How Airbnb turned Steve Jobs’ three-click rule into a brilliant design

Skift take

We love discussing Airbnb here, but one thing we agree on is that the company’s approach to design and user experience has had a drastic and incredibly positive impact on how brands sell trips now.

Jason clampet

Editor’s Note: This summer, while spending July in an Airbnb rental in Madrid, Spain, the Skift editor-in-chief spoke with Fortune reporter Leigh Gallagher as she brought back her book. The history of Airbnb. Gallagher’s is the first book devoted to the phenomenon known as Airbnb. We’ve covered the good and the bad about the brand over the past five years, so we hosted a book dedicated to the brand and the new travel space it has carved out for itself.

An excerpt from Gallagher’s book, below, takes a look at what we’ve long stood for, and it’s Airbnb’s smartest move: great design. This allowed the brand to go beyond the established players, to position itself as a serious player and, above all, to signal to users that the user experience was the only experience that mattered.

A frequently asked question about Airbnb is why it took off when so many other similar sites already existed –, Home,, even Craigslist itself. Why has Airbnb succeeded in popularizing short-term rentals when others have not?

Much of the explanation lies in the product itself. “Product” is a loose and all-embracing term in the tech world for anything that follows the idea: it is the website or application; how it looks, how it works, the things it can do, the engineering that powers it, and the way you use and interact with it (the “user experience”). The very first Airbnb product was just a weird idea and a WordPress site, but when it came time to prepare for the third launch, at DNC ​​in Denver, the founders had broadened their vision from being a simple platform to launch. Offer sold-out conference accommodation to a website where you could book a room in someone’s house as easily as a hotel room.

But from the start, Chesky and Gebbia insisted on a few things about the website and the experience: Specifically, it had to be frictionless, it had to be easy. The ads had to look good. And, based on the famous three-click rule of Steve Jobs, a design hero of Chesky and Gebbia – when Jobs designed the iPod, he wanted it to never be more than three clicks from a song. – the founders wanted their users to never be more than three clicks away from a reservation.

In fact, what so many investors saw as a red flag in those early pitching meetings – that Chesky and Gebbia were RISD designers who lacked technical knowledge – turned out to be one of them. greatest assets. For them, design was not just an object, or in their case a website; it was about how something worked, from the product to the interface to the experience. Later, this approach would permeate all aspects of their business, including how they built the culture, designed the offices, structured the business, and held the board meetings. But at that time, it was mostly about the look, the simplicity and the overall experience of the website. In technical terms, that’s what they “optimized” for.

The emphasis on design, along with the fact that it circulates in homes, rooms and travel, sometimes fuels the impression that Airbnb is not a tech company, but the depth of technical challenge that platform presented from the outset was important. The site had to handle a lot of things: payment, customer service, and reviews, each a big engineering company, each taking time to build and refine – and for a very long time it was only Blecharczyk to do it.

The hardest part of getting it all right was the payments. To achieve their goal of booking a room on the site as easily as booking a hotel, the founders knew they needed a smooth and sophisticated online payment mechanism – and, unlike hotels, theirs needed. manage not only the receipt of payments, but also the installments. 97 percent of it goes to individual hosts.

In anticipation of their launch at the DNC, Blecharczyk turned to Amazon to build this mechanism; Thanks to the online retailer’s new cloud payment service, he had the ability to collect money from one person and give it to another without giving Airbnb the responsibility of being a bank. It was brand new at the time and therefore not very well documented in the engineering world, so it took Blecharczyk a month to get it up and running.

But when he showed Chesky and Gebbia, they weren’t convinced: they thought the user experience was terrible – it took too many steps, and there was too much Amazon branding involved. They abandoned him and decided to try to become the middleman; they would collect the money, hold it in their bank account, and then give it to the customer. This presented its own complications: If they were caught in the middle of a fraudulent, late, or disputed transaction, they would be responsible for the chargeback, the refurbishment amount refunded to the customer. They had avoided this approach for this very reason.

But they decided it would be the easiest and most seamless experience for the user, so they had to find a way to make it work. In time for the DNC, Blecharczyk replaced Amazon’s effort with the solution that relied on PayPal, but he ultimately built an end-to-end payment system capable of handling the complexities of global markets and currencies and to make payments to hundreds of people. thousands of times a day. Airbnb’s payment system has evolved over time, and while its sophistication can barely register among travelers who use it, it is considered a feat among engineers.

From Airbnb Story: How Three Ordinary Guys Disrupted An Industry And Made Billions Of It. . . and created a lot of controversy by Leigh Gallagher. Copyright © 2017 by Leigh Gallagher. Used with permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Click on here to learn more about Leigh Gallagher and the history of Airbnb.

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