3 years ago, an Airbnb host left me out in the cold…
It was nearly midnight, and I had just landed from a 15 hour flight. My host opened the door and immediately I knew that something was wrong.
“Oh… you’re…”- she stammered.
“I’m…?”- I waited for an answer.
“…Black”- she replied.
She apologised, said that I couldn’t stay and gently closed the door.
Since that night, I make nearly every Airbnb reservation using my girlfriend’s account
We never lie to our hosts, but we also never mention that I’m black.
We’ve travelled to more than 20 cities and each time, her skin color provides the insulation we need to use the site we love.
So one weekend, I set myself a design challenge:
I would tackle Airbnb’s Race Problem.
Now before we get started, I want to make something clear: I did not expect to be able to solve such a complex issue on my own! But I believe design is best used to solve meaningful problems and I enjoy investing my time exploring problems I care deeply about.
“Implicit racism… is the greatest challenge we face as a company. It cuts to the core of who we are and the values that we stand for.” — Brian Chesky
I believe we can solve this challenge. What follows is an exploration on how we might solve discrimination with user experience design.
Caveat: The design work at Airbnb is amazing, and nothing that follows is a criticism on any existing work. I view this exercise as a chance to contribute a few ideas towards helping solve a global problem.
So let’s get started.
During my time at Matter, we learned that empathy and needfinding are crucial to the success of any design. So whenever I’m faced with a complex problem I start with research.
According to Brian Chesky;
“Belonging is the idea that defines Airbnb — the desire to feel welcomed, respected, and appreciated for who you are, no matter where you might be”.
However, Airbnb’s mission is being undercut by the racist acts of a small subset of users. The result is that people of color are being rejected by hosts, and feel ostracized from the Airbnb community.
The problem of implicit racism can be localised to 2 subsets of users. I have defined them as “Guests of Color” (GCs) and “Hosts who Discriminate” (HDs).
As an Afro-British male I fit firmly within the GC subset. I distilled my experiences, conducted interviews and researched other written accounts to create a vivid user persona backed by a clear hierarchy of needs.
Jamal is an African-American freelance photographer from Austin. He uses Airbnb because it’s “the best way to really feel what a city is like”. He travels multiple times per year, and has experienced racism on Airbnb.
“Sometimes I feel like hosts just don’t see me as a person, they only see the color of my skin.”
Jamal has 3 important needs when he travels.
- “…to meet cool people”- New experiences excite Jamal. The authenticity of staying with a local makes every trip feel like an adventure.
- “…to know that I’ll be accepted”- Jamal wants to feel like he is welcome no matter where he stays.
- “…to feel safe.. there is a lot of anger in out there”- in the current climate Jamal is concerned about travelling within the US. He does not feel as though local law enforcement would be a reliable source of help should things go wrong while travelling.
What immediately struck me was how many GCs have experienced some form of racism from hosts.
With a number of interesting insights from GCs, I set out to understand the the HD’s perspective.
A difficult conversation
Most of my life I’ve actively avoided engaging with racists. Yet now I find myself actively seeking them out.
But where to begin?
Given that racist behaviour is often hidden by coded language and implicit expressions, how can I (a black male) get someone to admit (or even acknowledge) their racial bias?
In-person interviews could prove to be dangerous, so I chose to begin this task by cold-calling a few Airbnb hosts to figure out if they have ever rejected a guest due to their race.
I quickly learned that asking “have you ever turned down a guest because you didn’t like the color of their skin?” is the quickest way to have someone put the phone down on you.
I decided that direct questions would not work, so created a set of ‘indirect’ questions based on the Implicit Association Test — a research-backed test that highlights hidden bias individuals. Then I persuaded a few GCs to connect me with HDs that they have contacted/stayed with in the past.
I have to admit; trying to listen empathically as people talk about their dislike of “dark people” was tough (especially as I had to pretend to share those views in order to get them ‘open up’). After a few calls I had enough answers to create a user persona of a Host Who Discriminates (HD).
