Author Archives: Zijing Liu

Airbnb — Create a world that inspires human connection


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Zijing Liu

Abstract

      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 

Introduction

      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.

Resources: https://airbnb.design/

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.

— Airbnb

      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)

 

Constraints

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)

 

Conclusion

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

 

Reference

Final Paper Outline


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ZIJING LIU

Abstract

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.
Now Airbnb provides access to 5+ million unique places to stay in more than 81,000 cities and 191 countries. (Airbnb Press Room) 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 from, explore the points from a designer’s perspective rather than merely users.

Introduction

Airbnb started by two young men who rented their air mattress for extra money since they could not afford their house rent. Just a decade passes, Airbnb turns out to be a sharing-economy giant, estimated worth at least $38 billion in 2018. 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 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.
Airbnb is more valuable and potentially profitable than some global hotel chains (e.g., Hilton and Hyatt), leading airlines (e.g., United Airlines and American Airlines), and online travel companies (e.g., Expedia and Ctrip).
It shares similarity with the hotel model, where living spaces and life essentials are provided, yet not quite similar. The profit of hotels dependent on how many guests they can attract while Airbnb earns their profits by charging fees from both hosts and guests. Currently, Airbnb charges hosts for 3% of service fee and while for users range from 0% to 20%. Undeniably, Airbnb has shaped the business model of sharing economy.
The technologies embedded in Airbnb include search engine, online accommodation database, digital calendar, digital map and GPS, photos, translator, 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”.
How did Airbnb combine the technological components? Why has 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

Three web design principles

  • A distributed network system across unlimited client/server implementations.
  • extensible of unforeseeable future applications.
  • scalable for adding new users, nodes, agents and Web-deliverable services.

Differences between Airbnb website and mobile app

what makes Airbnb worldwide

  • semiotics — commonly agreed symbols to show available amenities, understandable to people all over the world
  • multiple languages, currency, payout methods supported
  • cooperate with local social media platforms to enlarge influence

Airbnb as house searching media — Explore & Trips

  • search engine (database)
  • digital media
  • visualization tool (line chart showing price range)

Airbnb as social media — Saved & Inbox

  • share saved house lists via Facebook, Instagram, Wechat, Gmail, etc.
  • instant communication — messenger

Airbnb as xxx (haven’t decided yet) — Profile

  • complete personal profile in hierarchy, progressive disclosure: raise credibility to hosts
  • support multiple transaction tool, adjust payment method automatically based on region

Airbnb as a travel advisor — Experience

  • recommend interesting local things to do during traveling
  • hosted by strangers, similar operation model with lodging
  • book tickets directly via Airbnb

Airbnb as a refugee — OpenHomes

  • offer free, contemporary accommodations to those lost homes due to conflicts, disasters (e.g. California fire)
  • Philanthropy, go beyond hospitality service

Constraints

  • safety and privacy issue
  • causing social problems (reduce local tax income)

Conclusion

conclude all the de-blackbox parts and design principles, reflect the whole paper

Airbnb, belong anywhere


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ZIJING LIU

When people go traveling, instead of searching for hotels, more and more people tend to rent a house for a short-term stay. It is cheaper, more home-like. It is Airbnb.
The market cap of Airbnb reached $30 billion in 2017, causing a huge threat to its hotel running competitors. And the number is still growing.

Source: Sharespost Research; Google Finance; data as of Jan.31, 2017.

Airbnb follows the design rules of the Internet
What made Airbnb possible are two key design principles of the Internet. Firstly, 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. Secondly, scalable for adding new users, nodes, agents and Web-deliverable services. (Irvine) 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.

Airbnb as house searching media
Airbnb is designed with modularity. It did not need to invent digital photo, digital map, transaction processor — instead, Airbnb only combined these existing technologies together and mediated them in the whole sociotechnical system. One of the biggest differences of Airbnb in the webpage and mobile devices 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 too. 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. Computational thinking is also involved in the affordance — it is “coding” the digital map with lodging prices.

Airbnb as transaction mediation
Transaction is another essential part of Airbnb because it is a pre-paid application. A distinct affordance is the payment methods embedded in Airbnb. It changes the payment method to adjust local sociotechnical situation. For example, when I used Airbnb in China, the payment method supported 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. According to Airbnb’s official website, Airbnb now supports multiple payment methods based on users’ current region.

