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A Look Inside Design at Airbnb

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We’re tracking down InVision users inside the world’s most amazing companies to discover their favorite tools, books, methods, and the philosophy behind what makes them so awesome. This week we interviewed Chad Thornton, an Interaction Designer at Airbnb in San Francisco.

What are the top 3 essentials in your workspace?

  1. Quiet: A place where you can work quietly.
  2. Loud: A place where you can work loudly with others.
  3. Diversity: Somewhere you can sit and be around a mix of disciplines. At Airbnb we have user researchers, engineers and designers all within six feet of us.

How important is your workspace to your creativity?

Honestly, it’s not that important. You should be able to do good work anywhere. So for me it’s about being near to the people I’m collaborating with, and being able to get quiet when I need to and loud when I need to.

Do you ever work outside of the office? Where?

I work at home in the mornings while it’s still quiet. But that’s about it. I’m not much of a coffee shop worker.

Airbnb

What do you do when you hit a creative roadblock?

  1. State Why You Think You’re Stuck: Clearly verbalizing the problem can shake loose assumptions, and if it doesn’t, your mind now has a well-formed challenge to gnaw on subconsciously.
  2. Take a Break: My mind is definitely working on problems in the background, so the ability to work on other things helps me get around roadblocks.
  3. Inspiration: Another way I get around roadblocks is by looking for inspiration on other sites.

Do you do any sketching on paper?

Here at AirBnB we like to have things printed out and posted for design reviews so we definitely do some of that here, but I prefer to look at my work on screen so that I’m looking at it in the right environment. When I do sketch, I tend to be a sketcher on flat surfaces rather than walls. I take a ream of paper out of the printer and a good pen and just have at it.

What is your favorite part of the design process?

That “A-Ha!” moment when you come up with an elegant solution to a problem you feel like you have a pretty good grip on.

Airbnb

Where does your inspiration come from?

Coworkers
My coworkers are inspiring: being able to look around and seeing what they’re working on and how their work is informing the way the product is headed.

Online
It’s inspiring to see what work other people are doing online.

Just like everyone learns in a different way, everyone wants to think through and work on a problem in a different way.

Who do you look up to as a designer?

Raskin (best known as the creator of the Apple Macintosh project) describes flaws in current machine-human interface structures and offers advice on how to fix them.

Old School Designers
I’m still inspired by a lot of the old school interaction designers like Hugh Dubberly, Jef Raskin, Ivan Sutherland, Douglas Engelbart. When you see people who have struggled with problems for the very first time, it’s cool to see how they thought about them.

Google
I worked with a lot of really bright people at Google so I definitely look to them for feedback and inspiration from time to time.

Products
Playing with products is always inspiring. Good designers always have a list of interesting techniques they’ve seen and things they can go back to.

Airbnb

How do you present your work to your clients?

A lot of it is trial and error. I don’t think there is ONE WAY to present to people. Just like everyone learns in a different way, everyone wants to think through and work on a problem in a different way. One thing I try to figure out early on is how they work with different levels of fidelity. If people enjoy reading, and they are strong readers, they can look at a list of bullet points and just talk about the problem space whereas people who are more visual have to be looking at things.

You’re usually presenting your ideas as an update to previous ideas, so going back and restating what we looked at previously and talking about what’s working and not working, and how our understanding of the problem has changed is a good way to get everyone on the same page. People want to see pictures right away, and their eyes often glaze over if you try to walk them through an understanding of the problem. Over the years I’ve gotten more to some sort of approach where you show them some visual stuff earlier and use it as a way to have a discussion around it. It’s a challenging thing to do though, because it’s harder to control that discussion.

Presenting a static design invites people to think only about the visuals, not the interaction details.

If there is any interactivity, it’s up on the screen. Prototyping has gotten a lot easier over the years so we’re doing a lot more of that. Prototyping helps people key in on the right sorts of issues. As an interaction designer, I am much more concerned with a specific interaction and flow: Presenting a static design invites people to think only about the visuals, not the interaction details.

How do you know when you’ve achieved an understanding of what the client really wants?

Emergent Patterns
When you’re running user research and you keep seeing the same patterns over and over and you’re not seeing anything new after a while.

Just Start Designing
There’s a moment at which you just need to start designing as a way of informing how you think about the problem. Sketching out early possible ideas. There’s a tight feedback loop between what we think the problem is and what that might mean for some possible solutions, and then going back and thinking about how these possible solutions inform how we think about the problem. People’s understanding of the problem often changes, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing if it evolves over time. In fact, if your approach to a problem never changes, you become too beholden to what you think is right.

Airbnb

What is your ritual to “get in the zone” when you’re working on a project?

Define the Problem
Learn as much as possible about what we think the problems are. Good design is about defining the problem the right way. Think about what the problem is, but then question that problem.

Inspiration
Looking for inspiration, looking at how other people do similar things, looking at what we know about how people use things today, talking about how we think we want to use it. All that with a good mix of blue skying too. Ask yourself: how would this work if it were magical?

I use InVision to create clickable prototypes… [it] helps people key in on the right sorts of issues.

Tell us about some of your favorite tools for the creative process.

  • FireworksFireworks is the tool I use most often.
  • InVision: Definitely using InVision.
  • Pen & Paper: Printer paper has the awesome property of being scannable. I also like spreading things out across a table. I’m not a notebook guy. Notebooks tend to be my own thoughts whereas paper is a lot more collaborative object.
Airbnb

What music do you listen to when you’re designing?

I’m a musician so when I listen to music, I’m really paying attention. Unless I’m doing some kind of grunt production work I tend to not have the headphones on.

What is the most frustrating aspect of design?

Presenting to others who aren’t directly involved in the day to day design process is always a challenge. Everyone always has very different ways of thinking and approaching problems because they’re not as used to it, and everyone likes it a different way.

How important is collaborating with other designers?

If you can do it, it’s super important. It’s more important to work with someone who can critique and speak well about design. Designers usually do that well, but some designers I know aren’t actually that well-spoken. And I think the same is true for engineers. Some engineers give great feedback and have good ideas. So I tend to be opportunistic and not say, “Oh, you’re an engineer so you don’t have anything valuable to add.”

About Chad

Chad is an Interaction Designer at Airbnb in San Francisco, CA. Follow him on Twitter.

About Airbnb

Founded in August of 2008 and based in San Francisco, California, Airbnb is a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world — online or from a mobile phone. Whether an apartment for a night, a castle for a week, or a villa for a month, Airbnb connects people to unique travel experiences, at any price point, in more than 33,000 cities and 192 countries. And with world-class customer service and a growing community of users, Airbnb is the easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions.

Author

Andy Orsow
Designer and product marketer at InVision, resident GIF-ologist and video maker.

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