“… design is much more than the look and feel of something – it’s the whole experience.” Joe Gebbia, Airbnb co-founder.

Airbnb is a total success story. In fact, it’s one of the most important success stories in the business world today. Success, in this regard, isn’t about how the company is poised to earn $3 billion in revenue in 2017 (and $8.5 billion annually by 2020), it’s about the way they successfully communicate trust through good design.

Joe Gebbia, Airbnb’s co-founder, bet his company (and his livelihood) on the belief that people can trust each other long enough to invite strangers, and stay, in another’s home.

Think about it for a second. Would you invite someone you didn’t know to stay with you? Would you stay in a stranger’s home? There is a trust challenge between people that Airbnb overcame and they did this through good design.

Overcoming our natural bias

In a joint study with Stanford University, Airbnb looked at how willing people were to trust strangers based on similarities (age, geography and location). The results, unsurprisingly, showed that people tend to trust those who are similar to them. “The more different somebody is, the less we trust them. Now, that’s a natural social bias,” says Gebbia.

How did Airbnb overcome the intrinsic social bias within us all? By adding reputation into the mix in the form of reviews. As Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky lamented, cities were once villages in which people knew each other. However, due to industrialisation and mass production, the personal feeling that people once had was replaced by “mass-produced and impersonal travel experiences,” and over time, “people stopped trusting each other.”

By enabling both hosts and guests to post reviews of one another, people could better understand the reputation of someone they were considering hosting or staying with. The higher the reputation of a host or guest, the more at ease people felt and the more trust was built.

Despite the differences and lack of similarities which would ordinarily make people wary of one another, trust could be built between people who had never met. “High reputation beats high similarity. The right design can actually help us overcome one of our most deeply rooted biases,” says Gebbia.

But they didn’t stop there. They made it compulsory for hosts and guests to upload profile photos. This may not seem like a big deal, but ordinarily, forcing users to do something has the effect of causing friction. And that’s a big no-no when it comes to getting users to register or fill out a form due to the potential for drop-off during the onboarding process.

Humanising home sharing

If social media platforms like Facebook don’t force users to upload a profile picture, why would Airbnb, a home sharing platform, be so insistent about this? Why would they risk creating friction and causing a drop-off in registrations? It’s all about the impact delivered by showing a person’s face, whether a host or guest.

Now, pretend for a second that Airbnb didn’t require hosts or guests to upload a profile picture and instead allowed you to have an avatar or post a picture of something else. Would it have the same impact as seeing a prospective host or guest smiling? It wouldn’t.

By insisting on profile pictures, Airbnb builds trust among users. They’ve successfully created a warm and inviting environment by humanising the platform. As Theo Miller wrote in Forbes, “It puts users at ease, which opens them up to the idea of staying in a stranger’s home. This human connection is critical for both the guest and the host.”

And once again, they didn’t stop there. Another trust-building tactic Airbnb has used so successfully is enabling users to connect social media accounts to their Airbnb profile. This has two notable knock-on effects. The first is that it creates more exposure for hosts as users can see where friends and family have stayed. The second is that it provides social proof.

Leveraging social proof

Social proof is a powerful tactic leveraged by marketers to overcome the objections of worried or suspicious consumers because it builds trust. By linking social media accounts to Airbnb profiles, it enables users to show that they have a life outside of the platform.

And that allows hosts and guests alike to leverage social proof and make decisions they feel comfortable with. Like inviting a stranger into their home or staying with a stranger on the other side of the world.

There are now 150 million people on Airbnb who either host people they’ve never met before in their homes or stay with people they’ve never met before. Would this be possible without trust? It wouldn’t. And it shows how Airbnb successfully overcame the trust divide with good design. How would you design for trust?

Designing for trust is something we think a lot about at Bambrick Media. As one of the foremost PPC, Social Media and SEO companies in Brisbane, we have helped over 500 Australian businesses over the past 15 years and look forward to helping you with your digital marketing goals. You can contact us here.