Resource: https://www.airbnb.com/help/article/126/what-methods-of-payment-does-airbnb-accept

Airbnb as social media
Once completed the online transaction, pre-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 messages immediately. 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.
Additionally, Airbnb can serve as social media in mobile phones, which is one of the merits of using mobile devices over webpage. One can share their favorite housing list through multiple applications such as Facebook and WhatsApp through their phones so that the list can be opened in another mobile terminal and checked via Airbnb.

References

  • Martin Irvine, Intro to the Web: Extensible Design Principles and “Appification”
  • Ron White, “How the World Wide Web Works.” From: How Computers Work. 9th ed. Que Publishing, 2007.
  • World Wide Web Timeline (Pew Research Internet Project)
  • Airbnb. (2018, February 23). Airbnb Doubles Down on Experiences, Expanding to 1000 Destinations and Adding New Passion Categories in 2018. Retrieved from https://press.airbnb.com/airbnb-doubles-down-on-experiences-expanding-to-1000-destinations-and-adding-new-categories-in-2018/
  • (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.airbnb.com/help/article/126/what-methods-of-payment-does-airbnb-accept

Reflect Essay of the Internet


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ZIJING LIU

I did not realize how amazing of the statement that one of the utilitarian desires of the Internet was to make readily available the world’s store of knowledge (Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, 2014) and Vannevar Bush’s concept of “memex” – the device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications with exceeding speed and flexibility –  until learning the motive of Google was to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. The correspondence was not a coincidence.

When Google Search first launched in 1997, it was initially a search engine that used links to determine the importance of individual pages on the World Wide Web. It seems to be taken for granted now that when using the Internet, we intend to search or connect with information – when opening a browser, the first thing comes out is always the search engine asking you to search something – since information would be merely data if isolated but would be far more powerful if connected. What built Google was the eager to link the knowledge all around the world as well as the technical affordances to networking any kind of computer on the network with no single point of failure and with multiple paths of transmission. (Irvine)

Google Search is not only where information flows, but also a place money flow, in and out. The main revenue of Google is advertisement, where information flows in. Google Ads is one of the core business of Google. Briefly, it is the advertisement shown next to the user’s search results. Say technology companies such as Microsoft and Dell pay for the keywords they want those ads associated with, when someone enters those keywords in Google, they will see Microsoft and Dell’s webpages on the top. (As demonstrated in previous week, Google Map also makes profits in this way.)

 

Additionally, Google Adsense is another important part of the revenue of Google. It is a program website where the owner of the website, i.e. the publishers are able to gain profits by running the highest bid advertisements, which are Google-branded.

Resources: Google Adsense (https://www.google.com/adsense/start/#/?modal_active=none)

Google Search provides a huge amount of information flow out. According to Google Economic Impact Report of 2016, Google helped provide 2.23 billion dollars of economic activity for Washington, D.C. businesses, website publishers, and non-profits.

Without the Internet, Google is nothing, or so to say, Google will not even born. The Internet and Web have created a giant ecosystem that mediates and link thousands of network. Google Search becomes the most powerful search engine in the world because it accomplished the simplest and toughest thing – connecting.

References

Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures (Why Learn This?)

Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray. Personal Computers and the Internet, excerpt from Computer: A History Of The Information Machine. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014.

Barbara van Schewick, Internet Architecture and Innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

 

 

Wikipedia-Encyclopedia in Digital Age


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Zijing Liu

I still remember that on my 7-year-old birthday, my parents gave me a set of encyclopedia as a birthday gift. It has four volumes, each has hundreds of pages, narrates knowledge in an interesting and easily understandable way. I thought it was the whole world knowledge.

Now we have digital media, which are far more “encyclopedic” than we could ever imagine.

Figure 1 Two different “encyclopedia”

Murray brought up four affordances of digital media interfaces, which were encyclopedic, spatial, procedural, and participatory. (Murray 1997) An excellent example is Wikipedia. It is a platform where anyone can obtain, revise, distribute and share knowledge. Anyone is able to create a new article, make changes to improve it, and gain knowledge from it. Volunteers may participate in this digital media anonymously or with identity if they want. Based on Wikipedia statistic, currently, the English Wikipedia includes 5,746,452 articles and it averages 559 new articles per day.

