What Airbnb did right | User Experience design

The world before Airbnb


Kams Thorum

3 years ago | 5 min read

Airbnb is lauded among the UX community — and rightfully so — for introducing a clean, minimalist experience for one of the great disruptors. A great many words have been written about the design system, the design process, the content model, the engagement model.

Today I’d like to add a few words of my own, this time on two core facets of the Airbnb experience that I believe are key to the product’s success:

  1. Airbnb anticipates their user’s needs at every step of the interaction
  2. Airbnb empowers their users to undertake what is, at its core, a very fraught task: booking a stay in somebody else’s property.

A quick note: Airbnb has successfully expanded their product over the years in many different directions (experiences, for example) but for the remainder of this article, I will focus on the core experience of booking a vacation.

The world before Airbnb

Think back on those bygone days before 2008. Booking a trip usually meant staying in a hotel or something like a hotel (motel, bed and breakfast, resort, etc.). Individually owned vacation properties existed back then, of course, but finding them was a lot harder.

And unless you had stayed somewhere before, the chances of you knowing what you were going to get out of your holiday were slim.

You might be pleasantly surprised when you arrived at your mountain cabin or your urban loft … or you might not.

And yet — humanity loves to travel! People love adventures.

But people also like to minimize risk wherever they can, and they’ll pay to do so. And so in those long-ago days, one of the best ways to book a vacation property and feel confident in your choice was to work with a travel agent.

Ahh, travel!

Finding good properties, vetting the owners, cataloging the amenities, facilitating payment, coordinating access — these things all take a lot of work! And yes, it’s possible for any given person to take on all that work themselves but it’s a lot more efficient to pay someone else to do it.

A travel agent can help you find the right vacation rental based on where you’re going, how much you want to spend, and what features are important to you (Hot tub? Fireplace? No stairs? Kitchenette?)

Or you could just book a hotel.

Tim Photoguy | @tim0at0unsplash

Hotels offload a lot of the work as well, in a slightly different way. Hotel chains offer a consistent experience across multiple properties.

The hotel industry has conventions around things like payment and access. Hotel chains are also big enough to make sure that their customers have information about each specific property ahead of time (Is there a pool? Is there a gym? Is there a breakfast buffet?).

Anticipation & empowerment

The magic of Airbnb is that it gives its users the ability to be their own travel agent. Not in a literal sense, of course. Booking vacations is a skill and a lot of people make their living doing so.

Airbnb doesn’t turn you into a professional travel agent, but it does feed you information along the way to empower you to find a vacation rental and book your trip with the same amount of confidence as you would feel if you were working with a travel agent.

A user might start planning their trip with a destination in mind; Airbnb shows them available properties for that location. The user is provided a nice big map so you feel confident about the physical location of the property.

And photos! Lots of photos showing the property itself. The cozy living room with a nice big fireplace, the hammock out back, the nice big bed perfectly made with lots of blankets and pillows.

The user might have some constraints around the dates they can travel … or they might not. If there’s a really good property, a user might tweak their travel plans for when the property is available.

Or maybe price is the important thing. Or amenities. Or feeling good about the host who owns the property.

All of these choices determine whether or not a user will have the vacation experience they’re looking for (and probably desperately need!). Airbnb provides all this information to the user, allowing them to start with a great many choices and then narrow it down to the ones that are right for them.

And bonus: Airbnb also handles the payment so neither the host nor the guest need to bother about it.

At the successful end of an interaction with Airbnb, the user has arranged to stay in someone else’s house for their precious vacation time — and they can feel good about it.

Stephen Wheeler | @stephen2002

Speaking of the host

The people who own the properties listed on Airbnb are (usually) not professional travel agents. They’re usually not professional property managers or website developers. By providing a centralized service for people to list their properties, Airbnb provides hosts with the same kind of benefits as a big hotel chain.

There are standardized processes around booking, payment, and access. Information is collected in a standardized, repeatable way. This not only makes the job of being a host easier — it makes the service easier to adopt as well.

This is the same design approach as described above, but for a different user type. Airbnb took the same methods of empowerment and anticipating user needs, and applied them to the host experience in the same way they applied them to the renter’s experience.

To sum up

This article might read like a glowing advertisement for a company I don’t work for, but the point I’m trying to make suing Airbnb as an example is this:

Users are not experts.

They often don’t know all the nuance of what they need beforehand. By anticipating your user’s needs and showing them the information they need in the moment they need it, you will create satisfying and delightful experiences that will bring them back to your product and site over and over again.

The common user doesn’t know what will lead to a successful vacation rental. But Airbnb does, and it supports its users every step of the way.

The common user doesn’t know everything that’s required to have people rent their cabin or their condo or their urban loft. But Airbnb does, and it sets them up for success.

Anticipating your user’s needs leads to delight. Meeting your user’s needs leads to empowerment. These things are true regardless of the product or service you’re trying to create.


Created by

Kams Thorum







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