Can design power a company’s evolution? That’s what Airbnb has bet on since 2008, when a three-member team of designers and an engineer set out to solve the essential problem of where to stay. Although the last few years have ushered in shifts at the product and organizational levels, design principles still guide us everyday. Design is in our DNA and it’s embedded in everything we do: it’s how we foster creative culture, iterate on our product, and make meaningful connections with the global community of travelers who are the heart of our brand.
We’ve kept that community in mind over the past four years as we’ve expanded beyond stays to offer experiences, a print magazine, and reimagined transportation and more. But utilizing design thinking to scale an organization presents its own challenges and opportunities. In this insightful Q&A, Alex Schleifer, our recently appointed Chief Design Officer and Tim Allen, our new VP of Design, reveal how we’re innovating to craft a cohesive consumer journey across digital and offline experiences while fostering an inclusive culture that scales with a global business.
You both were recently appointed to new roles at Airbnb—Alex as Chief Design Officer, and Tim as VP of Design. Why were you attracted to the opportunities presented to you, and what will be your main areas of focus in your first few months?
Alex: It’s a really interesting time for Airbnb, and I’m excited about where we’re headed as a global company. As we’ve slowly shifted to a world where our software, marketing, and content are merging into a single coherent narrative, there is tremendous opportunity for us to do the same, creating an even better Airbnb experience for people around the world. That’s what drew me most to the role. For the next six months, I’ll be focusing on transforming our guest experience, incubating new ideas that advance innovation, and supporting the evolution of our creative and design team.
Tim: There are so many reasons I was attracted to this opportunity. Broadly, I’m fueled by the idea that together, we can unlock our potential to be the world’s most creative company—and in the process, unleash joy, curiosity, courage, and creativity through the collective genius of our people, our customers, and our partners. For my first few months, I’ve been very focused on listening and learning from people across the organization. As we head into 2020, I’ll be particularly focused on driving functional excellence, career growth, and development for our product design organization. We’ll be refining our product design process to be more efficient; evolving our Design Language System’s contribution model; and expanding our diversity and belonging programs to ensure an inclusive work environment. We’ll also be expanding our Learning and Development curriculum, which takes an innovative approach by focusing on experiential learning.
Tim Allen, the new VP of Design and Alex Schleifer, our new Chief Design Officer.
Alex, your background melds digital publishing, UX design, and strategy. Tim, yours fuses product, service design, and strategy with inclusive design principles. Can you give us more insight into how your unique skill sets are shaping your respective approaches to your new positions?
Alex: I’m lucky that I’ve been able to do many different things in my career and have learned a lot about what it means to create a meaningful end-to-end customer journey—and believe me, it is hard to do that. At its core, it will be really important for me to use everything I’ve learned in my career to successfully connect the threads between the software we build, the content we produce, and the marketing creative we put out into the world.
Tim: My previous work was focused on inclusive design, so Airbnb’s mission of belonging anywhere speaks to me—especially in terms of the experiences we can build for people around the world. At its core, the creative process is one of giving and service—and, at the root of it all, our role as designers is to solve and reframe problems for people and create solutions that bring something useful into their lives. There is an inherent kindness to that process and in my opinion, our values and mission have the potential to bring out the best in the products we design and in the people who are designing them. At Airbnb, we have a really unique opportunity to create unique, accessible products that can be “hosts” in their own way.
Alex, why do organizations like Airbnb need a CDO, and what will you be accountable for at Airbnb specifically?
Alex: Airbnb is a human-centered business that aims to connect millions of people across the world, and design is at the core of how we work. We believe design needs to be represented at the executive level as it plays a critical role in how we accomplish our mission, and that there needs to be a single person responsible for connecting the dots between the software, content, and creative we produce as a team. And, as we continue to grow, it’s important to have a CDO leading the transformation towards a single customer journey that encompasses content, marketing, and our product. Ultimately, if your organization uses design as a core tool to solve problems, make decisions, or highlight opportunities, you should have a CDO.
Airbnb Language Selector. The platform now supports 62 languages.
What’s your vision for design at Airbnb? How do you see it adding value to the organization in the next 5-10 years?
Alex: As a whole, Airbnb has helped define the experience economy—that is, we foster interactions between people, whether around a home or an actual activity. This requires a lot of coordination, interaction, and interfacing with and between people. We are essentially in the business of building trust between strangers, which creates many complex challenges in how we communicate, how we educate, and in the capabilities we work into the many software products we build for both guests and hosts. Every home, every city, and every individual is unique, and while that uniqueness is what makes life worth living, it can also make what we do more challenging. What we define as design and design thinking will be critical to our approach to this. Design is fundamentally about making decisions through the lens of what will be useful and engaging to people.
