the job of the designer to identify and consciously examine these biases so they can become the subject of active choices rather than passive acceptance. (Murray, 1997, p.29) It is hard to design software that supports people from different countries, background, and culture. Airbnb serves as a cognitive artefact — an aspect of the material world that has been modified over the history of its incorporation into goal-directed human action. (Cole, 1996) The Airbnb interface is an artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function — to transform the properties of the artefact’s representational system to match the properties of users’ internal cognitive system. (Norman, 1991) The mapping between representing world and represented world matches faithfully.
Firstly, the huge success of Airbnb is partly attributed to the universal cognitive-symbolic design (as shown in Figure 4). Culture is considered to be composed entirely of learned symbols and shared systems of meaning — the ideal aspect of culture — that are located in the head. (Cole, 1996) In the digital interface, the signs can be specified to function as either (or both) symbolic “content” (rendered text, images, video, etc.) or as action translators (icons, links, gestural controls) for initiating computational processes designed also to render back other patterns of symbolic representations. (Irvine) Airbnb uses commonly agreed icons and images to show available amenities (e.g. Free parking, Washer, Wifi), so that it is readily understandable to people all over the world.
Figure 4 universal cognitive-symbolic design
Secondly, Airbnb serves as “metamedium” , which is a medium designed for representing, processing, and interpreting other media. (Manovich, 2012) Airbnb supports multiple languages, currency, payout methods, thus expands the potential users. There is also a translation tool (Google translate I believe) embedded in the digital interface, so guests are able to read reviews in different languages with merely one click. The affordance theoretically connects people all over the world since once users get a digital translator, language is no longer a problem. It is worth mentioning that Airbnb supports multiple transaction tools (as shown in Figure 5), and adjust payment method automatically based on region. When I used Airbnb in China, the payment method was Alipay — the dominating transaction tool run by Alibaba — when I chose it, it jumped to Alipay to fulfill the payment. After I came to the U.S., I found the payment method was changed to Google Pay automatically. It demonstrates that the GPS system in smartphone is applied while using Airbnb to locate users’ current country or region, and adjust transaction tool based on the GPS information transmitted.
Figure 5 payment methods Airbnb support (resource: Airbnb Help)
Thirdly, Airbnb cooperates with social media platforms, such as Facebook, to strengthen the connection among users. As stated on the Airbnb official website, “Social Connections shows you how you’re connected to others, either directly or through mutual friends, depending on your Facebook privacy settings. It also highlights your Airbnb activity, which may include your username, Facebook profile photo, and recent locations you visited your Facebook friends who are also on Airbnb.”(Airbnb Help) This means when two Airbnb users are friends on Facebook, they automatically become friends on Airbnb.
Hence, Airbnb exerts the unlimited connectivity of the Internet with various affordances to eliminate the cultural and social barrier between hosts and guests. Culture and media technologies are co-produced or co-constitutive” and finally form a co-mediation system. (Irvine)
Airbnb as house searching media — Explore & Trips
The possibilities were inherent in the modularity of the design itself.
— Carliss Y. Baldwin & Kim B. Clark
“Modularity allows us to manage a larger and more complex who structure by dividing up its functions into separate, interconnected components, layers, and subprocesses.” (Irvine) Airbnb separated its functionality into several modules, which forms “a hybrid structure containing interconnected, independent and hierarchical elements”. (Clark, 2000)
In “explore” module, the most observable technology embedded in is search engine — allowing users to enter destination place. What is important but commonly ignored is the “autocomplete” function — when users type in the first few letters, the search engine jumps out some results automatically that correspond the information already entered (as shown in Figure 6), which utilizes another essential design principle, recognition over recall. That is, minimize the need to recall information from memory whenever possible. (Lidwell-Holden-Butler, 2003) Behind the search engine is the database of cities that offer Airbnb lodging resources. Hence, it is not difficult to observe that Airbnb stands on the strong foundation of the highly connected Internet, with which Airbnb would be able to provide the targeting information users need within its own network.
Figure 6 search engine in Airbnb
As users intend to narrow down their target lodging resources by adding more conditions, the interface of Airbnb provides a sense of control. Users can choose their expecting conditions (e.g. range of dates, the number of guests, home type and amenities), or even more importantly, whether to show the filters on the interface or not.