 The most distinct affordance of Wikipedia is participatory. Wikipedia developed in such a wide range mostly based on the participation of numerous users. All the articles are written by volunteers. If anyone finds something wrong, or things have changed as time goes, s/he can revise it or rewrite it. So basically, everyone can be part of the construction of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a digitalized “encyclopedia”, similar to the encyclopedia my parents gave me, (which also reminds me that digital media is a metamedia that “simulates” existing media), yet more comprehensive and constantly updated. Even though the correctness might be weakened intentionally or unintentionally since more contributors have joined in the process, Wikipedia tries to be factual, neutral, and commonly agreed, instead of being absolute correct or authoritative.

Therefore, for most of the time, people check Wikipedia because they want to know the commonly accepted knowledge, even if it might not be 100 percent correct. In this case, abstraction, as a procedural affordance, comes into effect. When we open any word in Wikipedia, the first thing we see is a short paragraph, an abstraction of its definition. People can obtain knowledge in a quick way, which is exactly the design principle that Wikipedia follows (Hawaiian word wiki means “quick”). Also, each article contains a table of content, which helps users to navigate to particular parts they want.

Figure 2 Abstraction on each Wikipedia page

Further, digital encyclopedia greatly expands its spatial affordance, because space on the Internet is unlimited. It is obvious that the knowledge on Wikipedia cannot be printed within four volumes.

 

References

  • Martin Irvine, Introduction to Symbolic-Cognitive Interfaces: History of Design Principles.
  • Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.
  • (2018, November 03). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia

Design Steps of Personal computers


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Zijing Liu

Computer development has a long history. Although there are different statements of the “first computer” due to different classifications of computer, it is true that earliest computers are super large, even occupying a whole room, which is hard for us to imagine. Similarly, it is also hard for the people who dedicated to inventing computers to imagine that computers become such “personal” and common use in decades later.

The initial step of personalizing computers, I believe, is to minimize its size, after all, no one would separate a room at home to store a computer. Even in the current computer industry, designers and engineers are still struggling to simplify the structure and appearance of PCs and laptops to make it lighter or portable. In short, reducing the physical characteristics of hardware, such as weight and volume, provide premise to personal computers.

The next step is concerned with the inner layer – GUI and software. One of the biggest progress was the development and advancement of software. For instance, in the 1980s to 1990s, the release of Adobe software brought a “remediation revolution”, which enabled people to use computers to complete daily projects, such as editing photos, reading digital documents, etc. The rapid development of software greatly expanded the user audience scale, from government and business officers to the public. Actually, I was pretty surprised when learning that Adobe Inc. has such a long history. I used to think that it was the widespread use of personal computers prompted the software development, but exactly the opposite, it was the growth of software that made computer personalization possible.

Another key reason is the stronger interaction between computers and users. Designs for an input-output interface with an encoding technique for enacting computations and returning human-interpretable results. (Irvine) Touchscreen is the best proof. Except for simply receiving displaying information, people were able to communicate with their computers and convey their orders positively and directly by “touching” the screens and get feedback immediately.

What Alan Kay did was not only “establish the computer as a comprehensive media machine” but also relate it to all possible artistic media. (Manovich) It was a continuing process of simulation, i.e. adding new features to old media, which proved that any new technology is the continuum of existing ones, whether adding new properties or rearrange in different ways, pretty much the same.

 

References

  • Martin Irvine, Introduction to Symbolic-Cognitive Interfaces: History of Design Principles.
  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, pp. 55-106, on the background for Allan Kay’s “Dynabook” Metamedium design concept.

Computational thinking in Pantone


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ZIJING LIU

CodeAcademy is friendly for someone like me who have no coding experience to get exposed to Python. Actually, I first started learning Python in the “guWeCode” coding studio in Georgetown. After successfully running the first program “Hello World!”, I was shocked. I mean, that’s it? I just typed in “print “Hello World!” ”. I thought programming would be far more complicated. Yet continue learning Python as well as computational thinking this week, I realized that this is what computer language should be. It ought to be direct and simple as it is. Computers are dull and boring; humans are clever and imaginative. We humans make computers exciting. (Wing, P.35) Computational thinking does not require us to think like a computer–computer knows nothing but executes human orders–instead, it requires us to think like a human, using abstraction to solve problems, which is a necessary capability that everyone from every field should qualify with.

Figure 1  simple programs I wrote with Python

Speaking of the implication of computational thinking in our daily life, the first thing comes to my mind is Pantone–the worldwide authoritative company known for researching and developing colors. We might think color is something we cannot quantify, which was true. The problems confuse people for decades lie in: How to convey the exact color? How to identify colors with slight differences that even human eyes cannot distinguish? Is there any universal standard of color? Pantone did it by applying computational thinking.

