guests are pretty easy to spot out in the real world. A bedraggled troop, fumbling with their suitcases and phone while squinting and pointing at addresses. All they want is to find the they booked and surrender their luggage and themselves to a safe, clean and comfortable space. The most important part of the guest experience happens outside of the App. After the guest sends a request and books their stay, hands their guests over to the ’s care.

I decided to try my hand at being an Airbnb host and spent 2 years running 2 Airbnbs. As the host and occasional one woman cleaning service, I was accountable for everything from check-in to check-out while my brother handled the booking process. Turns out, renting your home on Airbnb is a lot of work!

A big part of creating an enjoyable experience comes from providing guests with comforts from home. This includes all the expected essentials like towels, bedding, kettles, etc. Providing extra touches of hospitality (bathrobes, coffee, and pastries) are going to take a guest’s experience over the top which will reflect in their reviews and ratings.

The very first touch point in the real world and the most challenging interaction to get right is the Airbnb check-in. It seemingly plays a small role in the overall Airbnb experience, but it also had the most moving parts. Guests have to navigate detailed check-in directions and descriptions to find and access their Airbnb.

As a guest, think back to your last check-in. You may have heard or even had conversations like this:

A conversation between two guests standing in front of a wall of lockboxes:

Guest 1: “We are looking for a lockbox with a Red Ribbon.

Guest 2: “I see four of them…no five…is that Red or Pink? What’s the code I’ll try them all.”

Four guests discussing their check-in: “He (host) said the building door would be open and then they just locked it. Well, a heads up would have been nice. We were waiting there for 30 minutes.”

This break down of communication is a pain point that leads to frustration. If my guests can’t get into the unit easily and quickly, then their frustrations will reflect in their reviews. Too many bad reviews cascade into lower ratings and the loss of my “Super Host Status,”. This, in turn, leads to lower listing visibility on Airbnb resulting in fewer bookings. As a host, my goal was to get every guest through that Airbnb front door quickly and easily.

RESEARCH AND PLANNING

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one size fits all solution. Because every home is different, every check-in process has to be different. Even Airbnb is aware of this as seen by the more recent introduction of their step by step visual check-in feature.

Of course, I wasn’t the only person Airbnbing their home in my building. We all shared the same problems, so most of my preliminary research was observing how other hosts managed their check-ins. I watched guests check-in and overheard (ok fine, eavesdropped on) many things that worked well and others that didn’t. I found a housekeeper who also cleaned for other hosts in the building. She also shared stories about other hosts and their guests.

For my first two months hosting, I just met my guests in-person to check them in. I got the opportunity to ask them questions and most importantly, greeting my guests helped me clarify any confusion with the initial drafts of my check-in instructions.

Based on my research, this is what I learned about my guests checking in:

  • I found there was always one designated “lead” guest. This guest made the booking, lead check-in and communication, and left the review at the end of their stay.
  • Not every guest will arrive on time for check-in. Depending on their itinerary, some get in early and others in the middle of the night.
  • There could be a language barrier. Guests come from all over the world to visit. In person, communication becomes a little tricky, but Airbnb’s in-app translation helps bridge that.
  • Guests traveling from other countries rarely have data to access the app or the internet.
  • Lockboxes can be tricky to figure out. Some guests have never encountered one.
  • There are also guests who are first time users or unclear on how Airbnb works.

After a couple of months, I went about the process of automating the check-in process based on what I had learned from my in-person meetings. I transitioned my instructions from meeting me to “meeting” a lockbox with the keys. Before I could switch over to a lockbox, I had to do the following:

  • Make the lockbox easily identifiable (You could spot that thing from outer-space after I got done with it)
  • Identify an accessible location to put the lockbox
  • Plan the best route to access the Airbnb
  • Account for guest parking if needed
  • Communicate all this information clearly with a video and instructions
  • Test to make sure this worked

DESIGNING THE GUEST CHECK-IN SYSTEM

Below I’ve illustrated a few of my check-in scenarios specific to my Airbnbs and how they changed based on external factors/monkeywrench in my operations. I planned and tested every route to make sure the check-in flow was as error-proof as possible.

Check-in Flow One: The Shared Metal Bar

Why this spot for the Lockbox?

Check-in flow 1: The lockbox bar
  • Hung on a shared metal bar with numerous other lockboxes making it easy to locate
  • Close to entry gate for guests without parking
  • Heavy foot traffic (safety factor)
  • Easy Access to Lockbox
  • 1 of only 20 lockboxes, with distinctive identifying feature (which one is the correct lockbox?)
  • Accessible 24 hours for guests arriving late at night.

Results:

  • This check-in flow had a learning curve. A couple of guests called for help to identify the right lockbox.
  • Over the next year, three guests called me to come in person and show them the lockbox location.

Airbnb Review:

“Hip location and a spacious, bright, modern apartment with a fantastic shower. Check-in instructions were perfect, and we loved arriving to tips and recommendations for Toronto. Thank you for being extra accommodating of our late arrival.” -Airbnb Guest

Monkeywrench one year later

One day, building management posted a notice on the shared lockbox bar. They warned they would be removing the bar along with all the lockboxes in 30 days.

Living on the edge as I do, I waited till the last minute to take my lockbox off because this meant changing all the check-in information.

Eventually, building management got around to the unnecessary step of ripping an iron bar out of a concrete wall, and that’s the story of how I lost my first lockbox.

Check-in Flow Two: The Stairwell

Check-in flow 2: Parking Stairwell

Why this spot?

