Designing for trust in the Airbnb age

Trust is something that is traditionally built up over time and face to face. In today’s sharing economy, how are companies like Airbnb using design to facilitate and grow trust between peers? Imogen Clark takes a closer look, based on her recent experiences.

I recently found myself at a loose end in Berlin. I had decided to book a couple of days off work to make the most of cheaper weekday flights, and opted to use the time to explore the German capital. I logged on to Airbnb, pulled up a listing in Kreuzberg, and checked in. (Since my visit, Berlin has begun to restrict rental of entire apartments through Airbnb and its competitors. It is still possible to rent out individual rooms, though.)

As someone who has travelled and lived in some fairly remote and unusual locations, I am familiar with home stays. So I admit I am perhaps unusually willing to trust perfect strangers. (On the whole, this has paid dividends.) It seems I am not the only one, however.

Berlin walkway

Airbnb, the late-noughties brainchild of Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, has been going through a period of unprecedented expansion. Millions of people are seemingly willing to open their homes to (almost) perfect strangers, who in turn appear to have no qualms about staying.  Likewise SpareRoom.com, founded in 1999 by Rupert Hunt, matches flatmates and accommodation. Similar to Airbnb, SpareRoom enables landlords and tenants to list available rooms in house-shares. The site also organises “speedflatmating” events, a twist on traditional speed-dating designed to bring potential sharers together.

As the saying goes: “An Englishman’s home is his castle” – a private domain or “safe space”. The internet, on the other hand, is often depicted as some kind of twilight zone, full of dark corners for doing dark deeds (to paraphrase Richard Curtis). How, then, are sites like Airbnb and SpareRoom persuading us to open our doors?

Interior of AirBnB apartment - listing here: https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/4707415

Interior of AirBnB apartment - listing here: https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/4707415

Well, economic factors have probably had something to do with it. Airbnb has become a bit of a poster-child for the “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption” – a form of peer-to-peer exchange that has grown rapidly thanks to the development of digital platforms. Some of Airbnb’s success can probably also be attributed to the unfortunate conjunction of an economic downturn and increasingly competitive housing markets. Suddenly, letting out that spare room doesn’t seem like such a bad idea if it means you can afford to live in a place you like. Likewise SpareRoom.com has become a lifeline for highly mobile, young professionals who can no longer afford to rent solo.

More interesting, though, is the design angle. In a recent TED talk Gebbia discusses how Airbnb has put trust at the forefront of its design decisions. But what does “designing for trust” actually look like?

Reputation is key

Consumer reviews are now commonplace in digital markets – think of the likes of Amazon, eBay or Yelp. On Airbnb it’s not just “products” (hosts/pads) that get reviewed though, it’s guests too. Make a mess and no-one will host you ever again.

Share a little about yourself

There is a sweet-spot when it comes to disclosure, though. Too little gains you nothing, and too much, well…  So how do you encourage the right amount of sharing? To request a booking on Airbnb you first need to contact your host. The site provides prompts: Tell Anja a little about yourself. What brings you to Copenhagen? Who’s joining you? Airbnb also suggests the optimal length for your response by providing you with an appropriate-sized box. These principles are followed through in the rest of the site.

Screen with AirBnB website shown

Link up

Airbnb has also developed a method of verifying their hosts/guests identities by linking their online presences (Airbnb, Facebook, LinkedIn) to more traditional forms of ID (photographs of passports, driving licenses). This is an interesting direction to take. We seem increasingly to be moving away from a “faceless” internet full of stranger dangers towards something which is more open and transparent. Rachel Botsman, who is a bit of a specialist on “collaborative consumption”, envisages a kind of reputation dashboard, which would aggregate your trustworthiness from different corners of the internet. For example, your reliability as a Taskrabbit, your cleanliness as an Airbnb guest and your honesty as an eBay seller could all live together as a kind of trust rating. Such a tool could turn you from a “stranger” into someone “known”, a real person, with real relationships, tastes and morals.

Image showing links between people

Building in trust

What other applications could benefit from a trust overhaul? Dating websites, perhaps. How do you know that Dave from Fulham isn’t actually an axe-murderer? Check out his trust rating online. I’ve been on “date alert” more than once for my female friends. They’ve sent me a screengrab of their date with instructions about what to do if they don’t check in with me by X o’clock. But what if you could share a version of Dave’s profile with a trusted friend without having to resort to a series of crude screengrabs? What if you could log your date through the site itself, for an added layer of security? Or share your location with a friend throughout the evening?

Trust is traditionally something that is built face-to-face, consolidated over time, strengthened and tested through mutual (non)disclosure. Shortcuts to trust come via personal networks – “any friend of yours…” etc. The likes of Airbnb are leveraging digital social networks to mimic and speed this process along. It is this human connection (of which trust is a part) that Airbnb and SpareRoom are really trying to promote and, yes, sell. Airbnb’s recent ad campaign exhorts: “Don’t go there. Live there.” The idea is that staying in a real Londoner’s, Berliner’s or Mumbaikar’s house, walking in their shoes and drinking in their locals will give you a more “authentic” experience of the city. As an anthropologist, I can’t really disagree with that, though I would add the caveat that sometimes the “genuine” experience is not always the most desirable.

Design Researcher

Sutherland Labs
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