Zooming Towards Human Connection. How we launched Airbnb Online… | by Mojtaba Mehrara | Airbnb Engineering & Data Science | Jul, 2020


Creating human connection is the core of Airbnb’s mission. We launched Airbnb Experiences to encourage travelers to connect with locals and with each other through one-of-a-kind experiences that highlight the uniqueness of their destinations. We’ve since grown it to a community of hosts leading more than 50 thousand experiences across more than 1000 cities around the world.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread globally in early 2020, the Experiences team made the decision to proactively pause Experiences worldwide to keep our hosts and guests safe. While this was the right call, pausing the product that we’ve loved and built over the years was tough. More importantly, we knew how challenging this would be for our hosts who rely on the income earned via Airbnb Experiences.

After the pause, we kicked off a series of listening sessions with hosts from all around the world. Most hosts understood and supported the decision to pause Experiences. In the meantime, though, they were trying to navigate extreme circumstances. Specifically, many of them asked us to help them host a virtual version of their Airbnb Experience.

So we got to work. With a fantastic cross-functional team, we built and launched Online Experiences in just 14 business days. The response was even better than we expected. We’re incredibly proud that we’ve been able to support our host community while providing guests across the world with unique opportunities for human connection.

Here’s how we did it.

As we started to think about Online Experiences, we knew we wanted to preserve the essence of Airbnb Experiences in the new online version: they needed to be interactive with a focus on community and human connection. We wanted Online Experiences to still feel immersive, welcoming, and delightful — even remotely. Maintaining these key characteristics in an online product, while moving incredibly fast, was an interesting product development challenge for our team.

Moving Experiences online meant we could keep the local feel, without the location constraint. Guests could take an experience anywhere in the world from the comfort of their home, which opened up a breadth of options for them to choose from. This also helped hosts by giving them access to a new scale of audience.

Unlocking this flexibility required changes to the guest product to accommodate the nuances of Online Experiences. For example:

  • Merchandising: Given the interactive nature of Online Experiences and focus on forming host/guest connection, we needed to overhaul merchandising on search and product pages to clearly articulate value propositions and explain how this product is different from other online video products.
  • Time zones: With guests and hosts in different parts of the world when participating in Online Experiences, we had to introduce support for guests’ and hosts’ local time zones throughout the product (e.g., booking flow, reminder emails, etc.). This is something that we never had to account for on Airbnb Experiences or Homes, because hosts and guests are always in the same location when they meet.
  • Joining the Experience: Each session of an online experience has a unique Zoom meeting that guests need to join to participate in the experience. Guests might not be familiar with using Zoom, so we needed to find the right moments to surface and educate guests about joining. After booking, we had multiple easily accessible entry points to the Zoom meeting and we built reminder emails and push notifications that guests received before the experience. Furthermore, on in-person experiences, guests were used to just showing up and everything was completely taken care of by the host. However, for many online experiences, since guests are doing this from their home, they would actually need to prepare things such as props, ingredients, etc., in advance. We needed to figure out how to surface these instructions during the guest journey.

While hosting an experience online shares core principles such as expertise and human connection with in-person Experiences, many of the practical aspects are different. We needed to support hosts and help them adapt to new workflows so they could focus on hosting and provide the best online experience.

  • Host onboarding: We customized our host onboarding flow to capture new information specific to Online Experiences and added host education throughout. In addition, we added extra host live review steps in our already-thorough review process to help hosts refine their online experience, and ensure high quality of the experience as well as the audio and video. In addition, we used Zoom APIs in our onboarding flow to create Zoom accounts for hosts and later create Zoom meetings for each session.
  • Technical support: A key important factor in the success of the product was educating hosts on the technical aspects of running their online experience so they could fully focus on being the amazing hosts they are. We did everything from creating supplemental education materials, recording DIY how-to videos for hosts by the engineering team, and providing hands-on last minute technical support to help hosts address any unforeseen issues that came up during their online experience in those first few weeks.

Through thoughtful changes to the product, we made it easy for both guests and hosts to participate in Online Experiences. This meant they could focus on the most important part: enjoying the experience and connecting with each other.

Delivering the vision we had for Online Experiences in just 14 business days was an incredible team effort. Getting from idea to launch on a tight timeline required close coordination across many cross-functional teams.

Here are some of the lessons we learned and principles we relied on for launching a successful product in a short period of time:

  • “As One”: Perhaps one of the biggest lessons was how powerful we could be when working “As One” team. This project was the perfect example of people with different backgrounds and expertise from all functions coming together and working towards the same goal. Because this was an end-to-end product, it was a collaboration between engineering, product, design, content, operations, marketing, research, and more. We used a project kickoff to solicit input from a broad range of stakeholders early on and daily standups to stay aligned across teams.
  • Visualize the work: With so much happening in parallel across multiple teams, it was crucial for us to create a tangible representation of the work we could all use as a source of truth. We created a project tracker, which was a simple master spreadsheet of all upcoming work at day-level granularity that we would review in daily stand ups. It may seem obvious, but especially in a fast-moving environment and when everyone had just started working remotely, it helped contributors better understand the big picture and how their work fit into the mission. It also helped us identify and resolve blockers as soon as they arose.
  • Test early and often: Such a quick launch was only possible because our extensive testing gave us confidence that our new product was going to work well. We accomplished this through beta testing and integrated QA. We launched a beta testing program a few days into the build, which meant we were constantly getting real user feedback from Airbnb team members about real online experiences that they had taken. In addition to helping us refine the online product in real time, this also gave our hosts a chance to practice and fine-tune their experiences as they adapted to leading them virtually. Because our amazing QA team was included in the product development process from day one, they had deep context about the product and were able to continuously test features as we finished building them. This shortened the feedback loop for fixing bugs while they were still fresh, which meant we already had a mostly polished product towards the end of the build.
  • Land the plane: As we made progress, the controlled creative chaos of building a new product gave way to the precise planning required to orchestrate a big launch. Especially for a project of this scope, we found a few specific tactics to be helpful. Across teams, we agreed on the functionality that would be included in the initial launch. Reaching cross-functional consensus helped us to minimize scope creep and lock the launch feature set a week in advance, which gave us plenty of time to test and polish the most important parts of the product before our big launch. We also created runbooks outlining detailed checklists for the final QA plan and the launch process. Planning the launch well ahead of time allowed us to figure out details that might have otherwise fallen through the cracks. Explicitly documenting the plan made it easier for multiple teams to coordinate. Leading up to the launch, we did full dry runs to rehearse the intricate choreography required to launch smoothly. This helped us to identify and address issues in a low-stakes environment.

By coordinating our efforts with our teammates, we were able to collectively create a new end-to-end product within 14 business days and launch it smoothly to our users. We are incredibly proud of the massive team effort and strong execution behind that achievement.

Since launching at the beginning of April, hundreds of thousands of guests across the world have taken an Online Experience. While COVID-19 has been — and remains — an unprecedented challenge, we’re glad that we could do our small part to support our hosts by offering them a way to continue connecting and sharing with guests. We are also grateful for our amazing host community who worked so closely with us to make this happen, and our incredible guests who have joined us in this incredible journey since the launch. And this is just the beginning. We believe this product can help our host and guests come together across the world, even when they are not traveling. As we reopen in-person Airbnb Experiences globally, we are excited about the synergy between them and Online Experiences.

Many thanks to Dylan Hurd for discussions and feedback on the draft.



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