Samantha lives in a 2-bedroom apartment in Idaho. She is an accountant, and routinely rents her spare bedroom in order to make rent.
“I use Airbnb because housing is so damn expensive…”
As a host, Samantha needs:
- “…to know I can trust whoever walks through my door”- Safety is a major concern for Samantha. She needs to know that her personal safety is never going to be threatened.
- “…to know that any guest will respect my home”- Samantha takes great pride in her home. She decorated it herself and has lived there for years. Any guest must obey her rules.
- “…I get final say on who stays with me. I don’t feel like I should have to justify that to anyone”- Samantha’s home is her ‘safe place’. She works hard and doesn't ever want to feel as though she is obligated to accept people into her home.
Samantha represents a cross-section of the HDs I interviewed. Some were very overt in their bias, but I chose to focus on a user group whose beliefs were more implicit. I believe that explicit racism is easy to find and confront, whereas the insidious nature of implicit racism means it poses more of a challenge to uncover and solve.
Based on my user research I discovered the following insights:
- HDs can be unaware of (or unwilling to admit) their bias. One host said “I’m not racist, I just really don’t like blacks in my house.”
- HDs are difficult to identify. They don’t wear signs, and it’s only in their actions that bias is revealed.
- HDs seem to express greater fear or distrust of people who are different from them. One host told me “I’d rather stick with people who look like me; at least then I know I can trust them”.
- GCs do not want special treatment. As one interviewee exclaimed: [on confronting a host] “We both love Airbnb.. we’re the same, what’s the problem you have with me?”
- GCs do not want to stay with people who make them feel unwelcome. GCs appear to have a heightened awareness of host unease. “I always look out for certain expressions… racists always look disgusted when you haven't done anything wrong”
- Implicit racism is caused by the HD’s existing beliefs, but is experienced by both groups. HDs do not appear to enjoy rejecting people, and GCs do not enjoy being rejected.
- Both the HDs and the GCs expressed safety concerns.
These insights led me to two problem statements:
- Implicit bias results in GCs feeling rejected and unwelcome. How can we help GCs feel more accepted on Airbnb?
- HDs do not want to rent to GCs, and feel that it’s within their rights as hosts. How do we encourage HDs to accept more GC bookings?
Given that Airbnb seems to be tackling the first problem through the “Instant Book” feature and community posts on inclusion, I decided to focus on the second problem.
How do we encourage HDs to accept more GC bookings?
I mapped the HD reservation Taskflow, and drew attention to ‘racism hotspots’ — areas where implicit racism becomes explicit action.
In order or significance, the hotspots are:
- When a HD sees a GCs profile ( specifically the profile photo ).
- When a HD sees a GCs name. (“I only need to hear their name to know” — HD).
- When a HD reads certain colloquialisms or phrases within GC messages.
At this point I felt I had a decent grasp of the problem, and moved onto the ideation stage.
“Sometimes I feel like hosts just don’t see me as a person, they only see the color of my skin.” — GC, Washington DC
Reflecting on the user insights, I created a hypothesis: If bookings are declined based on a user’s profile photo — obscuring the profile photos should result in less discrimination.
I designed mockups to test my hypothesis.
(sidenote: I tried to create a listing on Airbnb so I could experience the host interface, but the Android app kept failing at the last step. When I tried the web version I received a repeated error. The profile view below may not be entirely accurate, but it should suffice as a mockup).
In theory, if we blur user photos at the time of booking, hosts must make booking decisions based on a guest’s personality, reviews and verification. A Harvard Business School study supports my assumption that hiding user data hinders discrimination on online marketplaces.
I sent the prototypes to 4 GCs for feedback. Immediately they highlighted two problems:
- “I think this might get more hosts to accept my booking, but what’s to stop them cancelling as soon as they see my face?”
