Why Photography Matters: an Airbnb Case Study

This is a superb read on one of my favorite start-ups, Airbnb, and how the company was able to double its revenues after a critical decision was made: get professional-looking photos of the listings.

At the time, Airbnb was part of Y Combinator. One afternoon, the team was poring over their search results for New York City listings with Paul Graham, trying to figure out what wasn’t working, why they weren’t growing. After spending time on the site using the product, Gebbia had a realization. “We noticed a pattern. There’s some similarity between all these 40 listings. The similarity is that the photos sucked. The photos were not great photos. People were using their camera phones or using their images from classified sites.  It actually wasn’t a surprise that people weren’t booking rooms because you couldn’t even really see what it is that you were paying for.”

Graham tossed out a completely non-scalable and non-technical solution to the problem: travel to New York, rent a camera, spend some time with customers listing properties, and replace the amateur photography with beautiful high-resolution pictures. The three-man team grabbed the next flight to New York and upgraded all the amateur photos to beautiful images. There wasn’t any data to back this decision originally. They just went and did it. A week later, the results were in: improving the pictures doubled the weekly revenue to $400 per week. This was the first financial improvement that the company had seen in over eight months. They knew they were onto something.

This was the turning point for the company. Gebbia shared that the team initially believed that everything they did had to be ‘scalable.’ It was only when they gave themselves permission to experiment with non-scalable changes to the business that they climbed out of what they called the ‘trough of sorrow.’

Here’s the takeaway:

Gebbia’s experience with upgrading photographs proved that code alone can’t solve every problem that customers have. While computers are powerful, there’s only so much that software alone can achieve. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs tend to become comfortable in their roles as keyboard jockeys. However, going out to meet customers in the real world is almost always the best way to wrangle their problems and come up with clever solutions. 

Read the rest here.


On Business and Design Considerations of 1st Class Airplane Seating

David Owen, writing in The New Yorker, in a cleverly titled article “Game of Thrones,” describes the business and design considerations of seats in modern-day airplanes. While the economy seating is fairly routine (cramped), there is a lot of creativity involved in how 1st class and business seating is designed and built:

Airplane interiors are even more tightly regulated. Nearly every element undergoes a safety-enhancing process called “delethalization”: seats have to withstand an impact equal to sixteen times the force of gravity, and to remain in place when they do, so that they don’t block exit routes or crush anyone, and they can’t burst into flames or release toxic gases when they get hot. Doing something as simple as slightly increasing the thickness of the padding in a seat cushion can necessitate a new round of testing and certification, because a more resilient seat could make a passenger bounce farther after an impact, increasing the risk of injury caused by turbulence or a hard landing. Delethalizing some premium-class seats—in which a passenger’s head and torso have a lot of room to accelerate before being stopped by something solid—requires the addition of a feature that many passengers don’t even realize is there: an air bag concealed in the seat belt.

This bit about how expensive video-back video screens is fascinating:

In economy, the tight spacing of the seats makes air bags mostly unnecessary. But seat-back video screens and the hard frames that surround them pose a safety challenge, partly because of the potential for injuries caused by head strikes, and partly because the computers and the electrical systems that serve them have to be both fireproof and fully isolated from the plane’s—so that crossed wires in somebody’s seat don’t allow a ten-year-old playing a video game to suddenly take control of the cockpit. Largely as a result, in-flight entertainment systems are almost unbelievably expensive. The rule of thumb, I was told, is “a thousand dollars an inch”—meaning that the small screen in the back of each economy seat can cost an airline ten thousand dollars, plus a few thousand for its handheld controller.


The article mentions but doesn’t link to the TheDesignAir’s Top 10 International Business Classes of 2014 (it’s well worth a look).

Jony Ive on Philosophy and Authenticity of Design

One of the things that’s interesting about design [is that] there’s a danger, particularly in this industry, to focus on product attributes that are easy to talk about. You go back 10 years, and people wanted to talk about product attributes that you could measure with a number. So they would talk about hard drive size, because it was incontrovertible that 10 was a bigger number than 5, and maybe in the case of hard drives that’s a good thing. Or you could talk about price because there’s a number there.

But there are a lot of product attributes that don’t have those sorts of measures. Product attributes that are more emotive and less tangible. But they’re really important. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really important that you can’t distill down to a number. And I think one of the things with design is that when you look at an object you make many many decisions about it, not consciously, and I think one of the jobs of a designer is that you’re very sensitive to trying to understand what goes on between seeing something and filling out your perception of it. You know we all can look at the same object, but we will all perceive it in a very unique way. It means something different to each of us. Part of the job of a designer is to try to understand what happens between physically seeing something and interpreting it.

I think that sort of striving for simplicity is not a style. It’s an approach and a philosophy. I think it’s about authenticity and being honest. Not just taking something crappy and styling the outside in an arbitrary disconnected way.

–Jony Ive, via this blog post titled “Jony Ive is Not a Graphic Designer” (per this PR document, Ive is in charge of Human Interface at Apple).

A Profile of App Designer Loren Brichter

Jessica Lessin has a nice profile of Loren Brichter, creator of one of my favorite apps on iOS, Letterpress:

Mr. Brichter, whose design aesthetic is inspired by information theorists like Edward Tufte, a proponent of minimizing extraneous information in graphic designs, says he thinks up new features for apps based on how people move objects in the real world.

