When Airbnb was just a small startup, its founders participated in Y Combinator’s program for startups to improve their position and refine their pitch to investors. They sat with design thinker Paul Graham and tried to figure out why bookings were so low for the properties available for rent on the site. Joe Gebbia, co-founder and CPO at Airbnb, describes their sudden epiphany:

“We noticed a pattern. There's some similarity between all these 40 listings. The similarity is that the photos sucked. The photos were not great photos. People were using their camera phones or using their images from classified sites.  It actually wasn't a surprise that people weren't booking rooms because you couldn't even really see what it is that you were paying for.”

According to Gebbia, previous to this revelation, the founders had focused on technical solutions for any problem. They were sure that better coding could improve the website and bring in more business. But suddenly they realized that the problem was not technical and could not be fixed with better programming. Instead, they decided to visit the properties in New York City which were listed on the site, and replace the low-quality photographs with professional pictures. In just a week, revenue doubled and the company realized it was OK to do things that weren’t scalable.

Gebbia realized that Airbnb would only succeed if employees went out to meet customers in the real world and worked to solve their problems. He recalled an experience he had had in design thinking, where the designers of a medical device actually lay in a bed and had the device applied to them. This experience led the designers to understand what it felt like to be a patient and what was uncomfortable about the device. Gebbia incorporated this technique into Airbnb’s culture. Every new employee is sent on a trip to one of the properties listed on the website and documents the experience. He or she answers structured questions and shares the answers with the entire company. In addition to the helpful feedback the employee provides, the trip also makes it clear to each new recruit how important the customer experience is to the company.

Airbnb now has more than 800,000 listings worldwide and over 20 million users since 2008. Design thinking turned the company around and made it into the success it is today.

Do you have in mind success stories based on a better understanding of the customer experience? It's always amazing to see how a simple visit to a customer can have a major impact on the company success!

Patrick Sirois

At Triode, we specialize in developing new products and services for complex industries like medical devices and transportation. We work with you closely to help define product strategy, with an emphasis on reducing the risks associated with innovating in these sophisticated and often regulated consumer-oriented environments.