5 lessons that led AirBnB to vacation domination

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Zachary Owen digital, website, UX...

Standing out in a crowded marketplace has always been a challenge for any business. Even ones that have discovered a niche must fight to not have their voice drowned out by the bigger players that dominate the corporate world. It is therefore crucial that a company seeks to differentiate itself from its competitors. In the digital age, the role of design in achieving this goal has become increasingly important and few companies have done this better than AirBnB who have come to dominate the vacation rental market. Their innovative design has made them the first port of call for most people who are looking to book accommodation for their next holiday.

A commitment to a culture of design has made AirBnB a showcase for the benefits of streamlined user experience, driving increased sales and providing a greater overall customer satisfaction. There are clear lessons that any aspirational company can learn from AirBnB’s journey from the obscurity of airbeds on the floor of a San Francisco loft to global domination. The beauty of adopting excellent design is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel, one can gain inspiration from the experience of others in order to create their own solutions. It is with this in mind that we bring you five lessons from AirBnB’s design journey.

1) Don’t lose great content behind your search tools

AirBnB have an incredible variety of rare and special rentals such as igloos and tree houses which are normally found in very remote locations. These are considered the properties that make the company standout from other booking websites but such rentals would mainly remain vacant due to the fact that the vast majority of people would not search for such locations, opting instead for global hotspots such as New York.

Key to AirBnB’s business model is the ability to inspire wanderlust in its client base but that was being undermined as many of their most unique listings  remained hidden away deep within the search options of the website. The company’s founder Joe Gebbia, states that a major breakthrough for the site was when they started to post rare rental properties to the front page, highlighting their status as experiences that were only available through AirBnB which therefore helped to increase the number of returning customers.

There is a simple lesson here in that all content creators believe that what they are posting is of great value to their audience. That might well be the case, but the target audience might never discover your unique content if you fail to bring it to the fore by placing it front and centre on your site. Anyone working in digital is aware of the minuscule window of opportunity that they have in which to grab the viewer’s attention, therefore one cannot expect a user to search for the most gripping and valuable content on any given site.

2) Clearly funnel people towards the objective of your site

All websites, no matter how basic must have a clear objective of the actions they hope for the user to carry out. AirBnB is a clear example of a company that has thought about the customer journey and the direction in which they would like to push the user towards. An example of this can be seen in the way that the screen of an empty mailbox on the app has been replaced with an option to “start exploring” which will redirect the customer back towards the listings and search options so they’re presented with more rental options.

Further to this, the app registers when a user has spent a certain amount of time looking at a certain property. If they exit the app and do not complete the booking, a push notification will be sent to their phone within 24 hours asking them if they would like to continue with the booking for that particular listing.

Little features such as these may seem incredibly simple but they are so often overlooked by many major companies. It is therefore important to constantly remind oneself of the objectives they wish to achieve and tailor the website to ensure that there are no areas in which content maybe pulling potential customers away from the desired end goal.

3) Create a sense of urgency

There is no time like the present and that is something that AirBnB is acutely aware of. The company was born out of the reality of a lack of availability of hotel space during conference season in San Francisco and clearly sees the benefits of highlighting high demand vs a scarcity of supply in some of their key markets in order to convert potential customers sooner.

The AirBnB webpage contains a feature which shows the percentage of listings that have already been booked at that time in the search area. In large cities, the number of properties still available may be large but a low percentage of availability helps to convince the customer of the need to book soon in order to guarantee their stay in that location.

Creating a sense of urgency is key to the conversion strategy of the sector in which AirBnB operates but there is a wider lesson here in that a website should clearly communicate and give a reason as to why the user should engage and interact with the material. A designer should constantly question whether there is a clear motivation on each page that will draw the user towards the end goal.

4) Minimalism is here to stay

The beauty of simplicity is something that designers are increasingly embracing. The world’s most innovative online companies such as Uber and Spotify have adhered to this rule but arguably the company that has done it better than any other is AirBnB. A minimalist approach has been prioritised throughout all stages of the customer journey from the simple search bar and infinite scroll features of the home screen to the clean receipt-like trip summary the customer receives at checkout. A commitment to simplicity has led to simple navigation of the website and therefore a more streamlined experience for the user.

Creating a more clear and easy to use platform is key to differentiate yourself in a market that is still yet to fully cotton onto the trends and overall direction of UX design. It is therefore one of the easiest ways in which to gain to a competitive advantage. One only has to look at the websites of some of the world’s biggest companies across multiple sectors to realise that the market has been sluggish in adopting a minimalist approach to their online presence.

5) Foster a culture of design

Most important to the success of AirBnB has not been one single UX decision but rather the culture of the company that has prioritised design and ensured that its website continues to strive to be more user friendly rather than settling for its already remarkable level of success.

AirBnB made a conscious decision with regards to this strategy. Their ratio of designers to engineers is far higher than at most online companies and the the founders have always maintained their support for new concepts and adaptations regardless of whether these ideas are scalable or not. Joe Gebbia highlights the importance of being brave enough to trial design ideas which may not yet be totally feasible. Such thinking is what drove the creation of their infinite scroll feature and what led to an increasingly aesthetically pleasing website with professional photographers being employed to boost the conversion rate in competitive market places like New York City.

AirBnB is a testament to the possibilities of design and proof of the direction that the digital world is moving in. Embracing change and challenging long held beliefs about the way in which your company is represented online will be the key to standing out in an increasingly democratic digital world.