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Steve Selzer: Designing for Friction

About this talk

As experience design manager for Airbnb, Steve Selzer doesn’t fear friction; he embraces it. Avoiding friction means removing “opportunities for serendipity, confrontation, and personal growth,” says Selzer. In this talk, he not only outlines how his team navigates friction they encounter, but how they strategically create it.

Steve Selzer, Experience Design Manager, Airbnb

Steve Selzer is a designer, manager, and creative leader at Airbnb. Over the last decade, he has led design for a broad range of companies — from startups to Fortune 500 companies spanning education, finance, entertainment, consumer products, transportation, communications, and social enterprise.

Today, Selzer leads the Business Travel design team, which is focused on transforming the experience people have when they travel for work. He also leads the Payments design team, whose focus is two-fold: enabling more people to transact on our platform, and empowering Airbnb Hosts to be successful entrepreneurs.

Prior to Airbnb, Selzer was a creative director at global innovation firm Frog Design. He is passionate about human-centered design and focused on building products that responsibly advance the human experience.

Full Transcript


So, I want to start by talking about this, this word, this idea, this notion of ‘better’. I was reading a New Yorker article. It featured Jony Ive and he said something that really stuck with me. He said that, “So much of our manufactured environments testify to carelessness. Things are developed to be different, not better.” And it made me ask this question. What makes something better? What makes the iPhone 7 better than the iPhone 6 to Jony? And maybe more importantly what makes it better than say, the Google Pixel? And how do we even get to a sort of conviction that something is better, right? How do we arrive at those conclusions? We made value judgements. And as designers, product managers, CEOs we’re making value judgements every day all the time. But when we’re designing for other people, right, we need to lean on this process to ensure that those values aren’t just our own, but those values are representative of the people that we’re designing for. We immerse ourselves in the context and the culture; understand their lives; immerse ourselves to the extent that we can, you know, in these situations and live a day in their lives as well to try to understand and empathize. We bring them into our design process and not just design for them but design with them. And help them build the skills so that they can design for themselves.

So, you might say that we are, when we practicing the human centered design process, designing with their values in mind. But I have a little problem with that because we are human too. And as human translators, we can’t objectively take the insights that we get and purely translate those over into design solutions without influencing them even in the slightest maybe even unconscious way with our own values, our own bias. And so, I believe that we need to first, right, if we’re going to responsibly design for others, we must first know ourselves.

So, I’ve been thinking a little bit about my life in San Francisco and mostly just sort of an emerging thing, this on-demand economy. These really frictionless services, these services and products that remove the friction, but in service of a life full of convenience and ease. And you can think about the teams behind these products. They’re, you know, practicing the human center design process. They’re creating incredible products. But in isolation, I don’t really see a problem with that. It’s when you zoom out and you realize, in aggregate, when these products are taking over all of the different aspects of our lives, this is making a really strong argument for what the future should be: one in which our lives are frictionless and full of convenience and ease. And so I think, Startup L. Jackson said it best, [LAUGHTER] when he said the Uberfication of everything is turning San Francisco into an assisted living community for the young. [LAUGHTER] #youngisthenewold [LAUGHTER] And you know, that conjures an image for me, much like this. And for those of you who maybe don’t recognize this film, this is Wall-E a sort of a dystopian view of the future where people are gliding around in this frictionless world. But you know, strange things, while that’s a dystopian view and maybe further out there, but you know, strange things are already sort of happening right now. [LAUGHTER]

But I don’t believe in the dystopian view of this. I just want to make this point, that when we remove all friction, we’re removing opportunities for important things like serendipity, confrontation, and personal growth. And I think this isn’t a problem on an individual bases, but at scale, if this begins to take over our lives, it may skew our values, social values and community values, toward intolerance and impatience and inability to navigate change. And so I come to this question: is this the future as it should be? I’d also like to reflect on timelines. I mean, I think, you know, we are physiological and emotional beings. Our timelines, our processes, are really slow. I mean think about how long it takes to get over grief, or how long it takes to transform your body physically. And we used to have a long time to think about how these products and technologies, you know, in their, in our lives, we could think about their effect on us and we can think about whether we value them or whether we want to reject them. But we’ve arrived at a moment when technology is just moving too fast for that. If I downloaded and subscribed to a life where all of those services were in my life, arguably my life tomorrow would look unrecognizable to my life today. And so, back to this question: is this the future as it should be? Well who, who’s supposed to be asking and answering this?