We have a purposefully broad definition of what this team does because we believe that our brand is at its most impactful when creativity, technology, and storytelling align.
It is why we’re investing in original content as well as interface design, brand design, architecture, illustration, and so much more.
Tim: Our goal is to continuously create services, products, and communication that add value to people’s lives and help bring us closer to our mission of global belonging. The differentiated value that we aim to add comes by providing solutions that are both functionally useful and emotionally resonant. To do this, we will need to constantly observe, evaluate, and understand human behavior from every part of the globe, framing and reframing our insights so that we can creatively solve problems.
How do you approach building a design team and culture that can achieve this vision?
Tim: It starts with establishing a shared purpose. In our case, that’s creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. We’re able to build on that foundation of belief by creating an environment that cultivates curiosity, courage, and creativity, and encourages people to think and act in new ways. There are six major organizational factors that influence how people work and behave in an organization: Vision/Strategy, Structure/Roles, Leadership, Talent/Development, Process, Space/Rituals. Our ambition is to continue fueling each of these levers to align with our inclusive mission.
Alex: We’re still learning, but we’ve always had a vision to bring people with different skills and experiences together and you can see this reflected within our team. I fundamentally believe that this allows us to create better work, and it’s also a requirement in order for us to accomplish our core mission. Building a world where you can belong anywhere won’t happen solely through building the right software, or through a powerful story or a great experience. Ours is an especially ambitious goal, but we believe our mission and our company should outlast us—we’re not operating on a fixed timeline, but every moment needs to bring us closer to that ultimate goal.
Airbnb’s San Francisco office on Brannan Street. Photograph by Mariko Reed.
What is Airbnb’s approach to design innovation?
Alex: We believe that innovation is at the core of successful design. This is why we invest so passionately in our tools, systems, and workspaces. Airbnb really values creative output and has an incredibly large appetite for it. We need to keep innovating to keep pushing on what we can deliver. This is why we work hard to bring many different skill sets together in everything we do. Airbnb Design is somewhat unique in that way, merging filmmaking to UX design and beyond. This approach is innovative in itself.
Our most significant innovation, though, is the creation and growth of a community of millions of people who have decided to experience travel and the world differently. Our work is about building a trust system so that strangers can share their homes, their passions, their time. It’s enabled by software but it’s also something bigger than that: How can we create a human-powered future that’s built around a mutually beneficial experience economy? How can we support the creation of millions of connections and communities of people who just days or hours earlier didn’t know each other? Our business succeeds only if we support a thriving and trusting community.
Tim: Innovation doesn’t happen by combining the same ingredients, in the same way, with the same people, time and time again.
Design innovation is often the by-product of a collision between different viewpoints, approaches, beliefs, and backgrounds.
We need to fuel and encourage these collisions by championing the true breadth of human diversity on our design teams and across our company. Our design organization is incredibly diverse, wonderfully so, and we aim to continue to stretch our capacity to support new and different ways of thinking about the world.
How do design advocates at the executive level achieve success at large, global organizations like Airbnb?
Alex: Airbnb has always been a design-driven organization, so now the challenge is really taking all of our creativity and passion and figuring out how to scale that on a global level. We’re lucky that design is a part of our DNA, and it’s really just a matter of being smart when it comes to how we take all of that energy and enthusiasm and use it to transform our customer journey. We’re also lucky that we get to work with world-class engineers, product managers, and many others who bring their vast skill sets to Airbnb. We believe that building something great comes from quality collaboration, with everyone bringing different skills, opinions, and experiences to work everyday.
Tim: In the past, I’ve had the burden—or privilege, depending on your point of view—of ensuring that design “had a seat at the table.” At Airbnb, the table, the room the table is in, and the building that houses all of the above have already been purposefully and thoughtfully designed. In short, design has been woven into the fabric of Airbnb since its inception. This creates a tremendous amount of freedom for bold, creative thinking and making. My advocacy at the executive level of Airbnb is mainly centered on how to hone, focus, and concentrate that tremendous amount of creativity on the right activities to drive our business forward.
Airbnb’s Embed and Breakfast program scales marketing and product photography. Photography by Tara Rice (top 3) and Karen Dias (bottom 3).
What are some of the most nuanced or differentiated challenges we are tackling with design at the present moment?
Alex: Beautifully designed experiences should be fun, simple, and easy to use. It can be challenging in some instances, to book on Airbnb and even harder to use the app as a source of planning. So we need to really focus on simplifying the current experience, making it fun for our customers to use Airbnb. We have some incredibly complex and interesting challenges to solve, from dealing with a unique global inventory of homes and experiences to understanding how people get inspired and plan travel. We believe technology can help us tackle many of these opportunities, but whether we use machine learning or a new emerging interface, we always ground ourselves in real human behaviors and needs through research.