“Everything should come from somewhere and go somewhere,” he says, adding that he’s irked by apps that have menus that pop up or collapse on themselves because the interactions aren’t real. “The most important thing is obviousness. The problem is overdesign.”

Loren Brichter was the first developer to create the “pull to refresh” gesture in some of the iOS apps, particularly useful for Twitter.

“You” vs. “Me” in Social Apps

Dustin Curtis begins his latest blog post with a question:

A question that inevitably comes up very early in the process of designing a new app is this: should the interface refer to the user as “your” or “my” when talking about the user’s stuff, as in “my profile” or “your settings”? For a long time, this question ate at my soul. Which is right?

It’s not something I thought about until reading his entry. I like his conclusion:

If we think about interfaces as literal “interfaces” to tasks (like how people are interfaces to their ideas), instead of as tools themselves, it makes sense for the interface to take on a personality, and to become a “you” to the user. Thus, it would make sense for the interface to refer to a user’s stuff as “your stuff,” because the interface is just a medium between the user and what she wants to accomplish or find. In a way, the interface takes on a social characteristic, and becomes a humanoid assistant by utilizing existing functions of the human brain’s social systems.

After thinking about this stuff for a very long time, I’ve settled pretty firmly in the camp of thinking that interfaces should mimic social creatures, that they should have personalities, and that I should be communicating with the interface rather than the interface being an extension of myself. Tools have almost always been physical objects that are manipulated tactually. Interfaces are much more abstract, and much more intelligent; they far more closely resemble social interactions than physical tools.

The answer for me, then, is that you’re having a conversation with the interface. It’s “Your stuff.”


The History of the Escape Key

The New York Times provides some fascinating history behind the “Escape” key, ubiquitous on computer keyboards:

The key was born in 1960, when an I.B.M. programmer named Bob Bemer was trying to solve a Tower of Babel problem: computers from different manufacturers communicated in a variety of codes. Bemer invented the ESC key as way for programmers to switch from one kind of code to another. Later on, when computer codes were standardized (an effort in which Bemer played a leading role), ESC became a kind of “interrupt” button on the PC — a way to poke the computer and say, “Cut it out.”

Why “escape”? Bemer could have used another word — say, “interrupt” — but he opted for “ESC,” a tiny monument to his own angst. Bemer was a worrier. In the 1970s, he began warning about the Y2K bug, explaining to Richard Nixon’s advisers the computer disaster that could occur in the year 2000. Today, with our relatively stable computers, few of us need the panic button. But Bob Frankston, a pioneering programmer, says he still uses the ESC key. “There’s something nice about having a get-me-the-hell-out-of-here key.”

Will the keyboard come with computers in ten to fifteen years?

Oliver Reichenstein: “Good Design is Invisible”

Oliver Reichenstein is the founder and director of Information Architects (iA), the Tokyo, Zurich, and Berlin-based design agency. The company has found recent success in iOS and Mac app development. Writer for iPad is a minimalist text editor (I have it installed on my iPad, and highly recommend it), and per The Verge, “its focus-enhancing combination of sparse visuals and refined typography” has since made the leap to OS X and the iPhone.  Reichenstein recently took the time to answer some of questions on design and development with The Verge:

On invisibility of good design:

To give you an idea, with the new Retina displays we had to optimize the typeface so it looks like it used to look on the iPad 2. To do this we had to grade the typeface, producing subtly different versions for each class of display so they have the same visual weight.

To the user the type looks exactly the same on the retina display as on the iPad 2. This required a lot of tweaking from our side (to find the right definition), and the deep professional knowledge of Bold Monday. Users don’t notice this, but they don’t need to. Good user interface design takes care of irritations before they appear.

Good design is invisible. Good screen design happens in the subatomic level of microtypography (the exact definition of a typeface), the invisible grid of macrotypography (how the typeface is used), and the invisible world of interaction design and information architecture. Minimum input, maximum output, with minimal conscious thought is what screen designers focus on. And just as type designers and engineers we do not try to find the perfect solution but the best compromise.

On the origin of iA Writer:

There were so many instances leading to it. I designed my first text editor in the early eighties. I even created a pixel font on a 5 x 5 pixel grid for the text editor. I did all that so I could see more text on the 256 x 192 resolution of my Dragon 32. Some of the ideas came from earning my philosophy student living as an informatics teacher in the nineties teaching MS Word and informatics, desperately trying to get pupils to stop fumbling and to start writing.

The biggest motivation to build iA Writer came from the mad idea to create our own hardware. A digital writing machine (the German word for typewriter). Apparently it is not that hard to produce hardware anymore if you have the right contacts in China. It is still madness for a small studio though. But months after our first sketches Apple presented the iPad, and then producing our own hardware was not necessary anymore.

The Mac version happened because the iOS version was such a big success. We tried to duplicate the same user experience in a completely different environment, which took a fair amount of time to do — and only a couple of weeks to copy.

The interview is also worth reading to get an idea of how Japanese and Western design differ in concept and execution.  As Oliver notes, Japanese web or app design is not comparable to Japanese art, graphic design, or architecture.


Note: this blog post on the iA blog about how to correct Twitter errors is excellent. Highly recommend it.