To show the results, Airbnb uses digital media to help users find lodging. Each accommodation resource contains the detailed photos of abode, digital map of the target location (exact location will only be provided after booking to protect privacy of hosts), online forum of reviews. All the media are simulations to traditional media (e.g. printed photos, maps). By hiding the “digitalization” process, affordances become invisible to users thus we always take them for granted.
Another important module is the visualization tool — a line chart corresponding the price range and number of houses embedded in “filters”. It shows how many houses fall in this price and overall lodging level in the city. Clearly, different modules — map, photos and price visualization — function together in a dynamic balance.
In “Trips” module, Airbnb stores users’ travel history, showing by combination of photos and digital maps. As long as the users log in their Airbnb account, they are able to track their travel history and Airbnb orders. Therefore, all the history is stored in the Internet cloud space, it is free to log in and recover information. “Cloud” is a collection of servers that act in a coordinated way. It is kept by Airbnb permanently and will not disappear. This affordance, on the other hand, proves the infinite space and possibility of the Internet — millions of users are able to save their information without worrying lose it or damage.
Airbnb as social media — Saved & Inbox
New media always remediate the old ones.
— Lev Manovich
People usually need discussion before traveling together, because they cannot make final decision of where to stay by themselves. Therefore, Airbnb adds affordance to serve as social media, to allow users to share information online. Accommodations in the same city are saved as one collection, users are able to “invite friends” of each collection via social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, SMS, WhatsApp, Wechat, QQ), email system (e.g. Gmail), or directly copy the link.
Communication between the hosts and guests is particularly important. Based on the demand, Airbnb expands its affordance to messenger, so that hosts and guests can send real-time messages and achieve international instant communication. This affordance is especially crucial for people who intend to travel to a different country, which means they may not share the same communication tool and they cannot get quick response via email. Take me as an example. When my mother and I traveled to New York and booked a house on Airbnb — the first time I booked lodging in a different country by Airbnb — communication became a problem because the host did not use Wechat and email was inconvenient for instant messaging. We communicated about all the pre-arrival issues via Airbnb and informed the hosts as soon as we arrived at New York. Even if we had time differences, everything got settled down because of barrier-free communication in Airbnb messenger affordance. (See Figure 7)
Figure 7 Instant messaging between hosts and guests
In addition, the digital media interface of Airbnb, as brought up by Murray, reflects four affordances, which were encyclopedic, spatial, procedural, and participatory. (Murray, 1997) Airbnb constructed an online community where hosts can connect with other hosts (e.g. share stories, ask for advice). It is encyclopedic since users can obtain answers or advice of almost all the topics from others who had run into the similar situation. Also, hosts and guests are free to view the reviews of each other. Users have access to the reviews from all over the world and at the same time, the reviews of users themselves are open to anyone within the network. The spatial affordance refers to virtual spaces the designers created that are also navigable by the interactors. (Murray, 1997, p.70) Users can get access to unlimited resources through many-to-many communication — World Wide Web. The infinite space of the Internet is displayed and navigated through the graphic user interface, we just hardly aware of it. The procedural property is its ability to represent and execute conditional behaviors. (Murray, 1997, p.51) Once users meet some unique problems such as canceling reservation or properties damage, they can get help directly from the Airbnb team via social media contact. Participation in digital media increasingly means social participation. (Murray, 1997, p.56) In fact, social participation is a requirement for every Airbnb users. After finished a trip, both hosts and guests are encouraged to leave reviews to each other. Hosts are willing to do so since in this way, they can get more exposure, guests can get more completed profile to raise their credibility. Accordingly, Airbnb online forum has grown larger, thus attracting more users to the application.
The designer must script both sides, interactor, and digital artifact so that the actions of humans and machines are meaningful to one another.
Airbnb as hierarchical model — Profile
The word adds another dimension to the world of humans.
— Michael Cole
Personal profile is a crucial part to increase credibility between hosts and guests. When my mother and I booked the same apartment in New York, the host approved my request while declined my mother’s because she thought I had a more completed profile with reviews from former hosts while my mother was a new user — her profile was blank.