I think if we’re practicing human-centered design, then it is our responsibility. We are the one’s creating these products and these services at scale and putting them out in the world. It’s our responsibility. So, I’ll turn it around for a moment. And ask you. What do you value? What do you think is better? And we’re already living in this world. Right, this on-demand economy has arrived. But if you look at the decade ahead, with on-demand economy intersecting with the rise of automation, this future is going to be almost, it will be hard to even not participate in it. You’ll almost be dis-incentivized. Right? It will be so cheap, so easy, so convenient, and socially we’ll believe that that’s the right thing to do, that it will be hard to not be a part of it. And so, I think Bill Buxton, of course, when he says, you know, “Now that we can do anything, what should we do?” is really posing the right question. And so, I’ll take a stab at it. I think we should design for friction. Now let me be clear about that. I’m not talking about making your product unusable, like whatever this precarious object is trying to do. [LAUGHTER] I’m talking about designing for friction that leads to two things: self-discovery and personal growth.

So, at Airbnb, we are working to remove the friction from digital moments in our product like this, which enables hosts to list their home or their experience on our platform. We’re also removing friction from the guest experience to make it an easier way for you to book a place. But we’re doing that in service of this. In service of the friction that is inherent in travel. In getting out of your element somewhere uncomfortable, somewhere new. And unlike traditional accommodations, we celebrate the diversity and uniqueness and wonderful qualities of homes. So, hopefully you find something that reflects either back to you a part of you, or possibly, something that you really need in the trip that you’re about to take. But, if that’s all we did, travel could still look like this. You could still be alone and clutching a pamphlet full of advertisements for tours and guides and not really, maybe, connecting the way you might want to with the city or the people. And that’s why we do another really important thing. We cultivate a community of wonderful and hospitable hosts, who can help you see the world through their eyes. And if only for a moment, right, you can connect with this person, then maybe you might sense or feel even for a moment, a sense of belonging. And this is actually a really interesting point, which is that talking about being out of your element, somewhere new, somewhere uncomfortable and yet feeling a strange sense of belonging with this person’s community that you may be a part of, something really interesting happens at this intersection. You have these moments of self-discovery. And if you’ve ever and this, or you know, or heard people say it, they come back and they say, “Yeah I could see myself moving there” or they didn’t even realize that they were capable of doing something like really getting out of their element and “I didn’t think I would ever do something like that”. These are the moments that we look for at this intersection.

And now the question is, why aren’t we seeing this everywhere? And I think it goes back to the point especially in that curve I was showing you earlier. Our relationship with technology is not this, right? We don’t turn to it as a way for us to get more friction into our lives. Rather we look at it as a way to remove that friction to provide ease, convenience, and to solve real needs. But I think, technology is really effective of this and so effective that at this elbow of the curve that we’re experiencing, we’re feeling technology meeting our needs and expectations faster and faster and so our expectations are going up faster and faster. And it can be difficult, you know, on this roller coaster to, you know, step off this for a moment, pause, reflect, and ask yourself: is this really what I want? Is this really the future as it should be?

