Key takeaways from Airbnb’s winter redesign | by Daniel de Mello | Feb, 2024


When Airbnb announces something new, it’s the result of months of hard work, thinking, and testing.

An edited image of Jony Ive and Hiroki Asai on top of Airbnb product images background

Airbnb is not like most software companies.

Much like Apple, they launch major updates only 2 times a year. So when they announce something new, it’s the result of months of hard work, thinking and testing.

More than that, since 2021 they had on their team 2 star designers: Hiroki Asai and Jony Ive. The duo were key Apple executives during the Steve Jobs era.

As a fan of Airbnb and curious about the work of Jony and Hiroki, I spent hours studying their Winter 2023 product release. I’ve read PRs, watched hosts commenting on the launch on YouTube and listened to Brian Chesky’s view.

Here are the 3 key lessons that stood out for me:

Over 450,000.

That’s the amount of tech workers that were laid off between 2021 and today.

In that grim scenario, design teams need to know well how to articulate the probable returns of their design decisions. Solving for trust and ease of use are known, clear drivers of conversions and can be used as selling points for design decisions.

Airbnb’s latest launch shows us how great designers can come up with simple solutions to the two big pain points.

Designing for trust — the Guest Favorite category

Their research team found out that trust and reliability were a huge bottleneck in their experience.

For guests, the moment of arriving at a property was full of (unwanted) surprises: the “dedicated workspace” was actually a small table on a dirty corner. The hot tub advertised is there, but broken.

In face of that, the goal becomes how to solve the problem of building trust at scale. That issue was solved elegantly by adding another tier of hosts called Guest Favorites.

The addition reflected on the UI in two ways:

  1. Search results that optimize for showing properties in that category;
  2. Beautifully designed icons and tags to differentiate the properties.
Image showing the Guest Favorite tags and how it reflects on the search experience, and how it looks like inside a listing.

Designing for ease of use — organizing the listings tab

In Brian’s mind, to have a great end user experience you need great hosts. To have great hosts, you need to provide them with great tools. And the listing experience on Airbnb was far from that.

On the launch video, Brian shows how hard it was to find the section and actually use it.

The interesting part: their approach to solving that wasn’t necessarily a complete overhaul of the app. If you look closely, the pain point was solved with:

  1. Better information architecture for ease of access
  2. Search and better filters.
Before and After showing how they changed nav bar to include listings and more it more prominen. To the side, a screenshot showing the added filters and search funtionality for the amenities listing.

Not to say it’s easy to do, but the output is a simplified design that makes the experience much better. They prioritized what made sense, hid less used features and made things work.

From the words of a host: “It’s going to make so that you as a host are able to update your listing more easily. You’re definitely going to get more bookings with a properly filled out listing”.

Better listings, more bookings, more revenues for Airbnb. Proper results-driven design.

When the most design driven of the Fortune 500 CEOs talk about design trends, we listen:

“By the way, the design is a whole new aesthetic. I’d like to make the announcement that I think flat design is over or ending. I think if you remember the 2000s was dominated by skeuomorphism.

The 2010s have been dominated with the launch of iOS seven by flat design. And I think we’re going to move back into a world with color, texture, dimensionality, more haptic feedback, but I don’t think it’s going to be skeuomorphism where it pretends to be a wood grain to reference a dashboard or leather, but I think it’s going to have a sense of dimension.”

Image contrasting the skeuomorphic style, flat design and the style that Brain Chesky says is next.

His thesis is that we’re spending more time on screens, so we want them to have some elements of a natural environment. The new design paradigm embraces light, texture, and playfulness.

He also argues that AI can support the creation of such more interactive interfaces.

Airbnb’s icons were probably designed by a professional artist, but we can definitely create something similar with AI. To test that, I’ve tried to replicate one of their icons on Midjourney.

Here’s what I got:

An image showing how you can get a similar output of icons on Midjourney compared to what Airbnb’s artists did.

I’d say that’s close enough.

Simplicity isn’t going anywhere. In fact, most of Airbnb’s app is very straightforward and deeply focused on clarity and ease of use. Their navigation is clear and their brand’s colors are only used strategically.

But we might be seeing the rise of a new kind of design style.

Another issue they found was that people just weren’t using the photo tour feature (around 10% did).

Since photo tours are better organized than the standard sequence of images, it made for worse listings overall. And a bad listing might mean the factor that makes a person decide to go for the certainty of a hotel instead.

The solution they chose was very interesting: using AI to sort the images automatically and reduce the work needed from the host. That brought the user flow of adding and sorting images down to one single click. Massively better experience.

As a side note, it’s interesting to see how they leverage Labor Illusion. Labor Illusion is a psychological principle that states that people value things more when they see the work behind them. Airbnb “show the work” that AI is doing through a reshuffling animation.

Screenshot sequence showing Airbnb’s new Photo Sorting engine.

Market leaders, as the owners of data and large pockets, will be expected to use AI smartly. As the Innovator’s Dilemma tells us, it’s unlikely to expect it will be used in a completely disruptive way, but it sure should bring their products to the next level.

Airbnb’s photo tour is a great example of that.

AI is not in the background, nor is it at the forefront of the product, but users can clearly see how it’s making it better.


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