We built a basic website and AirBed and Breakfast was born. Three lucky guests got to stay on a 20-dollar airbed on the hardwood floor. But they loved it, and so did we. I swear, the ham and Swiss cheese omelets we made tasted totally different because we made them for our guests. We took them on adventures around the city, and when we said goodbye to the last guest, the door latch clicked, Brian and I just stared at each other. Did we just discover it was possible to make friends while also making rent?
The wheels had started to turn. My old roommate, Nate Blecharczyk, joined as engineering co-founder. And we buckled down to see if we could turn this into a business.
Here’s what we pitched investors: “We want to build a website where people publicly post pictures of their most intimate spaces, their bedrooms, the bathrooms — the kinds of rooms you usually keep closed when people come over. And then, over the Internet, they’re going to invite complete strangers to come sleep in their homes. It’s going to be huge!”
We sat back, and we waited for the rocket ship to blast off. It did not. No one in their right minds would invest in a service that allows strangers to sleep in people’s homes. Why? Because we’ve all been taught as kids, strangers equal danger.
Now, when you’re faced with a problem, you fall back on what you know, and all we really knew was design. In art school, you learn that design is much more than the look and feel of something — it’s the whole experience. We learned to do that for objects, but here, we were aiming to build Olympic trust between people who had never met.
Could design make that happen? Is it possible to design for trust?
I want to give you a sense of the flavor of trust that we were aiming to achieve. I’ve got a 30-second experiment that will push you past your comfort zone. If you’re up for it, give me a thumbs-up. OK, I need you to take out your phones. Now that you have your phone out, I’d like you to unlock your phone. Now hand your unlocked phone to the person on your left. That tiny sense of panic you’re feeling right now is exactly how hosts feel the first time they open their home. Because the only thing more personal than your phone is your home. People don’t just see your messages, they see your bedroom, your kitchen, your toilet.
Now, how does it feel holding someone’s unlocked phone? Most of us feel really responsible. That’s how most guests feel when they stay in a home. And it’s because of this that our company can even exist.
By the way, who’s holding Al Gore’s phone? Would you tell Twitter he’s running for President?
OK, you can hand your phones back now.
So now that you’ve experienced the kind of trust challenge we were facing, I’d love to share a few discoveries we’ve made along the way.
Now what if we changed one small thing about the design of that experiment? What if your neighbor had introduced themselves first, with their name, where they’re from, the name of their kids or their dog? Imagine that they had 150 reviews of people saying, “They’re great at holding unlocked phones!” Now how would you feel about handing your phone over?
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.