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Observation Sketches

Cathrine Gunasekara

Yesterday I went out in the world to observe people, things, and interactions. 
The goal was to create 100 quick sketches, but I ended at 35. I really enjoyed the exercise and will continuing doing a few sketches a day till I get to 100 and see if I can find some interesting patters. I think it's a great way to practice your active observational skills and the ability to quickly analyze a situation and mindfulness. 

Designing A New "My Trip" Experience for the Airbnb iOS app

Cathrine Gunasekara

Airbnb, the online community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book accommodation around the world has now over 500,000 listings in 33,000 cities and 192 countries, and it like clockwork it just keeps expanding.

Our business is the entire trip
— Brian Chesky, CEO

Airbnb's mission is not only to help people finding a place to sleep, but about creating the perfect travel experience. So what is a perfect travel experience?

I love travel and I love Airbnb. Also as a lover of design, I wanted to understand how their mission is reflected in their iOS app and if my user research could lead to insight and ideas for improvements.


It's very clear from Airbnb's branding and marketing efforts that the emphasis is on the interpersonal experiences between host and guest, and as a longtime traveler and host myself, I can sign off on that being exactly what makes Airbnb so special to me. 

But I also remember all the times where my own trips or having people stay at my place, started out less than perfect only because of misunderstandings or lack of information or communication.

Traveling to a new place and staying with people you don't know, whether the host is there or not, can quickly become a very frustrating experience if you don't have easy access to the information you need when you need it.

For instance, as a guest trying to find the apartment, having the address can seem like all the information you'd need to get checked in, until you find yourself circling around the block unable to find the right entrance or that parking garage the host mentioned somewhere in the listing. When getting there, you may find yourself having to dig through your inbox on the phone (fingers crossed your battery isn't dead..) to find that email you got with the door code, and then try to remember where you saw information about the apartment number, was it somewhere in the listing or an email? Later when checking out, what were you expected to do with the dirty towels or the key again? The last thing you want is to upset the host and get a bad review! 

Airbnb is not streamlined like a hotel chain and thankfully so, but that also means that every Airbnb host is different, every listing description is different and as a traveler you never know what to expect. That is exactly we love Airbnb, but at the same time, I've found a lot of unnecessary inconsistency that is not of the charming kind, but only leads to bad reviews and a trip that was less than perfect.

From user interviews and from reading hundreds of reviews on Airbnb, my learning is that there are a few changes Airbnb could do to the mobile app that would improve the odds of nailing that 'perfect trip' experience, and still leave room for the pleasant surprises and the human interactions that makes traveling with the Airbnb community so wonderful.

The result of my research and design is a new app experience for guests who have booked a trip on Airbnb which provides guests with a place in the app for more relevant information regarding their booking and an option to receive time relevant information about their stay. The result is that guests and hosts can expect a more consistent and less confusing stay experience.

My Design Process

To validate my hypothesis and the problem I started by interviewing Airbnb users about their experiences. I also looked at Quora and read Airbnb reviews to learn about what guests and hosts were complaining about. 

Some examples of user interview takeaways.

To sum up the key findings:

Guests don't easily have access to the information they need when they need it because:
a) hosts are not giving the information
b) Airbnb is not providing the information given in an easily accessible format to the guest


To help guide me in my design process I came up with two personas. Although I had decided to focus on the guest experience, Airbnb is a two-sided market, so I made sure to also be mindful of the host’s needs and motivations. Please meet my personas, Philip and John.

My Airbnb guest and host personas.

Philip is 30 years old, lives in Portland, OR, and he really enjoys going on short weekend trips either alone or with his friends just to relax or experience something new.  A weekend is not that long and so he wants to get the most out of his time exploring the destination and not having to spend too much time being lost or digging through his emails to find the information he needs. Philip is tech savvy and rely a lot on his favorite applications.

John is 42 years old and lives with his wife Ann in Oakland, California. He’s originally from San Francisco. John is a HR manager for a small company and he really enjoys talking to people, so in addition to making a few extra dollars on their spare guest room, meeting new interesting people is one of the reasons for why he and his wife has decided to be hosts on Airbnb, but he's also very busy and don't always have the time to be "on call" 24/7.

For us, it’s a dance between online and offline. And this has been our biggest challenge. We saw it play out in the storyboard. We realized the key is mobile.... Mobile is that link between online and offline.
— Joe Gebbia to TechCrunch

I started shaping the idea of designing a mobile notification service experience to surface the right information when needed and to help increase guest/host communication, so I wanted to explore further the different situations when Philip would use this feature if it were in the Airbnb iPhone application. I did this by quickly sketching out scenarios on a piece of paper and here are some examples:

Quick and rough sketches of situations where this feature might be used by the persona. 

Then I picked one scenario that seemed the most useful to Philip based on what had surfaced has pain points in the user interviews.  From there I spent 5 minutes flushing out some ideas and sketching out what the UI could look like in the app to get access the most useful information in this situation. 

One frame to focus the experience around. 

Quick sketching of 6 different ways the UI could look if designing this feature. 

