When UX goes offline: Designing cross-channel experience for community-based services

March 15th, 2016
Published on
March 15th, 2016

In January 2016, the first annual O’Reilly Design Conference convened in San Francisco to explore how design is shaping the future of business and technology. This new conference is an opportunity for designers of all stripes to learn about the skills and expertise they’ll need to create tomorrow’s products and services. I was particularly impressed with a talk by Head of Airbnb Experience Design Katie Dill called “Balancing chaos and order when designing for offline and online.”

Katie Dill on stage at the 2016 O'Reilly Design Conference

Katie Dill at the 2016 O’Reilly Design Conference

While designing for multiple devices and channels isn’t new, community-based services like Airbnb or Lyft face special challenges when the customer experience includes real world interactions with people who are not direct employees. The richness and diversity of a community can be a product’s greatest strength, but we must take care to ensure that individual variety still tracks within overall brand expectations.

Ideally, a good design for cross-channel experiences delivers a coherent story across all customer-facing touchpoints. We might move from a print ad, to an in-app message, to an email confirmation, to a phone call with a human, and there should be continuity along each step of the user’s journey.

But what happens when companies don’t own all the moments with their customer? For community-based services like Airbnb or Lyft, it’s the community around a product that delivers most of the experience, and 99% of which happens offline.

In her talk on day 1 of the conference, Katie Dill covered the challenge of designing offline community-based services to realize the full richness of variety at scale while maintaining a consistent customer experience. It’s a great talk on the subject, and in this article we’ll take a look at the challenges, strategies, and approaches Dill explored throughout her talk.

Balancing order and chaos

While the Airbnb experience needs to be different and unique and authentic every time, it also needs to be damn good every time. It needs to be reliably high quality again and again so that you want to come back.

Katie Dill, in “Balancing chaos and order when designing for offline and online

Part of the appeal of services like Airbnb is the authenticity and variety of interacting with real people. Each trip brings something new and unexpected. The fact that the traveler is staying in someone’s house instead of a generic hotel chain contributes to a big part of the user experience.

But balancing the unique and authentic aspects of staying in a home with the consistent and reliable elements that make for a good experience is tricky. While Airbnb customers may want difference and richness every time, they also expect certain standards from an Airbnb experience. The trick is how to harness diversity to deliver both richness and consistency.

Dill has five design tactics drawn from her own experience, which we’ll explore in more detail throughout this review of her talk:

  1. Back up
  2. Know when sh*t can hit the fan
  3. Get out of the way
  4. Keep it real
  5. Open up

Back Up

According to Dill, the first step in designing a complex multi-channel user experience is to back up and get a high level view of the entire ecosystem. Beyond outlining the user journey, in the case of community-based services a key dimension to consider is who delivers the experience in each interaction. Is it an internal Airbnb employee or someone from the community, like a guest or host?

Airbnb uses storyboarding for its user journey analysis. There’s a guest storyboard and a host storyboard. Mapping out the details helps Airbnb see where gaps may exist. Are there ways Airbnb can help hosts do a better job and deliver a better experience to guests? Mapping out the journeys in this way helps improve the experience for both sides of the community.

But storyboards are not just a design tool. They’re for the entire company. Just as aligning all members of the community delivers a better experience, making sure all internal teams are familiar with the details of Airbnb’s user experience builds a common vision. The storyboards are displayed prominently in the office for all to see.

Understanding how all the pieces of an experience align also allows designers to get ahead of things and see where problems may be lurking.

Which brings us to…

Know When Sh*t Can Hit the Fan

In a community-based service, the highest potential for chaos is in the offline world where community members and not company employees are in charge. Meanwhile the greatest degree of control companies have is in the digital realm, which is usually the first touchpoint farther upstream. What are some approaches for using digital touchpoints to reduce potential speed bumps later in the real world experience?

The check in moment at Airbnb is when a guest’s expectations of their space meet reality. If expectations and reality are far apart, unhappiness can ensue.