Design is embedded into every facet of this company. What are the challenges of utilizing design thinking to scale an organization? Alex, what has worked in the last 5 years and what hasn’t?
Alex: I think what’s worked is that we’re starting to really connect brand, creative, product, and content to be a more coherent whole. Many companies want to integrate content, a great brand, and great software, and most fail. We haven’t gotten there quite yet, but we’ve made tremendous progress.
We’ve also managed to maintain our reputation as a brand with an affinity for design. This is hard to do for a company that doesn’t directly trade in design or designed objects. We’re a travel marketplace and there were many reasons for us to lose our design roots as the organization scaled. But design is a deeply integrated part of the business and not just a token mention because our founders are designers.
That said, what we haven’t yet managed to do is create a seamless workflow that’s in line with our standards, without encountering difficulties. The quality of much of what we do is made possible by extraordinary efforts to reach consensus and agreement, to cut across teams, argue for resources, and manage last-minute changes. We haven’t properly operationalized things yet, which makes it harder to work and enjoy the potential this place offers.
Tim: When you are a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. When you’re driven by design, there can be a tendency to reframe every challenge and start from scratch with every opportunity. But we don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it’s about refining what exists rather than starting from zero. It’s incumbent on us as leaders to provide guidance on the ways in which creative energy is distributed across the myriad priorities that we have.
Our CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky is a designer. How do you both envision partnering with him to bring your vision to life in this new role?
Alex: Brian is a designer, founder, and CEO but more than that, he is the biggest champion of our mission and culture. He understands that we need to transform the customer journey and has been closely involved in creating the structure and mechanisms that can drive that. Brian and I have partnered closely throughout my career at Airbnb, and I don’t see that changing much. We’ll just be fixing a new set of problems.
Tim: Brian has co-founded a successful company that is greater than himself, yet remains one patterned and fueled by his beliefs. As a new member of the team, that’s a beautiful thing to behold. I expect to partner with Brian as a steward of what has already been built—and also to fuel our continued quest to grow, transform, and challenge ourselves, whether that’s in product, service, or communications.
What are some upcoming 2020 initiatives you’re excited about?
Alex: Our content initiatives, like our continued investment in Airbnb Magazine as well as piloting new formats like YouTube shows and on-platform content, are some of the initiatives I’m excited about. But really, I’m most excited about our focus on building a quality experience for our customers. We grew and the organization changed, allowing us to invest in some parts of our product experience both online and offline. I’m looking forward to seeing us focus on becoming much more human-centered again.
Tim: The Airbnb Design team’s vision is to help build the most creative company on earth. We aim to positively impact people’s lives as much as our business, build a brand people love, and create a great guest and host experience, from digital button to billboard. When it comes to talent, we want to attract, grow, and retain the best designers, researchers, writers, strategists, and program managers in the industry by deepening our investment in learning and development. When it comes to our work, we want to set the bar for great design and innovation by developing a user experience that’s shaped by a robust Design Language System, rich tooling mechanisms, and world-class creative. And finally, when it comes to our methods, we want to use our resources to drive operational excellence to achieve greater efficiency and scale.
What are some of the ways that you’re investing in the creative community outside of Airbnb?
Alex: I’m passionate about education and engaging new generations to become designers, researchers, or any of the many other roles we depend on to build great things. In five years, Airbnb Design will be known for sourcing and nurturing the most diverse, highly skilled designers and creatives in the industry. That’s why we plan on creating new experiential learning and growth programs with both our internal and external community in mind. We’re expanding mentorship initiatives that encourage global creativity across multiple design and art fields, and will invest in programs and opportunities that empower our in-house creatives.
In general, I also believe in sharing what works for us with the wider creative community outside of Airbnb, whether it’s releasing open source software or using Airbnb.Design to talk about new systems and processes. It’s important for us to think about how we can continue to develop ourselves while also sharing our skills, expertise, and knowledge with the industry.
Airbnb Magazine’s Movie Issue.
Tim: By teaching and mentoring the next generation of talent; by speaking and sharing insights, as Alex mentioned; and by investing in diverse talent, both internally and externally. We’re also partnering with other design-led groups focused on building a more diverse design community, including Adobe Design Circle, a new collective that aims to encourage—and facilitate conversation about—greater diversity in the field.
If you could choose three adjectives to describe the legacy you’ll leave behind as CDO and VP of Design, what would those be?
Tim: That’s a tough one. The words that first come to mind are creative, empowering, and inclusive.
Alex: Oof. Maybe I’ll just share what I try to bring to work every day: driven in terms of energy, honest in terms of behavior, excellent in terms of craft—as in, really good work.