But what I realized as a human centered designer, is we are often in these situations with people, where we immerse ourselves in their lives and we ask them these deep questions like: what do you care about, what do you desire? Maybe not exactly in those words, but that’s what we’re trying to get at. And more importantly, we want to dig. We want to get to the deeper levels of ‘why’. What is driving these people? But if we can do that effectively, and you know, if you’ve ever done this you’ve probably also experienced, your participants of self-discovery, possibly even personal growth. And what I realized is that, in that moment, you are the source of friction. You are the one who enabled that experience for them. But there is a problem with that, right? As an individual human centered designer, you’re not scalable. Even if all of us went out there and practiced this, we might not truly be enough. But, I believe, if you design for friction into the products and services that all of you represent, you might be. Okay, so how? Unfortunately, I’m out of time. No, I’m kidding. [LAUGHTER] I have four strategies. We’ll walk through each one of these. And these are just a few examples, and I hope that there are many more. But, let’s get started with skill building.

So, this one is pretty straight forward. In a sea of on-demand food delivery services, where you get a ready-made meal, you know, piping hot, ready to eat. There are a few, you know, Blue Apron, Purple Carrot, they have a slightly different model. They source the best ingredients. They portion it out for the number of people. They create these incredible recipes. They ship everything to you, but they leave one critical step for you. And that is the actual act of cooking the meal. And while you’re sitting there, or standing there, chopping the vegetables, or smelling, you know, the meal, getting prepared, you might discover that you really enjoy this or maybe that you’re really good at it. Or maybe not, and that’s alright. But either way, this act of building a skill, whether you decide you don’t want to continue to build it or not, is an act of self-discovery. And at best it can lead to moments of personal growth. So, that one’s pretty straightforward.

I want to talk about self-reflection for a moment. Which you could consider a skill in and of itself, but I think that it’s worth calling out. And there’s one product that I’ve come across that I really like. It’s called Unstuck. And essentially it’s a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and design methods really that helps people who feel stuck in a moment understand why they’re feeling that and work their way through it. They ask you questions like this “how are you feeling?” And show you a series of cards with emotions on them so you can kind of pick these and figure that out. Well, how am I feeling? They have a lightweight journaling moment to get you to actually just articulate what that feeling is. They do card sorting: this is me, this is not me. And by discovering what you are and are not, again, arriving at these sort of insights and realizations.

All of that amounts to this moment, which is an archetype, right? We do this with research we create these archetypes. That’s what they do too. And the archetype represents the attitudes and behaviors that you are representing in this stuck moment, right? You are not this person, but in this moment, you’re showing those signs. And then they provide resources to help you figure out how to unravel that and how to become unstuck. I think this is a wonderful product. My only maybe critique of it is that it is such an overt product, that there’s so much friction in picking this thing up and even just trying to use it right? And so, my ask would be how could we find ways to infuse self-reflection like this product but into the products that we use every day that we have habits around. So that it’s not, sort of the stigma, in the friction to even just pick it up and try it for the first time.

Alright, collisions and just to be clear I don’t mean car collisions, I mean people collisions. Although they all kind of lead to the same thing. So, this one an interesting study by Nicholas Epley who surveyed people on buses and planes and public transit and found from his study that consistently the people who sat in solitude described their experience in the most negative ways. And those who engaged in conversation with a complete stranger had the most positive experience. And hopefully again, we’ve all experienced this. And we know that these moments, when serendipitous, when delightful actually can be opportunities for personal growth. The exchange of information, the exchange of perspectives can be a wonderful thing. And so, it is great to see products like Lyft, who introduced their Line carpooling service, which allowing multiple Lyft passengers to carpool together. But, they went further and developed a profile feature to facilitate conversations among people. And, what I really love about how they frame this is that, as they were writing and describing the reasons why thy built this feature, they say, “It’s a big step toward our vision of reconnecting people and communities through better transportation.” And there it is, right? They are a transportation company, but their real mission is to drive connection between people and communities. They found a way to insert the friction back in.

