Airbnb's production design manager Ariem Anthony discusses the company's design culture and process, and why it's moving to Adobe XD.
Airbnb is a company that places a lot of stock in design. Its design team has tripled in size over the last 15 months and has a widely read blog. The company has also cited the design and user experience of its service – for both guests and the 'hosts' who rent our their properties – as being as much a part of its success as the then-novel concept of simplifying the short-term rental process and making it accessible to many more people.
But what is it like to work as a designer at Airbnb? At the Adobe Max conference in San Diego, I sat down with Airbnb's production design manager, Ariem Anthony, to find out. We discussed the 'user experience' of working at Airbnb, how you get designers to create consistent design without restraining their creativity and how they're moving to the still-in-beta Adobe XD digital design and prototyping for their design work.
Neil Bennett: First off, what is production design at Airbnb?
Ariem Anthony: "Production design is a two-fold support system for the design team. One side of it supports the components of the design system and the other side supports the brand – providing the materials [i.e. the software, assets and libraries] they need to do their jobs.”
NB: What happens when a designer first joins Airbnb?
AA: "We do an onboarding for the designers. It's part introduction to the different departments you work with. It's part introduction to the team that you're on. Then it's these are the tools we use, here's how we use them, here's why we use them, if you need help here's some resources – whether it be hardware, software, technique or procedure.”
NB: I'm guessing the people come to Airbnb in that kind of role with a preconception of what the design style is. And I'm also guessing sometimes you need to correct that so that they understand what it really is?
AA: "Yeah. I wouldn't say ‘correct’. I'd say ‘coerce' because we have lots of different designers at different levels, with different experiences, coming from different companies – and everyone does something differently. But when you come here we want to make sure that we're all aligned with the same goal. So we guide them and say 'okay, we do things like this' or 'we have this cadence for this' or 'this is how we work as a team'. Some teams work faster than others – but overall we use the same support, the same foundation, the same guidance."
NB: I assume lots of people just pick absorb from a kind of osmosis – so that when they see the design decisions that colleagues and peers are making?
AA: “Yeah. It helps prepare new designers with existing designers because if you are just put on a project by yourself, it can feel overwhelming; but, if you're on a team of other designers, we're all working together. It makes it easier for you to assimilate, learn and just get better really quick.”
NB: So how would you define Airbnb's ‘design style’?
AA: "It's hard to answer only because it's changed because the team has grown so big. When it was a small team, it was easier to have a lot of people thinking and acting in the same direction. When you start getting into bigger teams and teams have different outcomes, there has to be a holistic umbrella that says 'although we're all doing these different things differently, we all need to get to this one goal’.
"I think one of the biggest things that makes the team successful is collaboration and transparency – knowing what everyone's working on so that we don't duplicate efforts and so that we know how things relate to each other.”
NB: How is the culture different at Airbnb from other companies you’ve worked for?
AA: "To me, Airbnb is probably the most organic organisation I've worked. I've worked at Netflix. I've worked at Ikea. I've worked at Apple – and they're all great companies. They all have different cultures.
"Airbnb is, to me, the most dynamic and it's also the one that has the most human mission, because it's very focused on people interacting with people. That informs the design and informs the product.”
NB: What’s the biggest design challenge currently?
AA: “Localisation, which a lot of people confuse localisation with translation. Let's talk about the true meaning of the word 'localisation’.
"Our UI, our text, our iconography, our text – it may not work outside of San Francisco. It may not work outside of North America. Currently, what we're doing is mostly translating text, [or changing] designs for iTunes screens or Google Play screens. We're looking at what's the best solution for different areas around the world.”
“My thinking is that there are core values about being a good host. When you are a host, you want to accommodate the person whose visiting you. I think for us – for our product – we look at it the same way. I don't want to take my American-based product and give it to you and expect you to change your culture, your thinking and the way you read to what I do. [For users around the world, we want to create] an experience that fits their culture, their language, and their preferences.”
NB: You’re currently into the process of testing Adobe XD as a UX design tool. How do you do that without disrupting your designers need to produce work to deadlines?
AA: “We can’t – we have to disrupt their workflow. But there’s always been disruption from Fireworks to Photoshop to Sketch, and now to XD – and then who know what's going to happen in two years time. Everyone is used to the process of 'this is how I always did it, but that's a better tool so I'll move to that tool'. We try to ease the disruption, but we can't remove the it.”
NB: What do you make of XD?
AA: “What's really nice about XD is that it takes the multiple tools and brings them all into one. For us, being able to design, prototype, version, comments in one [application] is great because the less moving from one app to another, the better. The more things we can put under one hood, the more efficient and faster we can work."
NB: Does XD still being in beta cause problems when you’re using it in a production environment?
AA: "The nice thing about betas are getting a glimpse of what's coming and being on the cutting edge – and when a company has a product in beta, they're looking for your feedback, so we can help guide it.
"The bad thing about betas is sometimes our designers get overanxious and jump into a beta and start working, and then they have a file format that we can't use. That's a minor thing but one that we've had of take care of. I used to work in pre-press in Quark[XPress] and Illustrator [which had big updates every 18 months or so]. I used to be a consumer of software; now I'm helping in an indirect way to develop it. I'm helping craft the direction it's going. It's a big difference from 1994 to 2016.”
NB: Is there anything particular about the latest version of XD that you're thinking 'yeah, this is really working for us, this is really helping us'?
AA: "For our designers, I think the biggest thing is versioning and for the prototyping – because a lot of them either struggle with prototyping, or they don't do it because they just don't want to learn another tool to do it.
"The versioning is huge because there's so many iterations and there's so many versions of something, it's nice to scrub back and see maybe someone's comment and say 'oh, let's pull this up to today’.
"For us in production, we're looking forward to the comments because the comments are what drive most of our admin work. If someone says 'here's our design, this needs to go for these two platforms or this device', the less email, the better. A lot of our work that's not pushing pixels is tracking down the designer or the project manager or the engineer and asking questions. The comments are doing to be a huge thing for production designers and being able to manage each job."