Making Travel Human Again and How Airbnb Does It

When I first became a designer, I felt grateful to have a background in hospitality. I learned to embrace guest-centricity, and its principles translated well for my design work and creating great UX.

But when I read The Airbnb Story… by Leigh Gallagher, I realized I’ve gotten too comfortable designing for mere digital interactions and forgotten about the real human interactions. Learning about Airbnb’s story and design choices helped me understand the true meaning of human-centered design.

Designing for humans is both understanding motivations and creating personable interactions.

First, Empathy

Empathy is a deep understanding of motivation, context, pain and delight points.

It isn’t just about tracking guest preferences or setting data-driven rules to retarget ads at them. Nor is it just AB testing to optimize the “Book Now” button.

These are only tools and enablers to better understand users, but they’re not tapping into the real motivations. Why, for example, are people traveling? Is it about self-discovery or reconnecting with friends and family? What kind of experiences are they looking for? Local encounters or hitting the top 10 landmarks?

Airbnb understands and resonates with users by unlocking a subconscious desire: Authenticity. The authenticity of experiencing a place through interactions with locals.

Interactions, not Interfaces

Interactions determine how “human” the experience feels. Take the hotel booking experience for instance.

The evolution of hotel booking experiences

Not long ago, booking hotels was through phone calls with travel agents. But when online travel agents and meta search engines emerged, we shifted to Do-It-Yourself online, because it offered flexibility. All the information at your fingertips and no more waiting for travel agents to call you back. You just book when the right deal comes along.

Fast forward to today, travel players are competing with the latest AI-powered chatbots to personalize and scale 1:1 interactions. Well guess what, “humans” are making a comeback, this time via chatbots.

Human interactions are the core of Airbnb and built-in as part of the experience. Prior to booking, you can ask the host about the apartment. After booking, you can make special requests for your visit. During your stay, you can interact as you like, from the host cooking dinner for you, to conversing only when you have questions.

Human experiences all come down to interactions no matter the interface.

It’s Not About Tasks

Many booking sites are built to do one main task really well: book a flight or accommodation. The algorithm is trained extensively to produce the best prices and inventory, and you know, it’s pretty solid.

The thing though, designing for humans is not about tasks.

For travel touch points such as transport providers, Uber, their primary task is to transport users from point A to B. But it’s the driver-passenger interactions that make the experience feel “human”.

Similarly on Airbnb, the primary task is to book a home rental or an experience. But the website is a merely a tool; it’s about the host-guest interactions.

Putting “Human” Back in the Equation

Airbnb gets it. They design for human interactions — a heartfelt welcome, a curated travel guide from the host, an encounter with locals.

My recent Airbnb stay in Budapest was exactly that. Instead of a generic welcome note, my host spent 20 minutes walking me through the map and recommended me a detailed itinerary. Instead of getting lost at the train station, he picked me up there and guided me to the apartment. Instead of waiting in line for recommendations at the concierge, I got to hear about local favourites and stories by the couch.

This personal touch is what hotels strive for and Airbnb achieves this through host and guest interactions.

Making Humans Look Human (Duh)

Staying at a stranger’s home is not something we were taught to do growing up. But Airbnb’s platform is built to develop that trust through transparent information.

For guests, it’s knowing who the host is and vice versa. Airbnb’s profile page allows users to post their pictures and a short blurb about themselves.

Examples of user profiles (The Airbnb founders)

Guests and hosts can get to know each other and may even discover common interests. By putting a face and personality to users, it makes humans look and feel human. Intuitive, right?

Scaling that Human Touch

Airbnb emphasizes that people are the foundations of the platform. Without guests, there will be no experience. And without hosts, there will be no guests.

For some hosts, they are not trained hospitality service providers. For others, Airbnb may just be their opportunity to unleash their inner hospitality spirits. For the former group, they lack the resources and experience, and the latter, how do you motivate and retain them to keep hosting?

In Airbnb’s early days, the founders strategically brought Chip Conley, the founder of Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain, onboard to do exactly that.

Conley educated hosts on hospitality best practices through seminars, and established an online community for hosts to share best practices. He also created guidelines such as responding to guest queries within 24 hours, housekeeping with fresh towels and linens, and developing a “hosting style” to personalize communication preferences.

By building a community, hosts can motivate one another and share resources. To recognize hosts for their hard work, Airbnb also hosts annual events to celebrate their triumphs and stories.

With hosts empowered, that keeps guests happy and helps scale the human touch.

Human Implications

Designing for humans is a lot more complex than we think. Sometimes, the good intentions are not well-received by everyone.

Unfortunately, the profiles designed to make humans look human brought about the ugly side of humanity, and in some extremes, racial discrimination.

At one point, polarizing behaviours arose when black guests were rejected and discriminated by non-black hosts. Part of the reason the founders ascribed was plainly because they were “three white guys”. They addressed these issues by introducing the Open Doors policy, requiring hosts to pledge to non-discrimination, and implementing extensive auditing efforts. They now have dedicated customer service specialists to monitor and resolve such issues.

In addition, Airbnb has been battling other social issues such as housing shortage and protests against the loose compliance and right for hosts to operate as an accommodation provider.

I would have thought that making experiences “human” should resonate with everyone. Who knew there could be so many implications?

Making Travel Human Again

Making travel human seems intuitive, but are companies and brands really getting it right? Making travel human isn’t an act; it’s a deep understanding of and connection between people — hosts, guests, locals, travelers.

Reading about Airbnb’s back story has been such an inspiration for me as a designer and aspiring entrepreneur. I believe that the future of travel will evolve to fully immersive experiences and I’m excited to design for them.

For more travel picks, check out or follow me on instagram @wondertrekker!



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