Figure 2  Pantone colors from a blue color I randomly chose

(Source: https://www.pantone.com/)

As we all know, all colors can be produced by three primary colors–red, green, blue. Each color is a unique combination of primary colors. Pantone “code” every color with unique symbols–each color can be represented by a combination of numbers and letters. Even if there is only a slight difference between two colors, their codes are different. The essence of computational thinking here is that Pantone abstracts non-figurative color to figurative symbols and builds a standard color system.

With the universal color standard system, we are capable of doing far more things than we were in the past. Each individual and institutions are able to create their own color, to brand, etc. For instance, Georgetown University used Pantone Color Standard to set up two official colors, Georgetown Blue (Pantone 282) and Gray (Pantone Cool Gray 10). Also, designers can customize and save particular colors more accurately in Photoshop and InDesign and other Adobe software, which really solves a lot of problems.

Figure 3 Georgetown colors (Source: https://visualidentity.georgetown.edu/colors)

Figure 4  A screenshot of InDesign: colors can be “coded”

References

Jeannette Wing, “Computational Thinking.” Communications of the ACM 49, no. 3 (March 2006): 33–35.

Peter J. Denning and Craig H. Martell. Great Principles of Computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015, chapters 4, 5, 6.

David Evans, Introduction to Computing: Explorations in Language, Logic, and Machines. Oct. 2011 edition.

Week 7 Essay


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ZIJING LIU

Information flows through communication in our daily life, but we barely think deeply about how. As described in Shannon’s model, the transmission of information is the process of encoding and decoding data. Only if we understand the meaning contained in data, can we read information from the not yet meaningful data, as denoted “information – meaning = data”.

When we post some pictures with texts on Facebook, for instance, we upload the pictures and texts on the website, the website receives and encodes it as signals, data, then transmitted to other Facebook users. The “friends” of the producer of the information get access to these data, Facebook decodes the data and transmit it to the devices of those friends. People understand the information because we must share some of the common culture background, e.g. English or pictures. I do not need to learn how to understand the text messages I received or what other CCTer are posting – I just know, even if we come from different countries. Also, I think we can perceive the digital communication process as a black-box: we users only see the input and output – messages texted in and showed up on another device. The de-blackbox – the encoding and decoding process, and how does signals transmitted – are what engineers should concern with. At least we now comprehend the overall framework.

It is interesting to ponder the meaning of social media, as nowadays people get to know each other’s news by the posts on social media. If someone does not belong to my “digital friends”, it feels like our tie is weak that it might break up someday. I cannot agree more with Floridi’s statement that “we become mass-produced, anonymous entities among other anonymous entities, exposed to billions of other similar information organisms online. So we self-brand and re-appropriate ourselves in the infosphere by using blogs and Facebook entries, homepages, YouTube videos, and flickr albums.” It is true that when we share posts, we trade in part of our private information to public to brand ourselves. Are we really who we are as posted on social media? Probably not exactly the same. We just show what we want others to know while hide the unwanted information, which is a self-branding process. The exchange of information bonds “friends” together.

Back to the question, what is information? I would say information is another internalized technology that served as symbolic cognitive artefact.

References

Week 6-De-blackboxing of touchscreen


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Zijing Liu

Screen, one of the most common things we take for granted in the digital age, functions as a black-box, where users can only see its input and output. Whereas, after learning this class for several weeks, it is important for us to consider screen in a designer’s perspective ­– to de-productize and de-blackbox what is lying behind.

Before analyzing the affordance and constraints of the screen, I would like to clarify how screen works. There are two main types of screen, resistive and capacitive. The resistive screens are the basic ones that applied at ATMs and many other places. It senses our “touch” as pressure since when we touch resistive screen, we apply pressure on the screen. Then the underlying two electrically conductive layers connect, which helps to locate the position of the “touching point” and execute the order of that point. The other one is the capacitive screen, the most widely used on our smartphones, iPads and other electronic devices. This screen receives electrical charge emitted from our body that creates a “voltage drop” on the screen, then processes the order of that dropping position.

