John Malkovich is a Service Designer: Airbnb and empathy

Service Design is about putting the user at the heart of the design process, you have to know by heart what your user thinks, does and feels. Not only to gain empathy but to create a service that is desirable, useful and efficient.

Gaining empathy means to understand another person’s feelings and thoughts without having had the same experience. This helps us Service Designer to identify unmet needs and transform them in opportunities for new products and services. Training empathy and observation is not something you can do in a few days in class. That’s why I decided to stay in Airbnb throughout the Service Design Master. For the last three months I’ve been changing weekly host and home. It’s somehow the closest you can get to the film Being John Malkovich a direct entry into someone else’s brain, someone else’s life.

A life that is reflected through the numerous objects the person choose to decorate her home and that ultimately reflect their passions and lifestyle. It’s about meeting a new Persona every week. During the Master we learned how to use the tool of Personas. Fictional archetypes that represent our potential users and are made after extensive observation of our target group to summarise social and demographic characteristics. They allow us to maintain an user centered approach during our design process and to assume their point of view. Although in our experience it is not easy to avoid stereotypes, especially when the time dedicated to research is so little as in the current 4-days workshops of the Master Programme.

Living this Airbnb experience allowed me to gather insights from the most divergent target groups: Chinese students, a young family in a co-housing complex and several youngsters for which Airbnb is substantial to make a living in the flexible labour market. Not only through the observation of their homes but through conversations with my hosts I was able to discover a a completely different city of Milan.

Jorge Luis Borges was right when he said “Give me five minutes of a man’s life over all the books in the world.”

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The same intrinsic need of curiosity and discover is described by Alain De Botton in his book The Art of Travel (2010).

De Botton explores what delights and what disappoints us while travelling through the quotes of great artists and writers. He depicts the modern disillusion of travellers, where the pittoresque expectations of the Italian lifestyle don’t match the chaotic and rumorous city of Milan. This disappointment is even higher in an anonymous hotel room, while diving into the live of a local and his neighbourhood gives a more familiar feeling. An aspect that Airbnb leverages with its well crafted user experience, by simplifying and building a sense of belonging. “The desire to feel welcomed, respected, and appreciated for who you are, no matter where you might be”, as they state on their blog. Among other factors this emphatic approach had made them so successful. In May 2015 Airbnb registered over 1.4 million listings and was valued around 24 billion US dollars (Wall Street Journal). Only in Milan Airbnb has 42.000 listings compared to the 54.000 Hotel beds. An offer that was highly appreciated during Expo 2015 where all of my hosts claimed to be constantly overbooked.

But what the hosts and guests underlined even more is the experience of meeting different cultures and people, because after all we are naturally curious and constantly in search of authenticity and participation… especially in the life of others. And isn’t this where Service Design starts?