The Link between Data Triangulation and
Brainstorming Facilitation: Design
Thinking at AirBnB

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AirBnB is kind of a role model for »designpreneurship«: Entrepreneurs with backgrounds in design professions who start companies, which increasingly set the tone in an environment of digitalization. We visited Sasha Lubomirsky, the Head of User Research of AirBnB’s »Insights« team, to learn more about design thinking’s role for their current business development.

  • AirBnB - Headquarter
    Slide through the gallery to get some impressions of AirBnB's working culture (the image shows AirbnB's SF headquarter).


One of the first particularities that catch your attention when entering the AirBnB office space in San Francisco are the life-sized replicas of gorgeous host spaces from all over the world. On first sight they may only serve as meeting rooms as they are filled with people working on all sorts of stuff. At second glance however it becomes clear that every room and every theme – all are located in office areas street-named after famous AirBnB destinations – serves two purposes: To gain empathy for AirBnB’s users by immersing into their contexts and to inhale the spirit of a company, were experience design and the strive for intentional delight are daily business.

The Silicon-Valley start-up is heavily associated with design thinking as two of its early founders both have industrial design backgrounds. The AirBnB story so far is therefore full of myths and stories were an early »designpreneurial behavior« marked important milestones, which either saved the company or catalyzed its success. We visited Sasha Lubomirsky, AirBnB’s Head of User Research (2012-2014), as we wanted to know which role design thinking is playing nowadays, when the company is still growing and now has 200 people working for it.

We’re not just trying to move small metrics although sometimes they are important and we want to get them up. We’re thinking ambitiously broadly. The user experience is always there. I don’t know if AirBnB is lucky but [in other companies] often business goals aren’t aligned with user experience goals.

According to Sasha, who had prior work experiences in more tech-oriented companies like Google, it especially is the small details that make a difference when it comes to a design thinking culture at AirBnB. She worries about the widespread association of the methodology with creativity techniques. This is why she chose to illustrate AirBnB’s design thinking practice on basis of one of its apparently »simple« elements: Brainstorming. Sasha often experienced it being prepared poorly elsewhere as it seems easy to do, “but the only thing, which is easy about it, is to do it wrong”, she says. Compared to her prior experiences, ideation sessions at AirBnB get pre-planned meticulously by a brainstorming host, which is often a person from the leadership team (producer). Usually this happens in close coordination with a design researcher from the Insights team. A preceding rigorous primary and secondary research as well as a preparation of different directions of reframing alongside with the respective pre-construction of possible HMW questions goes without saying, she reports.

 Airbnb fosters User-centric Strategy and Culture in Several Ways

The company created many projects and initiatives to gain empathy and to keep the spirit of a design-driven organization. Click the tabs to learn more about some of them.

The Snow White project basically is a user journey visualization, which illustrates the critical moments of truth within the host, guest and hiring processes in three stories. Every moment got storyboarded by a Pixar animator and hangs around now in AirBnB’s product studio. When it comes to strategic decision-making management literally asks: “Which frame is this helping to improve?”

A program that listens and responds to feedback by hosts. If for instance a guest broke a wine opener and the host complains about it, an AirBnB team makes good the damage on its own initiative. Neither guest nor host has to initiate a conciliation procedure. Such small and relatively inexpensive interventions are gestures, which create delight at moments, where the experience normally might break.

AirBnB created a Hospitality Lab that explores what hospitality is and can be. Through this, its employees are enabled to inform hosts with feedback that can teach them to be better hosts.

A program for new team members to immerse into the guest experience. Everyone has to take a trip in his first or second week at AirBnB and document it. Joe Gebbia, one of the founders of AirBnB describes it as follows: “We have some structured questions that they answer and then they actually share back to the entire company. It’s incredibly important that everyone in the company knows that we believe in this so much, we’re going to pay for you to go take a trip on your first week.” Once the new employee returns, he shares back his experience to the whole team/company. The empathy data gathered is then fed back into daily operations.

An initiative to empathize more with the hosts: Especially producers and engineers are required to get a feeling for what hosts do. This is why they invite and prepare meals for them at the hosts’ own homes.

A custom-built tool, which helps AirBnB handle the delicate balance of hosts and guests on their multi-sided platform. It helps the Customer Experience team to assist guests and host in all matters of their temporary relationship. It makes all the information that is needed to help their users available in one place.


Extensive preparations and follow-ups can take a long time though. Managers often don’t get, that »out of the box« ideation without guidance might lead nowhere and rather discount it as a fast thing. It therefore needs a deep understanding for the creative work process by the management to provide teams with sufficient access to resources and a facilitator who is already prepared with a repertoire of frames (HMW’s) to guide the sessions in an efficient manner. “Luckily” she concludes, “having designer founders and being design-centered from day one makes you [as an organization] pay attention to those details. … A lot of design thinking is about being creative [but it is also] about looking at what we know and triangulating information that we have and having that inspire creativity.” It is this widespread organizational understanding how data-driven creative processes work, which sets AirBnB apart from the other tech-companies she has been with.

Our qualitative team works closely with analytics and we always try to train colleagues as much as we can.

She further adds: ”Our qualitative team therefore works closely with analytics and we always try to train colleagues as much as we can.” So, in contrast to her former employers AirBnB does not only rely on (big) data analytics and A/B testing alone but on people’s ability to synthesize and make sense of data from all sources. People who are uncomfortable with the qualitative and »soft« research methods of social sciences are therefore rarely part of AirBnB’s teams: “There are engineers who care about their engineering problems and maybe the users are less relevant. We just don’t hire these kind of engineers here. Every engineer cares about the user and has a respect for design”, she assures us.

But the broadly allowed creativity at AirBnB should not detract from the fact that brainstorming does not necessarily imply a through and through »democratic« process. Instead of settling to group compromises, teams at AirBnB often leave it to their leadership to prioritize, which directions to pursue after the ideation is done: “Not everyone has context on the business requirements and those kinds of things. So that’s a smaller conversation.”, Sasha concludes.

However, also the follow-up choices by management are guided by decision criteria based on data-driven insights and experience design principles. Above tabs in the info-box display some exemplary measures AirBnB implemented to diffuse empathy and knowledge throughout the organization. The information distilled within these initiatives heavily influences above-mentioned management decisions. Equipped with such an spatial and organizational environment, design research and synthesis may still be hard work, but Sasha happily concludes: “[T]he freedom given to us is great – to think really big and really ambitious about what can be done and which problems to solve. Working here has opened up how I think about problems.”


The link of design research and brainstorming: This is #designthinking at @airbnb. Click To Tweet

About AirBnB

AirBnB is community marketplace for all kinds of accommodations. It enables people to list, discover and book their properties to guests via their website or smartphone applications. Listings range from apartments, villas and tree houses to castles, boats and other eccentric places at any price point imaginable. So far it has over 500,000 listings in 33,000 cities and 192 countries.

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