Another example of collision is back at Airbnb. So, one of the teams that I lead is the business travel team. And we have this challenge of creating a product that’s a really good alternative to hotels for business travelers who find the ease and convenience of hotels really compelling. And we spent a lot of time working with our hosts and the community to figure out how could we make classification of homes that could be maybe a little bit better for these travelers. So, we created what we call business travel ready homes. They’re the entire home. They have an easy self-check-in process. They have these amenities that you need when you’re traveling for work. And we’ve introduced a filter. You can find only those listings if that’s all you want. And these are absolutely some of the best homes on the platform. But, what we did was, we kind of removed all of the friction from the experience there. And in some ways mirrored what the hotels can offer. And so, it’s really important that we go back to the stories that we hear over and over again like this one from Scott, where he says when talking about hosts meeting this person when he stayed in a private room instead of an entire home, that “We were up until 1:00am talking…speaking of being energized after one of the most exhausting days of my life – it was amazing.” And we’ve heard this countless times and it makes us stop and ask ourselves, “What else do we need to do now?” Because is business travel ready? Are those homes, is that enough? Or is there a deeper more underlying need here? Is there a desire to have collisions with people? And that’s something that we’re revisiting right now.

So, now that we know that collisions can lead to these wonderful serendipitous moments, we know from the study that people describe their experience in the most positive ways when they have these moments, the question is why don’t we choose this more often? Why aren’t we always opting to talk to the stranger in the elevator, talk to the person next to us on the plane. And I think there are many number of reasons. Of course, there’s a lot of reasons, but one reason I’m really particularly interested in is that these collisions, they also have this potential, to lead to confrontation.

So, let me talk about confrontation for a moment. Confrontation – the way I define it is the idea of confronting that which you are afraid of or confronting something that’s difficult or confronting a person that you may have differences with, and being able to work through them. The positive sense of confrontation. Unfortunately, this is what confrontation looks like on the internet. [LAUGHTER] Right? But, I love that gif so much. But, yeah, you know, we’ve all probably you know, felt this, this sort of protection standing behind the gate and being able to you know confront each other from that perspective. But, I really love this quote from Tim Ferriss. He says, “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”

And let me use one more Airbnb example to show you what this can look like. We asked ourselves this question: “What happens when we encourage guests to reach out to their hosts when they need support, rather than reaching out to Airbnb? And we experimented a little bit in our product and ran a survey to follow up and understand across a wide range of issues, anything from like more logistical questions, issues with cleanliness concerns, even hosts canceling on guests. And we had a few questions that we, a few hypothesis that we asked ourselves. One, we thought that hosts would feel burdened is we encouraged their guests to contact them. And, I guess maybe not really surprising, hosts actually felt fine doing that. And it makes sense. These are incredible people, really hospitable. It didn’t make a difference, of course they were willing to do it. We thought guests maybe aren’t going to receive the best support from their hosts. Right, they’re maybe not trained in providing the kinds of support that people need. Again, guests were actually just as satisfied with the support that they received from their hosts as with the support that they received from Airbnb. But this last question, this last hypothesis, was that we thought that if a guest who had a problem had to go to their host, that this would actually negatively impact their trip satisfaction. And what was surprising was it was not only not negative, it wasn’t even neutral. We saw this. Guests who received help from their hosts had a higher overall trip satisfaction. And this is fascinating, and we’re still digging into why and understanding exactly what were these levers, what were these specific experiences about.

But I think it puts us in a position to ask this question or to encourage this discussion. Which is, how can we help people develop the skills and mindset to constructively navigate confrontation? To constructively work together through these problems and issues that we have? And I would argue that now more than ever, we need to be focusing on efforts like this. So, these are the four strategies just to re-cap. And I’ll leave you with this last little thought exercise. Imagine yourselves back at work tomorrow – sorry, Monday – don’t go to work tomorrow. [LAUGHTER] Being asked to remove friction from the product experience, being asked to make it easier to use, make it faster, and so forth. Just ask yourself this question. What do we lose when we remove this friction from the experience? And hopefully, I’ve shown you a few things that you can lose and hopefully you agree that maybe those are some things that we should show that we value both through the decisions we make as well as in the products that we’re putting out there in the world. Thank you.


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