Airbnb: Making meaning out of “good friction”

Airbnb’s Steve Selzer on putting human experience at the centre of design. 

While most companies wrack their brains around words like ‘convenience’, ‘efficiency’, ‘instantaneous’ and ‘comfort’, the world’s most popular room-letting website is swimming against the frictionless tide. In Auckland to speak at this year’s Semi Permanent, experience design manager Steve Selzer talks to Idealog about working for Airbnb, his passion for human-centred design, and how product experience—despite modern trends—isn’t all about speed and ease.

Tell us about how you got to work for Airbnb and what your role as experience design manager involves. 

I have always gravitated toward the "why" of a problem, not just the "what" or "how". I began my career as an engineer because I love solving complex technical problems, but when I co-founded a non-profit to help connect physicians in sub-Saharan Africa, I realised that the most interesting problems were always the human ones. And design isn't limited to designers — it's an everyday thing. But the designer is someone who values and deeply considers the human experience when solving a problem.

I've spent many years consulting, most recently as a creative director at frog in San Francisco, and have developed an appreciation of the broad range of interesting and challenging design problems in the world.

Last year, I found a problem that I'm deeply passionate about. One of the best and most challenging human problems — to feel a sense of belonging, even when you're completely out of your element. So I joined Airbnb to help people travel, and experience the self-discovery that comes with it.

What drives your interest in human-centred design?

I believe we have a responsibility to zoom out and understand the macro-implications of the things we create, and consider the effects both positive and negative of bringing them into the world. The things we create can change behaviour and shift mindsets, they can be inclusive or exclusive, they can perpetuate good things or bad — these are all things we consider when practicing the human-centred design process. 

To be clear, we are most often designing for others and with their values in mind, but we need to check ourselves and the implicit or unconscious bias we bring to every problem. We need to check that what we're doing for the sake of our business is in line with our values as people, too. 

So this is the responsibility of the designer, but increasingly the responsibility of the entire team. I'm interested in sharing this perspective because it enables teams to makes decisions faster and be more aligned in general when you begin with a shared set of values such as these.

You've talked about designing 'friction' back into services and design. Why is that?

I think one way we can make sure we're slowing people down to consider what they care about and what matters to them is to insert "good friction" into our product experiences. Otherwise, it's easy to embrace the convenience and ease that products provide us, and in isolation, individual products that do this well are generally a good thing. But when you zoom out and see that there's a constellation of products, all of which are removing friction from our lives and making everything increasingly convenient and easy, we need to consider the implications of that.

Also, technology is moving faster and faster today, and with it our expectations are shifting faster and faster. We just need to consciously and collectively decide what we want the future to be and I believe we can do this at the micro level with each individual design decision we make.

How do you balance between 'friction' to create meaningful experiences and the rising modern demand for ease and convenience?

Ease and convenience are generally good things. Human-centred design is a good thing. Make your product easier to use and consider the people who use it and you will generally contribute positively to the world.

But take a step back and look at how your product fits into the bigger picture. Does it just remove friction from our lives or does it help us develop a skill? Does it make us think less about ourselves or can it help us self-reflect? Does it make it easier to avoid interacting with other people or does it encourage social connection? Does it give me an easy out when something goes wrong or help me navigate change and deal with confrontation? These are things I think about when approaching a problem. It doesn't mean that we'll always find it necessary to design friction back in, but I think it should always be a consideration.

How important is it for a company like Airbnb to have 'friction' in their service? Have you found that many of your customers seek this when they use Airbnb?

The friction we insert in our product is, at best, not even felt by our Guests and Hosts. When done well, the value proposition is clear and the work is the right amount of effort. 

Hopefully, the outcome is one in which we perpetuate connection, an open mindset, one of curiosity and appreciation of the unknown, the new, the different. It's this mindset that helps people experience all that the world has to offer, and so while it may not be something customers consciously seek out, I think it's something we yearn for deep inside as a reaction to what is otherwise a world filling up with products that remove friction and make our lives easier and more convenient.

What recommendations would you give people who want to make their new product or service more meaningful for customers/users and stand out from the crowd?

Start with this thought exercise: imagine your product has made it so easy, it's effortless. It's so fast, it's instant. There's no friction left in the experience. What's the one thing you would bring back?

Whatever it is, it may be the key to unlocking that "good friction" you should add back into your product experience. And in an increasingly frictionless world, those who find the right friction and effective way to weave it back in, they will tap into the latent desire and unlock meaning for their customers.