Airbnb has found its way onto the Apple Watch.
The company is releasing a new Apple Watch app today that’s centered around lightweight communication between hosts and guests. Hosts and guests can use it to get notifications as well as read messages and respond to messages. Hosts can also accept booking requests straight from the watch.
But the goal of the app is not just to give notifications about reservations and trip planning, but also to help facilitate communication between the guest and host throughout the whole trip, Airbnb experience architecture team lead Keenan Cummings said. That means giving hosts a way to regularly keep in touch with the guests and offer answers and recommendations. For example, hosts can pre-record messages that they can send through the app that are answers to common questions (such as, “what is the Wi-Fi password?).
“After you’ve booked a place, that’s only the beginning of an experience,” Cummings said. “Your travel experience is a lot about the communication between the guest and host. Messaging is really core to that. So for the host it’s all about responsiveness, the ability to communicate quickly. For guests it’s about access to the host.”
Airbnb’s challenge with the Apple Watch was as much a microcosm of the development ecosystem around the Watch as it was a challenge for Airbnb. Like much of the rest of the world, the team had to get its hands on watches before they were able to even see what the application would look like on someone’s wrist — forcing them to get creative about the way they worked on the application.
Cummings and his team — who built the iPad application that Airbnb released six months ago — were tasked with figuring out what the Airbnb experience would look like on a watch. The team had to put together the application relatively quickly given the short lead time that pretty much everyone was given to build an Apple Watch App.
“We drew on strips of paper and wrapped them around our wrist,” Cummings said. “You have to do whatever you can do to simulate it when the tool’s not quite there yet. You are not on the watch yet, you can’t build a fully interactive prototype and put it on the watch. We had to be scrappy about uploading images, using paper and interviewing hosts and guests.”
Once the company had its hands on a couple of watches, Airbnb initially assembled a scavenger hunt of sorts to figure out the best experiences of the Apple Watch, and then narrowed it down to a smaller team to figure out the best Airbnb experience based on those positives.
The crux of the problem was to ensure the experience felt like an Airbnb one, while remaining simple and true to a lightweight watch experience like the ones the team found on the scavenger hunt. Cummings and his team, for example, looked to Apple Pay as inspiration for the simplicity an app on the Apple Watch should have.
“It was really exciting on the first OS because it was so constrained and forced that discipline,” Cummings said. “When you can do anything, it’s hard not to do anything. You’re forced to limit yourselves — you have to figure out. ‘What are the one or two killer features that do make sense?’ The list of could-dos was 20 times longer than the should-dos, and we picked the right things.”
Building an app like Airbnb has to be a balance between pro user features (he referred to the long-press function on the iPhone as one example) and things that are immediately apparent. Part of that involved creating a simple introduction to the application, which essentially explicitly spelled out everything that users could do on the app.
Inevitably, at Airbnb everything comes back to simplicity, Cummings said. Instead of questioning whether something would be useful, the question revolved around whether it was essential and pulling out extraneous features.
“One of this company’s strengths is that discipline and simplification, and another one of those company’s core values is to be a host,” he said. “That comes up in our design — are we being a good host to our users, are we doing what’s best for them, are they comfortable with the tone of the product? When it’s more abstract and harder to translate, you start to feel in your gut when you’re straying away from what’s best for the user.”