Transcript: Joe Gebbia on How Airbnb Designs for Trust at TED Talk

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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.

Now, here’s a discovery we made just last week. We did a joint study with Stanford, where we looked at people’s willingness to trust someone based on how similar they are in age, location and geography. The research showed, not surprisingly, we prefer people who are like us. The more different somebody is, the less we trust them. Now, that’s a natural social bias.

But what’s interesting is what happens when you add reputation into the mix, in this case, with reviews. Now, if you’ve got less than three reviews, nothing changes. But if you’ve got more than 10, everything changes. High reputation beats high similarity. The right design can actually help us overcome one of our most deeply rooted biases.

Now we also learned that building the right amount of trust takes the right amount of disclosure. This is what happens when a guest first messages a host. If you share too little, like, “Yo,” acceptance rates go down. And if you share too much, like, “I’m having issues with my mother,” acceptance rates also go down.

But there’s a zone that’s just right, like, “Love the artwork in your place. Coming for vacation with my family.”

So how do we design for just the right amount of disclosure? We use the size of the box to suggest the right length, and we guide them with prompts to encourage sharing.

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We bet our whole company on the hope that, with the right design, people would be willing to overcome the stranger-danger bias. What we didn’t realize is just how many people were ready and waiting to put the bias aside.

This is a graph that shows our rate of adoption. There’s three things happening here. The first, an unbelievable amount of luck. The second is the efforts of our team. And third is the existence of a previously unsatisfied need.

Now, things have been going pretty well. Obviously, there are times when things don’t work out. Guests have thrown unauthorized parties and trashed homes. Hosts have left guests stranded in the rain. In the early days, I was customer service, and those calls came right to my cell phone. I was at the front lines of trust breaking. And there’s nothing worse than those calls, it hurts to even think about them. And the disappointment in the sound of someone’s voice was and, I would say, still is our single greatest motivator to keep improving.

Thankfully, out of the 123 million nights we’ve ever hosted, less than a fraction of a percent have been problematic. Turns out, people are justified in their trust. And when trust works out right, it can be absolutely magical.

We had a guest stay with a host in Uruguay, and he suffered a heart attack. The host rushed him to the hospital. They donated their own blood for his operation. Let me read you his review: “Excellent house for sedentary travelers prone to myocardial infarctions. The area is beautiful and has direct access to the best hospitals. Javier and Alejandra instantly become guardian angels who will save your life without even knowing you. They will rush you to the hospital in their own car while you’re dying and stay in the waiting room while the doctors give you a bypass. They don’t want you to feel lonely, they bring you books to read. And they let you stay at their house extra nights without charging you. Highly recommended!”

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Of course, not every stay is like that. But this connection beyond the transaction is exactly what the sharing economy is aiming for.

Now, when I heard that term, I have to admit, it tripped me up. How do sharing and transactions go together? So let’s be clear; it is about commerce. But if you just called it the rental economy, it would be incomplete. The sharing economy is commerce with the promise of human connection. People share a part of themselves, and that changes everything.

You know how most travel today is, like, I think of it like fast food — it’s efficient and consistent, at the cost of local and authentic. What if travel were like a magnificent buffet of local experiences? What if anywhere you visited, there was a central marketplace of locals offering to get you thoroughly drunk on a pub crawl in neighborhoods you didn’t even know existed. Or learning to cook from the chef of a five-star restaurant?

Today, homes are designed around the idea of privacy and separation. What if homes were designed to be shared from the ground up? What would that look like? What if cities embraced a culture of sharing? I see a future of shared cities that bring us community and connection instead of isolation and separation.

In South Korea, in the city of Seoul, they’ve actually even started this. They’ve repurposed hundreds of government parking spots to be shared by residents. They’re connecting students who need a place to live with empty-nesters who have extra rooms. And they’ve started an incubator to help fund the next generation of sharing economy start-ups.

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Tonight, just on our service, 785,000 people in 191 countries will either stay in a stranger’s home or welcome one into theirs. Clearly, it’s not as crazy as we were taught.

We didn’t invent anything new. Hospitality has been around forever. There’s been many other websites like ours.

So, why did ours eventually take off? Luck and timing aside, I’ve learned that you can take the components of trust, and you can design for that. Design can overcome our most deeply rooted stranger-danger bias. And that’s amazing to me. It blows my mind. I think about this every time I see a red Miata go by.

Now, we know design won’t solve all the world’s problems. But if it can help out with this one, if it can make a dent in this, it makes me wonder, what else can we design for next?

Thank you.