  • Close to the parking entrance and convenient for guests with cars.
  • Close to entry gate for guests without parking
  • Medium foot traffic (Safety factor)
  • Secure spot inside the building stairwell
  • 1 of only three lockboxes, reducing the possibility of confusion (which one is the correct lockbox?)
  • Open 24 hours for guests arriving late at night

Results:

  • Over the next year, only two guests called me to come in person and show them the lockbox location.
  • Received positive feedback from users about the check-in process.

Airbnb Review:

“…The outdoor patio is a nice plus for a city apartment. Gowri responds quickly to texts and is very helpful. Self-check-in was easy, and so was the free parking. Gowri even provides a video that shows the check-in procedure. We walked everywhere we wanted to go…” -Airbnb Guest

Another Year Later…

One day, out of the blue, building management locked the stairwell with parking access, effectively making it an “Exit Only.” (If the elevator breaks down, everyone has to walk down the car ramp which we can all agree is very dangerous)

A “Locked Door” sign was put up and so began my search for a new lockbox spot.

Check-in Flow Three: The Second Stairwell

Check-in flow 3: The other Parking Stairwell

Why this spot?

  • Convenient for people who are parking. They can find a spot and then pick up the keys from the lockbox on their way to the unit.
  • A stairwell with low foot traffic seemed like a perfectly secure spot to hang the lockbox because it led into the building courtyard.
  • The only lockbox, therefore eliminating the possibility of confusion (which one is the correct lockbox?)
  • Open 24 hours for guests arriving late at night.

Results:

  • Out of the two check-ins, Both users had no issues accessing the key and getting into the unit.
  • 5 Star reviews for check-in.

About One Week Later…

I was pretty jazzed about this new spot until someone broke into my lockbox. Luckily, I hadn’t left a key in it. The break-in destroyed the lockbox, leaving it unsalvageable. So much for being a safe place :/

With under two months of guests left till I closed up shop. I didn’t bother finding an alternate solution.

Two lockboxes were destroyed in the making of this experience.

Communicating Check-in Information

As per usual, I sent the check-in information through the Airbnb App. I included the addresses, check-in videos with back up written instructions. I kept messages shorter by only giving guests the information they needed. For example, not including parking info for guest without cars. Asking questions (Eg: Do you need parking?) helped me confirm whether or not they had read & watched the information provided. Also, the Designer voice in my head kept reminding to tell them why I needed the info.

The check-in instructions stayed consistent. I refined the wording every time a guest asked clarifying questions, made mistakes or left a lower rating. I used their feedback to improve my process.

OUTCOMES/ LEARNINGS

My Airbnbs became a collection of UX experiments. Every guest was my user, every question indicating a lack of affordance, every rating a quantitative survey and every review a piece of qualitative feedback. I was swimming in first-hand data from every single guest, and it was invaluable when iterating over their experience.

Lifetime Check-in Rating

Above, is a cumulative view of my Checkin ratings. The number of 4-star ratings dropped from a count of 5 in the first year to only 2 in the following year. A few things probably accounted for this. I changed the location of the lockbox (see Check-in Flow Two). I switched the parking level to the top floor (That’s a whole other dramatic story). I reworked the check-in information continuously, and the proof is really in what guests had to say.

Reviews from our guests (they are so nice):

I went from this kind of review:

Great, nice clean place, host was great at responding quickly to any questions. The self-check-in is a little confusing, but the videos the host made are extremely helpful. The private backyard is beautiful; the area is a little noisy in the evening.— Airbnb Guest

To these kinds of reviews:

“…It was our first Airbnb experience and won’t be our last. Gowri was very good with communicating check-in procedures and checking to see if all was good.— Airbnb Guest

The check-in/check-out process could not have been easier. The video was very helpful as well. Gowri was available for questions at all times; I felt very comfortable contacting her…— Airbnb Guest

I wanted to help ease any concerns by making my guests feel like they already knew me and were familiar with the area even before they arrived. I felt like I could have better leveraged the check-in instruction videos to help with this. Rather than just focusing on directions from Point A to Point B, what I had in mind was a video version that mimicked the experience of meeting me in person. Something that would feel familiar when they arrive.

Similarly, step by step instructions with accompanying images may have also improved the check-in experience.

I wasn’t able to find a solution for international guests without access to cellular data. One option was providing them with the wifi login from a nearby business to access the Airbnb App, but I wasn’t able to implement or test this out.

REFLECTIONS

Although this case study focuses on service rather than product , the methodologies and run parallel.

  • Getting comfortable with uncertainty and the unknown is a necessary first step. Jumping into Airbnb hosting, something I had no experience with, was scary and exciting all at the same time. Approaching it as I would any design project helped me plan and build out the guest experience.
  • Encountering constraints and tackling them was an exercise in being scrappy. Having to relocate my lockbox was just one among many complications that disrupted my designs. Navigating these constraints, in the immediacy of the real world, forced me to stretch my imagination to find solutions quickly and then re-evaluate holistically.
  • Being a host was a lesson in empathy and curbing my bias. People were staying at my home, and I had invested time and effort into making it comfortable for them. It was hard not to take every piece of feedback personally. Bringing myself back to my guests and their needs was a necessary step in getting their Airbnb stay right.

If you’re thinking of becoming a host, your best resource is your guest. The Airbnb guest community includes some of the nicest people you will ever meet. You don’t often get to interact with every single person using your design and it’s invaluable and humbling when building towards your solutions.



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