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Airbnb’s former CDO shares how to design world-class digital products

“It’s satisfying and rewarding because it teaches you so much in 15 seconds.”

Alex Schleifer is talking about the first level of the original Super Mario Bros. video game, which he cites as an example of brilliant, enduring digital design.

“You start playing and right away you’re going left to right. And you can jump! And then there’s a Goomba coming your way, so you jump and hit something and a mushroom comes out of it. And then you can get bigger from the mushroom.”

Schleifer uses this video game as an example of great design because without being told or taught, you’ve learned three important elements that persist throughout the entire experience in a matter of 30 seconds.

“It’s simple but it’s genius, right? Because they don’t stop and tell you anything. You learn as you go. If your company can make an app that makes someone feel like they have accomplished something and learned at the same time – that’s what I love.”

Schleifer’s design and tech insights are well-earned via an illustrious career that has intersected with the evolution of the internet over the last 20 years. 

Formerly the Chief Design Officer (CDO) at Airbnb, he’s also an investor, and the co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of UX Magazine. Currently, he’s founder of Universal Entities, a San Francisco-based narrative studio that uses writing, design, and technology to tell better stories.

As someone who has played an active role in the adoption of digital tech, Schleifer is always looking at larger trends across the industry and what they might mean for our collective digital future — as well as how we design digital products. 

For him, a key part of that future is the shift to Web 3.0.

As the internet evolves, digital experiences must too

Web 3.0 is likely the next evolution of the internet.

Looking back, Web 1.0 was the introduction of basic web browsing, email and real-time news feeds. And Web 2.0 is our current era of interactivity and user-generated content. 

The expectation is that Web 3.0 will be another paradigm shift, featuring emerging technologies (e.g. blockchain, NFTs, cryptocurrency) that create richer experiences and more democratized opportunities for creators and users across the internet. 

“It does feel like a potential shift into a big, new technological era,” says Schleifer. “There’s lots of talk of the future of immersive interfaces in artificial reality and virtual reality. There’s crypto, there’s the Metaverse.”

While there is growing excitement around all this new technology, Schleifer underscores that we’re still in the early days.

“We’re seeing a lot of activity even if we don’t know where things are going to land,” he says. “All we really know is that there’s people throwing stuff at the wall. We don’t know what’s going to stick.”

Regardless of where we end up in this next phase of the internet, Schleifer says it’s very likely the way we interface with tech — and thus each other — will have to adapt. 

“Lots of ideas are going to be stupid and worthless, but a few of them are going to change the way we use technology,” he explains.

So even though we don’t know exactly what will define this next period yet, investing in an adaptable approach that is prepared to embrace change is integral. 

The importance of keeping it simple

No matter where we end up with Web 3.0, Schleifer says there’s still room for improvement when designing digital experiences, and that most digital products are too complex.

“The pandemic has just reinforced that everything is too complicated and [as designers] we don’t respect people’s time. In a world where someone will jump between 10-20 apps per day, we haven’t considered what that experience is like for them,” he says. 

Schleifer believes the shift between multiple apps is frustrating because each of them requires a change in pattern or behaviour of the user. 

“It’s like if a faucet had hot water on the left in one room, and on the right in another. That’s what we’re doing. TV apps all work differently from one to another. It’s everywhere. As an industry, we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for rolling out products that cause these constant micro-frustrations.”

When it comes to enabling better user experiences now and in future, simplicity is often key and value creation is integral.  

Innovation should make things better, not (necessarily) different 

One of the ways Airbnb disrupted traditional hotel and tourism industries was by facilitating simple, but remarkable digital experiences in the space.

“The best apps feel comfortable and like a reflex when you use them,” Schleifer notes. “But then they’re somehow better and delightful when you use them.” 

This is much more important than trying to make things different, just to prove you can make something unique, he says. 

When designing Airbnb, the company did create new user experience patterns, but it did so in order to make a complex process feel simple, while also providing value.

“It’s complicated to browse for a home. They’re all different. Some are small, some are huge. It’s not like shopping for a hair dryer,” explains Schleifer. 

“We did a lot of innovative design around how quickly the photos load, a user’s ability to swipe the photos, short sentences to show you things like the price, titles and ratings. We even did research to see what people were looking at so we could design in a way that reduced the cognitive load on users.” 

After all of that, Airbnb’s approach became the de facto standard in the industry, he says. 

Make sure your business — and approach to digital products — are ready to adapt, as needed

To say that the early days of COVID-19 were a significant challenge for the hospitality business, is an understatement. And of course Airbnb was no exception. 

Schleifer cites the company’s pandemic response as a good example of pivoting a digital product when business conditions suddenly change (as might be the case in future with Web 3.0 and other innovation). 

First and foremost, when facing unexpected shifts, “you kind of turn into a communications company,” he says. 

“It was a massive cooperation between different teams, just to make sure that everybody understood what was going on.” 

Airbnb modified its homepage to focus on local travel and other activities in a user’s neighbourhood, city or state, which helped many hosts maintain their business, says Schleifer.

From there, Airbnb focused on launching new products, such as online experiences. The key to the success of these new products was a shared, company-wide focus on getting the new solutions out the door, he says. 

“These things were being launched in two weeks, to hundreds of millions of people. Decisions were made really quickly.” 

And that was the secret to the organization’s ability to adapt, Schleifer explains. Usually, development takes a long time because an organization can’t achieve consensus. But the company as a whole rallied and focused on one key task at a time. 

He says ultimately, “the product that came out of that was actually better and more focused.” Because once again, “the roadmap was hugely simplified.”

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