- “I really don’t want to stay with someone who doesn’t want me there... they should see me for me. If they have a problem with my blackness then it’s their problem. I shouldn't have to hide it.”
Next, I sent the prototypes to two HDs for feedback. They responded with firm rejections:
- “I want to know more about the people staying in my house, not less…”
- “Airbnb already has photos, why would you take that away from me? It feels like a trick”
Although the results do not invalidate my hypothesis, It was clear this execution would not work.
I went back to the drawing board to look for more ideas.
Flare then focus.
I brainstormed, sketched and tested a number of ideas — from feedback mechanisms that warn hosts if they use racist language, to design cues that reinforce Airbnb’s core community values. But the more I explored, the more I realised that I was at an impasse.
Racism is not a simple problem, and it has no simple solution.
If racism is a complex, gnarling and tempestuous problem… can it be solved by design?
I went back to my interviews to look for more insights.
Suddenly an idea came to mind:
Maybe the problem is in my methodology; I have been focusing on one-side of a multi-sided problem.
If it’s not possible to solve each problem statement independently, maybe they need to be solved concurrently.
Maybe just like a disease, you need to treat both cause and effect together…. holistically.
A new approach
Although the GCs have a different problem than the HDs, the causes of their problems are intrinsically linked. I decided to reframe the problem statement to create something more ‘universal’ — in a way that encompasses the needs of both groups:
How do you guide more people towards inclusiveness?
Hypothesis: If racism is based on systemic oppression, then to solve it we need more than simple interface tweaks…
We need a “system of inclusion.”
I started searching for research-backed techniques that people have used to move individuals or groups from a place of discrimination to a place of inclusion.
3 approaches emerged:
- Empathy: a recent study published by the American Psychological Society suggests that by simply putting ourselves in another person’s shoes, we can significantly reduce our unconscious biases — and significantly improve our real-world interactions with people who look different from us.
- Exposure: The Mere-Exposure Effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. People who grew up in more diverse environments typically exhibit less discriminatory behaviours.
- Education: the UN found that “Education has a central role in creating new values and provides us with important tools for addressing deep-rooted discrimination and the legacy of historical injustices”. The more aware you are of concepts like privilege, coded language and the historical constructs behind discrimination…the less likely you are to exhibit racist behaviors.
I ideated a way to combine these 3 techniques into a simple “system of inclusion” . I called it the 3Es:
- Encourage Empathy between users
- Increase Exposure between different groups
- Educate to increase awareness
My hope is that the 3Es would provide a structure that could be used to create a multi-tiered approach towards combating discrimination. To test out this idea, I set about translating this framework into a user experience that guides hosts towards more inclusive behaviour that make guests feel more accepted.
The 1st E: Empathy
“You are more like everyone then you think you are, you are less like everyone then you think you are” — Gretchen Rubin
For decades, blues musician Daryl Davis has been raising eyebrows with his unconventional hobby: befriending and converting bigoted members of the Ku Klux Klan. “I try to bring out the humanity in people,” he told a SXSW crowd at the premiere of Accidental Courtesy — a documentary about Davis’s remarkable knack for winning over racists with friendship.
Davis is living proof that empathy works, so I set about figuring out how we can increase empathy on the platform.
Hypothesis: we can reduce bias and discrimination If we can give hosts a deeper sense of who someone is, and show them that there is more to someone than the color of their skin.
Ideation: according to my Taskflow, the most prominent racial hotspot usually occurs when a HD views a GC’s profile. So I reviewed guest profile pages to see if there is a way to encourage HDs to look beyond skin color.
I found the Airbnb Guest profiles to be very ‘functional’ — between reviews and verifications they give hosts exactly what they need to make an informed decision.
However, when compared to profile pages found on social networks, Airbnb’s profile page do not encourage self-expression.
This means that they are more akin the product pages found on sites like Amazon — this makes it easy to refuse a guest in the same way you might refuse to buy a product.