Reality (what the space is like) is controlled by the community host. Airbnb can’t do much about that. But where designers can have a significant impact is in managing the traveler’s expectations. Airbnb does everything it can, using photos, reviews, and written description, to communicate in advance what a space is like. Setting proper expectations goes a long way toward influencing what the experience will be when a guest arrives. When a traveler finds the space exactly as they pictured (or even better), it makes for happiness all around.

Get Out of the Way

A digital platform is powerful and helps the company control certain aspects of the experience. But remember not to over shadow community members. Don’t iron out too much individuality in pursuit of uniformity. After all, it’s the community’s unique aspects that are the main selling point of the service.

Yes, some guardrails are needed. For designers working on configurable community platforms, the trick is to provide enough structure to ensure a consistent visual feel but still allow unique content managed by community members to shine forth.

Dill recalled the “buck wild” frontier days of MySpace circa 2004 as an example of no guardrails and a huge disparity of visual styles which drowned out the larger brand and eroded users’ overall experience.

Facebook, on the other hand, has married a consistent brand container (people probably recognize those blue bars in their sleep) with endlessly varying user-generated imagery, text, and more. Figuring out the right balance between brand container and content is key. The brand should not compete with the content. On the other hand, whatever content the user is exploring, they should still be able to recognize the large brand surrounding them.

Keep it Real

In a community-based service, people are obviously a big part of the fabric. Highlighting people (and their differences) in the larger design helps showcase that we are interacting with humans, not machines. It also builds trust and connection online before in person interactions later. Two ways to do this are photos and messaging.

Many services (Airbnb, Task Rabbit, Dog Vacay, Care) feature community members’ profile photos prominently. Seeing a human face starts a relationship early in the user journey and communicates the personal nature of the platform.

In-app messaging is another way to move beyond transacting with a system. Casual back and forth messages highlight the intimate nature of the experience. Messaging allows community members to get to know each other a little in advance, which helps set expectations about the future experience.

Open Up

Finally, the best way to succeed in designing offline interactions for a community-based service is to make community members feel like empowered partners by opening up to them. The more interested and invested community members are in a service, the better job they will do.

Help the community learn, help them be great. Help them succeed. The same thinking used for how to make internal teams at a company successful can be applied to community members. This approach is of course good for all companies – not only ones offering community-based service.

Even if you are not designing a community-based service, your community (whether you like it or not) is providing much of the experience.

Katie Dill, in “Balancing chaos and order when designing for offline and online

Dashboards and analytics are a good way to show members how they are doing and also suggest areas of improvement. For example, Airbnb hosts like to track their progress and reviews. Dill recommends presenting relevant data in a way that further invests community members in the product and the work they are doing inside it.

Business-specific insights can also be a valuable benefit to community members. Airbnb helps hosts by providing metrics on guest search behavior and spending. By seeing what the local market as a whole looks like, hosts are able to do better for themselves and their guests.

Listen to the community partners and ask for their feedback. User research should be applied to both providers and consumers in the community to ensure the best possible experience for all.

Designing better community-based services

Perhaps Dill’s most important point is this: good design and delivery of community-based services is all about setting expectations well in advance of any transaction and supporting community members with everything they need to be successful. As non-employee brand ambassadors, representatives like Airbnb hosts are in control of a lot of the experience guests are paying for. The better they look, the better the overall service looks.

As I’ve considered and digested this, these are my synthesized takeaways for other readers to learn from:

  • Treat community members like partners. Keep communication channels open, provide qualitative and quantitative feedback, host in person meetings and gatherings, and otherwise fully welcome these folks inside the brand tent.
  • No surprises. Fully detail the experience on offer in clear images and text so that customers get exactly what they want.
  • Remember the human touch. Build systems that highlight the individuals involved and keep them in direct contact with as little visible technology in the way as possible.

Dill’s full talk has its own page at the O’Reilly Design Conference website, and for more about aligning UX between physical and virtual spaces, check out UX IRL: Syncing the Online and Offline Experience right here on UX Booth.

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