User Stories

To help me define the scope of the project I created user stories listing all the elements that would have to be created and linked togehter in order for this feature to be helpful to Philip. It quickly became clear that the scope of redesigning the entire My Trip app experience would be much more than I could handle in two weeks, so I had to narrow down to just a few scenarios to cover for this project.  I decided to focus on these:

Philip can open Airbnb app and access My Trips when booking is confirmed. 
In the My Trip section of the Airbnb app he can: 

  • Get directions to the host location via preferred 3rd party application.
  • Tap-and-hold to copy address into another application or text/email.
  • See host’s notes on where to park
  • See host’s notes on how to enter the building/house/apartment
  • See information about the neighborhood /city
  • See all his booking details
  • See a structured house manual and amenity list
  • Receive notifications with relevant information based on his location and time of day

Task Flow

Then I created a  task flow based on these user stories. Even this had to be simplified a lot based on the scope of the project. 

Based on the scope of this exercise, only getting directions, checking in and checking  out will be addressed. 


I decided to pick two of the ideas from the sketches to move forward with and I started sketching a more high fidelity version of the flow of this feature. I wanted to provide a pro-active notification service to surface the most relevant information in a timely manner, and also structure the My Trip section to be more tailored to the chronological steps in the trip experience.

Adding a "Getting There" section not the nav bar, extracting and grouping information from host notes and proactive messaging were some of the iterations to the current app experience that would help the guest have a more frictionless trip experience.


Airbnb “My Trip” - With A Pro-Active Notification Service

This feature will provide the guest with the information he needs about his booking when he needs it all through his trip. There should be no need to dig through emails or read long description notes on the listing’s page, to find the answer to your question about how to get there, how to check in and out, about the amenities and how to use them, the information in the house manual, house rules and other relevant information for your booking. The information could be pushed based on location, home wifi detection, time of day and other triggers. The notifications could be pushed to phone or to smartwatches. 

Here you can read the narrative of Philip's trip with the My Trip feature.


Next Steps

I've only touched upon a few use cases and implementations for this feature, but why I think this feature is so interesting is that I can see it developing over time with new technology emerging. Some areas to to expand this feature to right now would be to allow integration with other 3rd party travel apps. If you are using TripIt for your flights, it would be good to let the host get automated notifications based on flight delays.  I've also played around with different integrated navigation solutions, for instance if both guest and host are Waze users, it could be an easy way to share the drive right in the message center or  Waze and TripIt accounts cold be connected as part of the booking process. 

But I definitely think the part of the feature that is adding the most value is to implement the hosts' neighborhood guides in the app. The user interviews revealed that many hosts have created binders with local information to the guest in the room, but it's not mobile and it does not leverage the huge amounts of useful data that other hosts and guests are providing in the form of listings and reviews. If the host does not have any recommendations, these could be sourced from the overlap of other hosts nearby. 



Airbnb could provide a more consistent user experience independent of the host and provide the user with the information he needs when he needs it. If the host is not providing it, it can be crowdsourced from other guests in the same area which will also add to a higher sense of community. 

Disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with Airbnb, this was unsolicited work based on my love for the company and passion for travel.

A Guerilla Usability Test on Apple's Shared Photo Stream Feature

Cathrine Gunasekara

Oh, it’s that Cloud thing!

A hidden gem on your iPhone

Many apps have what I call "buried treasures" - features that could be really powerful but they're just obscured by layers of usability issues and extraneous complications. The Shared Photo Stream feature in iOS is definitely one of those features. 

I personally really enjoy using the shared Photo Stream feature to share my photos with friends and family without having to post them publicly. I also like the social and collaborative element of contributing my photos to shared photo streams with friends after a trip or a party. 

To see how I could improve the shared Photo Stream experience so more iPhone photographers could discover and find the benefits of using the shared Photo Stream feature I did a usability test and then did a re-design based on my findings. 



Identify the pain points of Apple’s current iPhoto Shared Photo Stream interface by performing user interviews and observe user interaction with the product.


Test Parameters

What: Apple’s iPhone Shared Photo Stream.
Who: Existing Apple iPhone users who are daily using their phones to take photos.
Where: A coffee shop in foggy San Francisco was the site where user recruitment and UX testing was done.
How: Interviewing users about current behaviors around photo sharing, thoughts on privacy and their emotions when interacting with the product. I filmed 7 out of 8 users while they were interacting with the product and trying to accomplish the tasks I asked them to do.


Test Tasks

1. Create a new photo stream
2. Share photos using photo stream with selected friends or family members

3. Edit who has access to your photo stream (remove/add people)

Tasks were determined based on Apple’s own product description, but I asked open ended questions around these tasks so I wouldn't lead the user.

With iCloud Photo Sharing, it’s easy to share photos and videos with exactly the people you want to see them. Create a shared stream and invite friends and family to add their photos and video clips as often as they want.


After the user interviews and usability tests I watched the videos and went through all my notes. I started by noting on sticky notes the chronological steps the users took when trying to accomplish the tasks. This was helpful to discover the most common navigation patterns and compare at what point the users reached their goals. 

