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How a Design-Driven Culture Saved Airbnb

February 13, 2017

On its surface, Airbnb is a typical start-up fueled by algorithms and data. But go a little deeper and you’ll discover the accommodations marketer that revolutionized tourism saved itself by approaching a big problem in a new way. What they learned about design thinking can help middle-market businesses in any industry. 

In 2009, Airbnb nearly folded amid stalled sales, leaving owners wondering if their once-promising start-up was doomed. In the past, problems were approached from a technical perspective, adjusting code and re-writing programs. Airbnb soon realized, however, that the solution should be designed around the customer’s experience instead. 

A look at Airbnb’s people-centered approach illustrates the essential components of an empathetic, design-driven culture.

Seek First to Understand

Airbnb executives quickly realized the answer to their sales problem wasn’t in their algorithms, but rather with the unappealing quality of the property photos. The founders met with each of the hosts, helped them take better photos, and watched as their sales doubled in the first week. 


At the core of design thinking is the act of putting the end user at the center of the equation and building your process around the customer journey. Airbnb now requires all of its employees to book a property in order to fully understand the traveler and the host.   

Know When to Adapt

Airbnb had always used stars for their property ranking system, but a little design thinking got them to try hearts instead. Immediately, use of the ranking system increased exponentially. 

Seize the Moment

Companies typically apply design thinking when they want to quickly bring a product or service to market. So Airbnb didn’t wait to develop a complicated plan of action. Despite the fact that the solution was neither technical nor easily duplicated, they immediately flew to the host homes, identified the problem, and designed a solution.