Guest profile are reduced to a tool that hosts use to make snap judgements about a guest.
Guests are more than products waiting to be accepted or rejected.
We need to change this. But how?
When you think of how humans express themselves, the fundamental unit is a story. Stories are how we define, learn and express ourselves to the world.
Airbnb profiles have little to no stories attached to them, which means they have very little self-expression.
Hypothesis — if we give guests the ability to express themselves via their profile, the entire experience of Airbnb shifts from being transactional to one that is more communal.
What can we do to show a more accurate picture of the person behind the profile?
I set about reimagining the information architecture of the profile pages. My goal was to see if I could bring create a more expressive profile layout (while keeping within existing design patterns).
I looked for a common story unit — an expressive action that all guests do when travelling.
We take photos.
Photos are self-contained stories, and all travellers use them to capture memories of a trip.
What if we gave users the ability to add ‘trip photos’ to their profiles?
This could be achieved via a post-stay email prompt, or via instagram integration. Photos are a perfect fit for Airbnb’s platform as they were a pivotal growth mechanism when the platform was first conceived.
I created a task flow for how we might encourage guests to share trip photos.
Then I created a profile wireframe where trip photos had a prominent placement. With the photos in place, I began adding in the other design elements based on the HD’s hierarchy of needs.
I tested this low-fi mockup with GCs and the response was mixed. When the photos were framed as a “self-expression and community building” the response was positive. However, if the photos were seen as a way to “convince racists”, the response was negative. Some users also said that they “do not use Instragram”, or “are tired of platforms asking for more information”.
I presented this low-fi mockup to HDs and they universally liked the idea of being able to see more of a guest. However, they did not like the photos being above the reviews.
I brainstormed low-effort ways to make each profile more personal. Luckily, the answer was uncovered in an ongoing tool that Airbnb has — Airbnb Create. If we use this tool, users can customise their profiles without having to upload personal information.
I discovered a Stanford study that suggested that “feedback and rating systems have been shown to help users of online marketplaces overcome bias”.
I gave the user reviews a more prominent placement.
I created a higher fidelity mockup of the design accounting for all feedback.
The resulting design
The key changes are as follows.
- Users can design cover photos using a variation of the Airbnb Create Tool. This gives each user a custom cover photo that expresses their personality while remaining ‘on brand’ within Airbnb.
- Focus is still given to name & photo, but by restructuring the visual hierarchy we make it easier to get a more inclusive view of a guest.
- Limit the word count of the “About me” section to encourage a more succinct description of each guest. This also means that the reviews section can be moved further up the page resulting in quicker access.
- Increased the size of the review/recommended/verified icons to lead the host’s eye towards the reviews.
- The Number of reviews are initially limited to encourage host to view trip photos. Host can click ‘see all reviews’ for a complete listing.
- If Facebook sign-up is used, show any commonalities shared by both the host and the guest.. This idea was inspired by Tinder, and is a subtle way to encourage host-to-guest empathy and connection.
- In the transactional “Leave a review” email that follows each trip, users are prompted to upload their favourite photo from the trip. Users can also connect Instagram accounts to populate the image grid and express their personalities with ease.
I contacted a few GCs and HDs to show them the designs.
Both groups loved the idea of increased transparency: HDs saw the value in knowing more about someone, and one HD said “I like the grin on this guys face. Looks like he’s at a music festival. Cool”
A HD saw a commonality within a GC profile!!
Takeaways: further testing is needed, but early indicators show that the more a host knows about a guest, the more commonalities they are likely to find. Shared values and experiences could create more empathy on Airbnb leading to decreased discrimination.
With this as a baseline I chose to explore how other areas of the framework could be expressed.
The 2nd E: Exposure
Hypothesis: Implicit racism thrives in a vacuum. Therefore, the more we expose HDs to GCs — from profiles to stories — the more likely they are to accept them as guests. In this section I have chosen to explore how we can use engineering to craft a user experience that results in less discrimination.