I then wrote down the issues the users were facing and some of their quotes of frustration on sticky notes and sorted similar issues into buckets. This was helpful to discover patterns for the most common pain points and to help me make a decision for where to place my efforts into solving the product's usability issues. 

Findings - Two Key Issues

From bucketing the issues I found two main areas of usability issues. The third bucket was the reason for the first, so I have merged these two buckets in this summary. 

1. Product Awareness & Creating A New Photo Stream

What is Photo Stream?

When I was first starting out interviewing iPhone users about Photo Stream and observing how they were interacting with the feature, I was surprised to find that 5 out of 8 had never used it before and the other 3 had never even heard of it. I had screened my interview recruits for avid iPhone photographers that were using their iPhones daily to snap photos and interact with the Photos app their phones. Yet, so few understood what Photo Stream was or how it could be of benefit to them.

No familiarity with the feature and its connection to iCloud was the number one reason for why the users had difficulties accomplishing the first task. When asked to share photos via Photo Stream with selected people, all 8 clicked photos, then sharing icon, but half got immediately lost and hit cancel when Photo Stream was not a sharing option. Very few users even considered iCloud to be an option and several got completely stuck and we could not continue until after I had to interfere and tell the user that Photo Stream was connected to iCloud.

It can seem that iCloud is associated with personal storage and not a social interaction. None of the users understood that My Photo Stream and Shared Photo Stream are two different features. My Photo Stream is just a rotating collection of your last 1000 photos from your camera roll and is not permanent storage while Shared Photo Stream is something curated and shared with another person or yourself and is stored permanently in iCloud.

Main Recommendation: Let users discover Photo Stream as an option for sharing photos. I recommend Shared Photo Stream to be visually separated from iCloud as they are two very different features to the user (although they are both backing your photos to iCloud), one is a social sharing feature, the other is for your private backup or storage. I recommend highlighting the social and instant features of the Shared Photo Stream. 


2. Sharing & Privacy

It doesn’t say who I’m sharing it to, it just says iCloud
— Erika

None of the users I asked had been using Photo Stream to share photos, although everyone enjoyed sharing photos with their friends and family on a daily basis. How did they do that? Every single one had email or text as their preferred method of sharing. Most had a slight preference for texting a photo because it is social and texting by its nature has more instant feedback than email.

During the usability tests the users were often stating concerns in regards to who now had access to their photos and which photos were being shared. It came to the surface that iCloud is often associated with storage and something private, while sharing a Photo Stream is a social interaction and this is why the users felt uncertain of exactly what was being shared and with whom. Also, when commenting on a photo it felt uncomfortable not knowing who else was on the stream. 

It happened several times that users were just about to, or posted, a photo in the wrong stream because the last used stream is set to the default. This mistake added to the anxious feeling of maybe sharing something with the wrong person. 

Main Recommendation: Let users clearly see who they are sharing photos with when posting to a stream and who else are included in the streams they are shared on. When posting to a stream, I believe the default set to the last used stream is a good approach, but I would highlight better which current stream you’d be posting to. Next I would add a section for the most recent activity to the following screen to act as a confirmation for what you just did. 

One of 5 current ways to create a photo stream. When asked to share photos via Photo Stream, all 8 users started by selecting photos, then tapping the sharing icon. Half of the test participants dropped off and hit cancel at the third step when Photo Stream was not a sharing option.


My Design Suggestion

Users need to know that iCloud, Photo Stream and Shared Photo Stream are different features. My design suggestions are based on the idea that the user should not associate Photo Stream with iCloud, hence, I had to come up with a new icon for Photo Stream to replace the cloud. 
I based my placeholder icon design on the new Photo Library Icon in iOS8. 

Photo Library

Photo Stream


Screen By Screen

1. Where Can I Find Photo Stream?

2. iCoud VS Photo Stream

3. Adding To Existing Shared Photo Stream

4. At First Glance

5. What Will Happen To My Photo Stream?

6. Knowing Who You're Sharing With

7. What Did I Just Do?

8. Who's At This Party?



It was very interesting to see how similar the usability issue patterns were among the eight people I chose to test the feature with. Everyone was drawn immediately to the sharing icon when asked to share a photo, so I feel confident that this is the right place to let users share photos using Photo Stream.  
The biggest surprise was how few were aware of Photo Stream to begin with. I think the separation from iCloud will bring more awareness to Photo Stream as a stand-alone feature and invoke more appropriate associations as a collaborative and social feature.
The good news is that once the users had figured out where to find Photo Stream and how to crate their first shared stream, the rest of the tasks went without any severe problems and by the end, most of the users I talked with expressed enthusiasm for the feature and a wish to continuing using it now that they understood how it worked.
I'm excited to see where Apple will be taking this feature moving forward and I hope that Photo Stream gets the glory it deserves. 

*I don’t work for or represent Apple. I am currently shipping UX projects under the guidance of Kate Rutter and Laura Klein @Tradecraft in San Francisco and will be sourcing new opportunities in September. I’d love to hear from you! Contact me.