The first time I exposed to the word “affordance” and “constraints” was in “Universal Principles of Design”. After learning Murray’s concepts this week, I realize that everything has to be designed based on its affordance and constraints. The affordance of the screen is tightly connected with the socialization of human being. To design a screen, it cannot be too large or too small, too heavy or too light, which means it should be designed to be easily portable. The thinner, the better. Also, as a cognitive artifact, the screen is designed for people to read symbols and communicate with, that is the reason why screens are mostly rectangle instead of round. Moreover, it should be sensitive as well as accurate to the touch. For early screens, people had difficulties using the touchscreen because they had to push very hard to select icons. In fact, this constraint is still common in the current. For instance, the touchscreen of the package locker in my apartment is hard to use – each time I have to push very hard or using something sharper, like my nail, to force it to respond to my intention.

On the contrary, the constraints of touchscreen originate from its functions. The light of screen can be harmful to eyes, especially for those love to face screens in darkness – on bed before going to sleep. Besides, the touchscreen loses its function when wearing gloves or your hands are wet – it cut off the transmission of electrical charges. It annoys me when I have to pull off my gloves to touch the screen in cold winter or the water on my hand interfere with my operating.

Return back to the early point to think about affordances and constraints one more time, view everything from a perspective of designer, we will notice that everything has strong reasons to be designed in this particular way, even if it seems to be so ordinary.

References

Week 5 Essay-Digital Interface of Taobao


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ZIJING LIU

After moving from China to the United States for nearly two months, I realize that what I miss most is “Taobao”— the biggest online shopping website in China. The application’s digital interface is far more customer-friendly than most of the E-commerce giants of the US. I believe that the US shopping websites, such as Amazon, will obtain more profits if they absorb advantages from Taobao.

When I say “customer-friendly”, it not only means the customers can search products information more conveniently and thoroughly, but also trigger them to purchase it more easily.

In the “searching” mediation, there are multiple ways to do that: scan, search key words or its brand store, utilize photo recognition or AR (Augmented Reality) recognition. If you want to buy a cup, you can just search “cup” and a list of information of cup will show up — most of shopping websites are capable of it. But what if you want to buy the exact cup you see online? You have nothing but its photo. In Taobao, you can search the picture in your album or take a photo directly to search it. More conveniently, if you just save a photo to the album, like five seconds ago, Taobao will remind you “picture you may want to search for” automatically, which means Taobao is constantly detect your album. I have also read several blogs from social media that the bloggers claimed that after they told their friends what they want to buy in Wechat, Taobao showed related products on their home page. It is fascinating while also horrifying, since Taobao might detect your personal communication, by which violate users’ privacy. For now, there is no evidence showing Taobao read private chat, but I did read some users claim that.

In the “information” mediation, Taobao’s interface is superior than any other websites I have ever used, because it provides vast amounts of information of the merchandise. Only if consumers gain enough information, shall they know what they want and determine whether to purchase it or not. There are four parts on the interface for each commodity: item, evaluation, detail and recommendation. In detail part, you can get massive information, usually dozens of pages, even if it is something trivial. Besides, if you have any issues — e.g. you want to change the delivery company, apply for refund or even urge them ship your products quickly — you can turn to customer service assistants in working hours and you may get response immediately. Every Taobao sellers hire people to do the job, because the speed of response is one of the evaluations of the products, which influences the sales performance directly. Moreover, users are able to track the exact position of package in current on a digital map, relieving anxiety of waiting for packages to a great extent.

In the “recommendation” mediation, Taobao undoubtedly utilize big data to infer customers’ interests to recommend products. Take me as an example, my shopping preferences include beauty, clothes, shoes, etc. I have increasingly realized that Taobao knows me better and better — she knows my taste, my consuming level, my favorite store. So even if I do not have something to buy, I would love to see what Taobao recommends. It becomes a habit and habits can be terrible.

Besides, it is simple to collect stores users want to catch up on Taobao. Every time there are new products coming or sales event, it will be shown together on “follow” page.

There are plenty of functions that Taobao has but I haven’t mention in this article, especially the tight relationship between Taobao and Alipay. Admittedly, the superiority of Taobao cause shortcomings that other websites do not have. But I believe it is a great case study to analyze digital interface for E-commerce websites.

References

Martin Irvine, “Understanding Sociotechnical Systems with Mediology and Actor Network Theory (with a De-Blackboxing Method)” PDF. 9.

Regis Debray, “What is Mediology?” (Also as PDF.Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.

Bruno Latour. “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans — Following Daedalus’s Labyrinth,” in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 201.