To complete the profile, users have to complete it step by step, and here comes another important design principle that was commonly ignored, progressive disclosure — separate information into multiple layers and only present layers that are necessary or relevant. (Lidwell-Holden-Butler, 2003) Airbnb segments needed profile information into several parts: first sign up an account, then provide detailed information (e.g. name, headshot, identification), payment method. Airbnb shows which step it is so that users would know how many steps left. Progressive disclosure guides users through the complex procedures with simple operation. (as shown in Figure 8 & 9)
Figure 8 Progressive Disclosure in Profile
Figure 9 Profile complete procedure
Further, progressive disclosure is an efficient design principle to hide the infrequently used controls or information. For instance, notifications, currency, payment methods, terms of service are hidden in “settings”, detailed notifications and terms of service are hidden inside them. Apparently, Airbnb builds the “profile” module in hierarchy and multiple layers, and hides the unpopular functions to manage complexity.
Expansion of Airbnb — Open Homes & Experiences
Redefine what it means to be home.
Open Homes is a program that Airbnb launched in 2012 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It offers free, contemporary accommodations to those who lost their homes due to conflicts, disasters, illness. The goal of the program is to grow a community of hosts who believe that offering a welcoming space can help someone rebuild their life. (Airbnb Help)
By operating Open Homes, Airbnb goes far beyond an enterprise that earns profits by running hospitality service. It has paid effort to philanthropy that depends strongly on information flow. Airbnb works closely with nonprofit organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps to develop the program.
Open Homes connects organizations seeking short-term stays and volunteers offering up their homes for a specific cause. When volunteers sign on, they’ll be able to specify the cause they’d like to donate their room or home to. Nonprofits looking to set up a family or individual for a few days or weeks while they suss out more permanent housing will be able to view lists of potential volunteers. The new platform automates much of the work that Airbnb has been doing manually up until this point.
Experiences is a program launched in 2016. It offers a deep-dive into the local host’s world through special knowledge, unique skills, and inside access to local places and communities that guests couldn’t find on their own, creating lasting connections. It was built on a distributed network that utilizes the same affordances as searching accommodations: photos showing the attracting characteristics, digital calendar and map help to check availability, GPS system makes recommendations based on current location.
Information flows in and out, as a consequence, we shall be living in an infosphere that will become increasingly synchronized (time), delocalized (space), and correlated (interactions). (Floridi, 2010)
Good design is aimed simultaneously at perfecting the object and at improving the overall practice of the field.
— Janet H. Murray
Airbnb has imperfections due to its constraints. Primarily, unlike hotels, facilities are not as completed. Neither housekeeping nor any room service is provided until the guests leave. Also, there is no place to keep luggage after checking out. So Airbnb does not fit for long-term stay. Moreover, the cleaning fee and service fee will not show up until you complete the final step of booking. It causes problems as users finally make their decisions but they find there are still a bunch of extra fees. Furthermore, news reported some hosts installed hidden cameras to secretly monitor every move of guests, which severely violated the law and ethics as well as the guests’ privacy. In addition, Airbnb does not cover all the loss and damage for hosts, although it provides “Host Guarantee Program”, while there is no protection over guests if their items are lost or stolen.
The popularity of Airbnb has also brought a series of social problems. Firstly, under the intense circumstances that Airbnb has attracted a significant number of customers away, many hotels are driven out of business and hotel employees, therefore, lose their job. American Hotel and Lodging Association — including juggernauts Marriott International and Hilton Worldwide — put pressure on local government to compete with Airbnb by judging it evading taxes. Hospitality Net reports that local, state, and federal governments miss out on $226 million in tax revenues per year from the reduction in hotel stays in New York City alone. (See Figure 10) Secondly, Airbnb has driven up the real estate price of some cities such as Amsterdam, because local hosts are able to afford more on a flat when they rent it out. Thirdly, because of the increasing house resources, Airbnb has caused over-crowded problems to local communities, including noisy parties, parking congestion.
Figure 10 Protesters gather outside of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office on third avenue in New York. (Sources: Frank Franklin II / AP)
Technology is never neutral or independently determinative.
