Earlier this summer, Airbnb paired up with the media startup News Deeply on an installation called Shadow to Light for San Francisco Design Week. Guided by the festival’s theme, “Question Everything,” the two companies wanted to create a piece that would challenge visitors’ viewpoints and ask them to recognize implicit biases. But when Airbnb experience research manager Anne Diaz, who led the content development of the project, asked the News Deeply journalists how they report without bias, she was surprised to hear them say that they don’t. “Everyone has bias,” Diaz tells Co.Design. “The thing to do is to make sure you are recognizing that bias and talking to people with a range of perspectives—particularly people who disagree with the perspective or angle of the piece.”
The resulting installation—a multimedia project that told refugee stories through the possessions in their bags—sought to demonstrate that strategy for visitors of SF Design Week. But after the installation ended, Diaz and her design team wanted to continue to relate the journalistic approach to bias to design. Recently, Airbnb Design launched a “toolkit” for designers called Another Lens–the series of questions is meant to be used as a framework for designers at large to use in creating products and services that are inclusive and useful for most people.
“It’s easy for designers to create in a bubble, to design for themselves—especially with the ease of and access to technology,” says Diaz. “It’s incredibly important that we’re thinking about who we are creating [a product] for, how we want them to use it, and why they want to use it.”
While journalistic ethics have long been a core part of the industry, the same focus on bias and balance has only been a recent topic for discussion in the design world, at least in those terms. Microsoft has an inclusive design kit and a general design strategy centered around the philosophy that designing for the most vulnerable among us will result in better products and experiences for all. Google focuses on accessibility practices for their developers for the same reasons. Industry leaders like John Maeda and Kat Holmes have built their careers on speaking on the importance of diversity in the field, and how human-centered design should encompass potential users of all different races, genders, and abilities.
Now Airbnb is working to catch up. Samara, Airbnb’s design studio, has been busy working on Airbnb’s humanitarian efforts, like it’s Open Homes platform, though which the company plans to provide short-term housing over the next five years for 100,000 people in need. The team is also working on urban planning initiatives that focus on brining communities together. Developing a toolkit to help its designer’s navigate these waters—and meanwhile advertise Airbnb’s new philanthropic ethos—falls in line with its company’s message of doing well by going good.
For the toolkit, Diaz and her team at Airbnb worked with News Deeply to establish their main areas of focus, which became the three sections of the toolkit: “Balance your bias”; “Consider the opposite”; and “Embrace a growth mindset.” Each is informed by psychological principles, such as confirmation bias, or the tendency to favor information that reinforces one’s existing beliefs. To get designers to consider what their biases might be and how to make sure they are challenging them and incorporating other’s perspectives, each section of the toolkit is broken down into five questions. These range from “What are my lenses?” to “Who might disagree with what I’m designing?” and “What am I challenging as I create this?”
Since the toolkit is for designers, Diaz says, they designed it accordingly—with a simple, card-based system that clearly shows all of the questions. Clicking into a question will give the user some context and the science that it’s based on. Designers can come into the toolkit, choose a few questions at random, and use them to step out of the often insular design process to check their own perspective. It’s more of a reminder and set of discussion points than a manual to follow from top to bottom—challenging biases you are not consciously aware of requires constantly stepping outside of yourself, being open to other viewpoints, and a willingness to improve.
Airbnb designers have been using the toolkit internally as a reference while working on projects, and have plans to integrate the questions into an inclusive design curriculum that Airbnb designers will teach high school students. One thing Airbnb employees have taken away from this process themselves is the idea to implement an international panel of Airbnb hosts to give weekly feedback on Airbnb products and services. While the program is currently in pilot phase in Sydney, the company plans to launch 12 more panels around the world by early 2018. So far, the panel has helped Airbnb designers gather multiple perspectives around how hosts are using the mobile app versus the website, how they prefer to communicate with guests, and suggestions for improveming to the tools Airbnb provides for hosts. The idea is to incorporate as many voices into the process as possible for the company to understand who it is designing for and constantly reinvent the standard. “We have to get outside our own heads to design responsibly,” Diaz says.