This is part three of an eight-part design for communication series. This series is adapted from a master’s paper on the intersection of design and technology-mediated communication.

So how do we design for better communication? Let’s start with trust.

“Trust gives group members the confidence to take risks and act without concern that other group members will take advantage of them.” (Wilson, 2006) Airbnb has taken this to heart with a concept requires strangers to trust other strangers to stay in their homes, and vice versa. To achieve such a lofty goal, Airbnb employed the power of design to tackle one of our innate biases.

But, before we get into the nitty-gritty of how Airbnb was able to achieve this we need to understand a theory of technology-mediated communication. Media richness theory talks about how rich media is used to “signify multimodal or greater bandwidth media… communication media that support multiple verbal and nonverbal cue systems.” (Walther, 2011) We have the power to influence the level of richness users to experience with communication platforms by designing for the four sub-dimensions of the media richness theory: “(1) the number of cue systems supported by a medium, (2) the immediacy of feedback provided by a medium… (3) the potential for natural language… (4) message personalization.” (Walther, 2011) The better designers can integrate these elements into a platform the more likely the users will experience rich communication which can lead to trust.

Airbnb is a prime example of how important design can be in facilitating human communication. From a young age, we’re told not to talk to strangers. Our stranger-danger bias is ingrained in us, making the idea of connecting strangers for stays in one another’s homes a lofty one. But Airbnb’s focus on designing for trust has allowed them to create a large scale, global platform to connect strangers with a spare room with those looking for a place to stay. “If members of distributed groups are going to engage in cooperative activities, they must either trust each other or be able to monitor each other.” (Wilson, 2006)

Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia stresses the importance of designing for trust to the success of the Airbnb concept. (Gebbia, 2016) At the heart of their platform is a focus on design. Design is the “mutual friend” that opens up communication between strangers and helps facilitate first impressions and initial introductions. (Aufmann, 2016) The focus on designing for trust helps to reduce the “level of uncertainty between people engaging in initial interactions,” as stated in the uncertainty reduction theory. (Worrell, 2018) Uncertainty reduction theory refers to “anytime we might feel uncertainty with someone that we’re talking to…” (Worrell, 2018) This can happen either proactively when we search online to learn more about someone we are going to meet, or reactively where we’ve already met someone a little, but want to get to know them better so we look them up. (Worrell, 2018)

In the example of Airbnb, Airbnb bet their company on the belief people would be willing to overcome the stranger-danger bias. In this case, design helps to overcome an innate bias that occurs with initial interactions between strangers. This means that the designers behind Airbnb added capabilities and features such as profiles where users can become verified through multiple channels and receive reviews to help them build a positive reputation. (Aufmann, 2016) “It turns out, a well-designed reputation system is key for building trust. And we didn’t actually get it right the first time. It’s hard for people to leave bad reviews. Eventually, we learned to wait until both guests and hosts left the review before we reveal them.” (Gebbia, 2016) These multiple cue systems right on a stranger’s profile allow us to get a better sense of how trustworthy this person might be. If they have a slew of negative reviews we might not trust them, but if they only have five-star reviews we might be more inclined to think this is someone we can rely on.

But how do we ensure the reviews are accurate? The answer design. Design helped aid the right amount of disclosure and reputable information to facilitate accurate communication between strangers. Airbnb’s designers achieved this by requiring certain information on users’ profiles, as well as providing other areas for users to expand a little more about themselves. (Aufmann, 2016) Airbnb also sends out an email after every stay to both the host and guest asking for a review. After some trial and error, Airbnb’s designers learned to wait until both parties had filled out the form to reveal the reviews. They found that they were more likely to get accurate responses from both sides if the guests and hosts have to wait for the other to see their own review. (Aufmann, 2016)

Airbnb was also able to design for the right amount of disclosure to reduce the uncertainty of the first impressions. They achieved this through the design of the message system between guest and host before the reservation is made. (Aufmann, 2016) Charlie Aufmann, Airbnb’s Experience Design Lead, stated, “our research has shown that these pre-booking messages may be a good signal of effort and trustworthiness for guests.” (Aufmann, 2016) Airbnb even goes so far as to make the box the right size to indicate the correct amount of disclosure between strangers. As seen in the image below, Airbnb found that if you share too little or too much the acceptance rates for a booking request go down. (Gebbia, 2016) They found a zone that’s right for enough, but not too much disclosure to gain booking acceptance. “We use the size of the box to suggest the right length, and we guide them with prompts to encourage sharing.” (Gebbia, 2016)


Figure 1: Airbnb Host Acceptance vs. Initial Introduction Message (Gebbia, 2016)


Stay tuned for Part Four: Design for Closeness! Did you miss a part? Check out the full series here: Design for Communication.
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