Ideation: we use machine learning to identify HDs, then use a process called Systematic Desensitisation coupled with positive reinforcement to guide HDs towards a more inclusive attitude.
This would work in 2 steps.
- Identify the HDs. As highlighted earlier, identifying HDs is a challenging task due to the ‘implicit’ nature of implicit racism. To solve this problem, messages can be parsed for racial slurs or coded terminology, image recognition software can be used to find out which hosts reject GCs at a disproportionately high rate.
- Systematically Desensitise HDs to GCs. We divide the HDs into two groups — baseline and testers. Then we artificially limit a HD’s listing so that it is predominantly shown to guests who are homogeneous. Theoretically the number of accepted bookings within this group should rise when compared to the baseline. Over time, we expose this group’s listings to people from increasingly diverse backgrounds. As the host accepts each booking, a habit loop is formed that progressively desensitise a HD to an increasingly diverse set of guests.
Caveat: I’m aware that the above could be viewed as a ‘dark design pattern’, and that it does result in a degree of temporary segregation within the platform — this is not something that sits well with my morals and ethics. However, this is merely the exploration of an idea. There are a number of ethical and moral considerations that must be discussed before an idea like this could be tested. The above should not be overtly shared with HDs or GCs due to the potential for it to be viewed as a punishment or unfairness within the platform.
The 3rd E: Education
Airbnb already does a fantastic job of educating both guest and hosts about the community values, company mission and user stories.
However, I believe we can do more.
Although there is no one task that could educate racism out of existence, there are multiple opportunities to raise awareness of implicit bias and reinforce inclusive values.
Example : The Create a Listing Flow
During the ‘make a listing’ flow, an additional step could be added which serves to educate hosts about the all-inclusive nature of Airbnb. I call these “Inclusion Reminders”: a simple mission statement paired with a call-to-action that gently reminds users that inclusion is central to Airbnb’s values.
The exact wording of the inclusion reminder would need to be continually split-tested, but there is no reason why we cannot use multiple “inclusion reminders” .
Inclusion reminders could help increase awareness of bias, and lead to hosts making more conscious decisions as they use the platform.
Education also extends to offline activities as well. I believe that if we weave together the themes of inclusiveness into Airbnb’s existing projects — from meetups to Airbnb Open, user stories and more, we can raise awareness and truly create a community where everyone feels accepted.
This project did not progress as I expected it to.
Taking a ‘deep dive’ into implicit racism has been a challenge — from the emotional strain of confronting discrimination to the cognitive challenge of constantly hunting for a better solution.
But I’m glad that I did.
I believe the insights and perspectives I have gained will ultimately make me a better designer.
On reflection, it is all too easy to dismiss those who hold views that differ from our own. This exercise has given me a unique perspective into the beliefs and mindsets of people I have actively distanced myself from.
Avoiding racists is a form of implicit bias which, if left unchecked, limits my ability to engage with those whose views are diametrically opposed to my own.
There is no simple solution to systemic racism, but this exploration has given me hope that a flexible framework can be used to simple solutions that when executed concurrently can create a system of inclusion.
We can create spaces where everyone can truly belong.
I could not have foreseen that a simple design exercise would lead me to imagine a conceptual framework for change.
Whether or not the framework ‘works’ is yet to be seen, but I will be using it as a mental model going forward. Viewing each interaction through the 3Es helps me ensure that I constantly question my implicit bias, and focus on designing for inclusion.
Although the primary focus of this exercise was racism, I see no reason why the same philosophy and ideas could not be applied to every kind of discrimination — from homophobia to sexism, agism and more.
I am aware that any changes to either the UI or the UX would need to be conducted in small, incremental sprints. And that the type of experience design I have outlined may take years to bear fruit. But I believe the promise of a world in which we all belong is more than worth the wait.