Applying Airbnbs 11-star framework to the candidate experience

Airbnb is my absolute design hero. If you haven’t already read The Airbnb Story… by Leigh Gallagher, check out my summarized learnings here. I love their product, philosophy and values.

On Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale, interview with Brian Chesky, they talked about designing today’s Airbnb experiences using a 11-star framework.

The framework started out as a brainstorming exercise. The founders wanted to design a mind-blowing experience that would go viral. Starting with check-in, they brainstormed Airbnb’s equivalent of a 5-star hotel experience, and extrapolated from there.

I was so inspired that I decided to visualize it.

Airbnb’s 11-Star Experience, highlighting the ones discussed on the podcast

My visualization does no justice to Chesky’s energy on the podcast so I highly recommend hearing him out at minutes 10:36 to 13:23 of the episode.

Going from top to bottom, a 1-star is knocking on the door and no one opens. You blew it, you’ve lost your customer.

A 3-star would be knocking on the door and waiting 20 minutes for the host. True story, this happened to me but the host had a good excuse and I still love Airbnb.

A 5-star would be the expected experience — you knock on the door and get in. As Chesky puts it, “no big deal”.

A 6-star experience would be better than a hotel where the host welcomes you, shows you around and the apartment is stocked with amenities.

Progressing to the ultimate experience, a 11-star would be Elon Musk personally greeting you and telling you that “you’re going to space”.

Referring to Chesky’s words, designing the extremes helped find the sweet spot, which seems relatively feasible in comparison to the 10 and 11-stars.

I labeled this sweet spot within the “lines of feasibility”, which is the 6- and 7-star stories we hear today— a warm welcome from the host, surfboard or whatever you like prepared for you.

Applying it to the Candidate Experience

I was catching up with Edwin, an ex-boss-turned-good-friend, on our latest projects and details in life.

He founded another start-up, Terminal 1 (T1), a recruitment tech startup that uses machine learning and software automation to make job search and hiring more delightful for candidates and employers respectively.

I shared Airbnb’s 11-star framework with him and realized that it can be applied to their candidate experience. I offered to facilitate a workshop and co-design it with his team. Luckily, he agreed.

Designing the workshop

It always helps when you are designing something you can relate to, like job hunting.

I started the workshop by building relevance through personal stories, relating it to the business, and then using Airbnb’s 11-star framework to design the candidate experience.

Workshop structure plan

Wearing the Empathy Hat

Just like ice-breaking is a team building warm-up, design deserves an empathy warm-up.

Starting with individual ideation, I asked each team member to reflect on their personal stories and map out the different emotions felt.

Using RealTime Board as the documentation tool, it was a good place for them to look back and build on.

As you can imagine, we’ve all had our fair shares of good and bad. Usually good if we land the job, and not so good when we don’t.

Clusters of negative (left) and positive (right) emotions from personal job search and interview experiences

Brain Dumping Ideas

After individual ideation, I had everyone share their best and worst job search stories.

From a magical and immersive day at Disneyland, to a walk-and-talk interview at the Apple store, to a traumatizing case of identity theft. It was really heartwarming to hear the “wow”s and sympathy for every story shared.

Terminal 1 team sharing their personal stories

Since the team already listened to the podcast beforehand, we revisited Airbnb’s framework briefly and moved onto team ideation.

We grouped similar individual stories together and used chairs to represent each star, going from left to right, worst to best.

Walk-through exercise of brainstorming each starred experience, going from left to right, worst to best

The team walked through each chair to discuss the cut-offs for each respective star. We started from the worst 1-star “Lies & Manipulation” and arrived at the ultimate 10-star “Red Carpet”.

Even though Airbnb designed for 11-stars, it’s for every business to adapt to their own context. If 10-star is a wide enough spectrum, then 10 it is!

A 1-star “Lies & Manipulation” experience, which involves setting false expectations and identity theft
Terminal 1’s 10-Star experience, highlight the key ones

It was easy to come up with the worst case scenarios — false expectations are set, or candidates show up for an interview and the office doesn’t exist.

The expected experience is when candidate shows up at the right place, at the right time for the scheduled interview. This seems like a “duh”, but you’ll be surprised that it does fall through sometimes.

The best experiences helped put things in perspective. My favorite was how they adapted the story of helping a homeless person get a job to the 9 and 10-star experiences.

Owning the Candidate Experience

Most of our discussion revolved around interviews.

Turns out most candidates forget to print and bring their resumes to interviews. So how about an interview pack?

To make sure that candidates go to the right place, how about a guide to that co-working space with the ambiguous entrance? As candidates commute to the office, consider including a fact sheet on the employer and interview tips to study on the way there.

When meeting a candidate you really want to hire, how about welcoming them to the office with their favorite drink (presumably can be easily purchased from 7/11)? All Terminal 1 has to do is share this information with the employer before the interview (assuming ethical use of data). Totally feasible.

The team recognize that it’s hard to influence the employer-candidate interactions, but it’s not too dissimilar from what Airbnb does. Even though Airbnb doesn’t own the hosting experience, they motivate and work with hosts to deliver hospitality best practices.

For Terminal 1, the equivalent of such hospitality best practices would be making the experience more human and not feel like just another candidate “in the system”.

Instead of a formal interview in a freezing meeting room, arrange an informal chat at a coffee shop. Instead of watching promotional videos, have them meet the founder in-person.

Design Beyond the Current Journey

We often restrict ourselves to the existing journey when designing experiences. There are, however, more touch points to influence than we think.

For example, rejection is an inevitable and usually negative experience. Instead of a cold rejection email, how about designing for a positive rejection and provide constructive feedback to candidates?

For Terminal 1, they can incorporate such information into their algorithms to provide better matches and keep candidates motivated.

Next Steps

As with most workshops, they are always fun but the challenge is translating the ideas into feasible chunks.

Zooming in on each layer from the overall experience to micro interactions, we can group similar tasks together, form categories and delegate.

For instance, logistics could be scheduling meetings and preparing interview packs. Workflow could be handling applications, interviews and placement paperwork. Relationship management could be checking in with candidates and employers on satisfaction scores.

Every Workshop is a Learning Experience

Know when to stop and when to deep dive. It’s easy to brainstorm the worst experiences (jokingly), but the value of the lowest star experiences become marginal after a certain point.

Don’t assume. When we reviewed the personas, one of T1’s team mates stepped in briefly to explain what personas are. When the design process is your everyday work, it’s easy to assume that even the most sophisticated start-ups speak ‘design’.

Vocabulary is more important than you think. It was so nice to hear the team talk about the framework beyond work contexts over lunch, like “what was your 11-star restaurant experience?”. A common vocabulary is more important than we think when it comes to team alignment.

I enjoyed trying out Airbnb’s 11-star framework and am excited to incorporate it in my design toolkit.

Thank you again Edwin and Terminal 1 for the wonderful opportunity!

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