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

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.

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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.

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.

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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!”

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

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