— Martin Irvine
In conclusion, Airbnb has designed a sociotechnical system of interconnected agency and co-dependency.” (Irvine) All the technologies in the lower layer of the system — the network’s core — provide general services that can be used by all applications. (Schewick, 2012) Digital photos, maps, calendar, GPS — can be easily found in other applications (Uber, Facebook, Amazon, etc. name whatever you want). As a result, having the designer of applications (who know the need of applications) design application-specific functionality is more efficient than asking designers of lower layers to anticipate the need for future applications. (Schewick, 2012) Airbnb designers do not need to think about how to design GPS or a new technology, instead, they only need to focus on the higher layers of the system — how to combine the different affordances to achieve their goals.
Application autonomy — a hierarchy relationship between the application and the network — can be used to perfectly describe the whole Airbnb design system. The interface of Airbnb is in control, and the network plays a serving role. Lower layers are responsible for very general building blocks, which can be used by Airbnb designers to realize application-specific needs in higher layers of system. By putting Airbnb on end hosts in control, the principle of application autonomy effectively puts control over the use of the Internet in the hands of users.
Computational thinking is also applied in the design process of Airbnb — using abstraction and decomposition to solve problems. Initially, Airbnb built their website to solve the problem that “travelers could not afford hotel price while renters needed extra money to pay for rent”. Airbnb decomposed the problem into small pieces: on one hand, travelers looked for some places for short-term rest; on the other hand, house owners had extra spaces to earn extra money. To think computationally is to interpret a problem as an information process and then seek to discover an algorithmic solution. (Denning, 2015) Airbnb solved the solution by using algorithm to establish a platform that bridge travelers and house owners so that they could both benefit from Airbnb. All of these services act by using the software on the network to generate the connectivity needed to join the two ends of a relationship. This relationship, in turn, can become a service, as in the examples above, or remain as a relationship without involvement of exchange of products or services.
Further, Airbnb utilizes abstraction in the housing searching function. It “coding” the residence resources with numbers — price — on the digital map. Thus, as users check the map of destination city, they will gain a map full of abstract prices and corresponding lodging location. Users are able to easily check the location and price of the house by moving the mouse onto the photo, then the corresponding price icon would be highlighted. At the same time, the average nightly price is provided above the line chart for references. (See Figure 11)
Figure 11 “Coding” houses with prices on digital map
Computer simulations of physical media can add many exciting new properties to the media being simulated. (Manovich, 2013, p.86) Airbnb employed simulation, that is, modeling physical objects in the real world and their interactions. (Evans, 2011) Airbnb constructed online “Community”, where users are free to browse others’ conversation, ask questions and leave comments in “Discussion Room” — a simulation to real-world correspondence. Airbnb Community borrowed concepts from real-world — conversation and discussion room only exist in real life. Airbnb imitated the affordance and built a virtual ecosystem to allow conversations realized online through fictitious rooms. (See Figure 12)
Figure 12 Airbnb Community: simulation to conversation and discussion rooms
- Martin Irvine, Introduction to Design Thinking: Systems and Architectures (Intro essay)
- Arthur, W. B. (2011). The Nature of Technology: What It is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.
- Lidwell, W., Holden, K., & Butler, J. (2010). Universal principles of design. Beverly, MA: Rockport.
- Manovich, L. (2016). Software takes command. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
- Martin Irvine, Introduction to Modularity and Abstraction Layers (Intro essay)
- Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Cognitive Artefacts and Semiotic Technologies” (seminar unit intro)
- Jeannette Wing, “Computational Thinking.” Communications of the ACM 49, no. 3 (March 2006): 33–35.
- Peter J. Denning, “The Great Principles of Computing.” American Scientist, October, 2010.
- David Evans, Introduction to Computing: Explorations in Language, Logic, and Machines. Oct. 2011 edition.
- Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures
- Barbara van Schewick, Internet Architecture and Innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.
- About Us. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://press.airbnb.com/about-us/
- How can we help? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.airbnb.com/help
- The Way We Build. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://airbnb.design/the-way-we-build/
- Zee, R. V. (2016, October 06). The ‘Airbnb effect’: Is it real, and what is it doing to a city like Amsterdam? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/06/the-airbnb-effect-amsterdam-fairbnb-property-prices-communities