How Airbnb's design tricks make us trust complete strangers

Beyonce airbnbAirbnbBeyonce stayed in this Airbnb for her Super Bowl performance.

Airbnb has become so normalized among certain segments of the population that we rarely stop to think about the enormous feat the company has performed in getting its customers to trust complete strangers  — on one side, the guests who stay in random homes, and on the other, the hosts who open up their abodes to people who they have never met.

This is no accident. Airbnb has figured out how to design for trust. Or, as cofounder Joe Gebbia put it in a recent TED talk, “We bet our whole company on the hope that with the right design, people would be able to overcome the stranger danger bias.”

It’s the little things in Airbnb’s interface that make all the difference, Alex Schleifer, head of design at Airbnb, tells Tech Insider.


 “Across everything, even from the brand side, it ends up being a little softer and more human than most traditional marketplaces. Everything from the onboarding process to the transactions, we communicate subtly at different points,” he says.

Phrasing is a big part of how Airbnb gets customers to trust its interface. “The voice and tone is relatively curious, and it asks questions that feel a little more human than filling in a field. This generates empathy and trust between parties,” says Schleifer.

For example, instead of saying “Here’s a pulldown menu, select a destination type,” Airbnb will ask a user, “Would you prefer doing x or y?”

Airbnb also spent a significant amount of time figuring out how to communicate a sense of urgency with popular listings without making customers feel rushed. The company initially tried an alert for users saying “This listing is very popular and it might not be around in a week.” People responded well to it and clicked the “book” button often. But once Airbnb followed up, the company found that the phrasing made users feel anxious.  

“We want people to feel like it’s advice, like they they have the option not to book,” says Schleifer.

Here’s how the phrasing looks now:

AirbnbAirbnb‘This is a rare find.’

Hosts also have to be able to trust that they are offering a fair price for their listings. As Schleifer points out, “People might be great hosts, but they might not have the time or inclination to understand the complexities of dealing with pricing on a day to day basis.” 

Airbnb recently introduced a Smart Pricing feature to make those decisions easier. The feature guides hosts through a pricing recommendation system that takes into account over 50 factors, like seasonality and location. But it’s only a recommendation. Hosts still have the power to set their own prices.

“We knew the solution was between an overly automated and dry pricing setting and the other, which was just setting all the pricing by yourself. We wanted to make sure we could give you advice,” says Schleifer.

Airbnb smart pricingAirbnbSmart pricing.

The most obvious way that Airbnb gets users to trust its interface is with reviews. Hosts and guests are asked to leave reviews after a stay, but they can’t see what the other party said until both have left a review. This ensures that people don’t leave overly positive reviews in the hopes of getting good reviews in return.

Still, if you poke around Airbnb long enough, you’ll notice that most reviews are positive. Part of creating trust is ensuring that people can’t hide behind anonymous reviews, but people are often reluctant to leave bad reviews under their own name, as Business Insider has pointed out.

Sometimes, the trust system fails outright, as evidenced by the high-profile Airbnb horror stories that have popped up over the years (Thrillist has a whole list, including sex and meth parties at host properties).

But these horror stories are few and far between.

Overall, Airbnb’s system works. People feel like they can trust the company with their homes and vacations. For the most part, that trust is warranted.

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