Katie is the Head of Experience Design at Airbnb, San Francisco. She’s leading the team of interaction and visual designers creating high-quality experiences both online and offline.

Airbnb is an online marketplace to discover exciting places to stay at or to rent out your own home.

We first got in contact with Katie as a happy Bravur customer and got interested to know more about her.

Tell us a bit more about your background and how you started your current position. 

I got into design pretty late in life. After graduating college I saw a 60 Minute special about IDEO, a design consultancy. That’s the first time I had ever heard about Product Design. I was mesmerized and excited. I discovered my dream job — designing products that solve problems. As quickly as possible, I picked up and moved across the country for design school. I studied Product Design at Art Center College of Design.

After school, I went to frog Design, a global design consultancy based in San Francisco. There I worked on design projects for large companies like Intel, Disney and Chase Bank. We helped these companies with their innovation strategy and helped them bring new products and experiences to market.

I started as a Design Analyst that was responsible for user research and interaction design and over the years I grew as a leader and eventually became a Creative Director. As Creative Director I managed people and led project teams. It was gratifying work but at a certain point, after five years, I found I wasn’t being challenged – I was too comfortable. I left frog and went to work with startups at unique venture capital firm, Greenstart, which invested in early stage startups with design services rather than capital.

Greenstart gave me a chance to feel the energy and chaos of startups. It was exhilarating. We helped really young, small companies create a business with design at the ground level. We helped the founders learn the design process and see how putting the user first could help them build a strong business that people would love. It was incredible to see how much impact design can have on a young company and I started to long for further, longer-term involvement. So after a year at Greenstart, I left to pursue a job in-house and leave the world of consulting.

I met Joe Gebbia (co-founder of Airbnb) in January of 2014. He saw me speak at an event called Design+Startup. My talk was about critique—a core part of the collaborative design process. My message struck a chord with him and I was invited to interview for the Head of Experience Design position. They were looking for someone to lead and manage the rapidly growing team of interaction and visual designers. My background in the consultancy and startup world, leading teams and building user experiences was well suited for the work at Airbnb and they brought me on board. It’s an incredible place and I am just so thankful I spoke at that event! 


Tell us about a typical day at work!

I’m responsible for a team of 35 designers that work in close partnership with engineers and product managers. I spend most of my day meeting with my team and these partners looking for areas where we can improve our methods and output. On a daily basis I am in interviews with candidates, I meet 1:1 with direct reports, and I participate in design reviews. Every day is a bit different and the time flies. I don’t have a desk, I go from one meeting to the next and get a lot of walking in. 


What you design really goes beyond the screen since it will in the end become a real life experience for the user – how does this affect your process and way of working?  

It’s important that we never lose sight of the big picture. While we obsess about the details, we need to remember that every pixel, every screen, every moment contributes to one experience that is felt over time and place. To help us remember this, we have our user journey depicted in a storyboard (like a comic strip) on the wall where everyone can see it. It reminds us all – from design to finance to human resources – that we are all in it together. 


Would you consider Airbnb as a lifestyle brand or a site for accommodations?

Airbnb is definitely more than accommodations. Accommodations is the piece that’s easiest to describe and ascribe a price to, but the truth is, the thing that builds loyalty and has people most excited is the experience they have and the people they meet. When you travel on Airbnb you can get to know a new place like you were a local. We hear countless magical stories from people that made new friends by traveling on Airbnb and got to better understand different cultures. They see Airbnb more than a place to stay, as do we. 


What are the biggest advantages staying at a person’s home compared to staying at a hotel?

Airbnb helps people better understand different places and cultures. Traveling on Airbnb is most like staying at a friend’s house in another part of the world. When you go you feel at home and you can get to know a place through a local’s eyes. Airbnbs are throughout a city, often outside of the tourist areas. It helps you get to see a different side of the city, often not depicted in tourist guide books. 


How is the “renting out your home” differing between different countries and cultures – are some cultures more or less open to this than others?

The core of hospitality is universal. We see that throughout the globe people has a desire to help each other, a want to connect with others, and of course a finical interest to make some extra money. In this way we don’t see a difference of open or closed cultures. We do however see some differences in peoples’ expectation of hospitality. For example we learned from people in Japan that they wanted to see reviews only from other Japanese noting they want to know if a place is “Japanese clean.” 


Finally, what is your own favorite place to go to and why?

Lake Tahoe, three hours north of San Francisco. It’s a mountious region great for skiing, hiking and lake time. It’s close enough to San Francisco to get away to on the weekend, and it’s a great way to disconnect from the chaos of work and the city.

Plus it reminds me of my youth. I grew up just outside New York city in the suburbs. On the weekends and holidays, my family would go to the mountains in the Adirondacks (upstate New York) for family vacations. It was a great place to grow up spending time outdoors and now Tahoe is my reminder of those great days.