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Redesigning the Airbnb Check-in Experience

Preface: I'm a big fan of Airbnb, both as a customer and a tech nerd. But when I first stayed in one last fall, I was a bit shocked at how the check-in process worked. I was trying to find my way into an apartment in Paris, but the instructions from my host seemed like a long, cryptic scavenger hunt. Take three steps left through the door. Look up, and press the button. Go upstairs, and look for the lockbox tucked in the windowsill on the right. To me, all this running around didn't feel like the best user experience, especially compared to a hotel check-in.

I was particularly fixated on the lockbox–is that really the best way to hand keys off from host to guest? Feeling curious, I looked up how hosts commonly handle the check-in process, and lockboxes are definitely common, especially for remote check-ins (when the host can't greet the guest personally). I've stayed with Airbnb a few times, and only had a host greet me once. I once had a host send me the keys to her apartment by mail (!) because she wouldn't be there to give them to me. What happens if they get lost? Other common check-in procedures involve leaving the keys with a neighbor, hiding them in a *secret spot* outside your house, or installing a smart door lock.

Really, these just look like a bunch of hacks. I can't think of a better way to put it. Airbnb even suggests hiding the keys on their website. How is that even safe?

Airbnb website suggestions

What's wrong with these solutions?

Lockboxes have static codes that can easily be opened if you know the password. After someone has stayed in your place once, they know the code and could come back any time to get inside. That probably won't happen in 99% of cases, but it's still a bit unsettling. And changing the combination is a pain, not to mention hard to keep track of it you do it for each guest.

Leaving keys with a neighbor can be an easy workaround, but neighborly love can only go so far. Your friend next door might be willing to hold your keys a few times, but after that it gets annoying, and they aren't obligated to help you make money. Because of this, 3rd party "host management" services have popped up, promising to take care of the key exchange for you, for a fee. There has literally been an entire secondary market developed based on the inefficiency of Airbnb's check-in process.

Mailing keys seems dangerous and I still can't even believe I had a host who did that. It does seem that Airbnb has procedures for replacing lost keys, but I don't think that any host would want to go through the headache of having that happen in the first place.

Smart locks are an improvement, but Airbnb still needs to control the experience. This isn't as obvious to explain as the others, but if a host uses a smart lock, users will perceive it as the hospitality of their individual host, not as an improvement on the Airbnb experience as a whole. In other words, guests don't feel a more positive connection with Airbnb if their host uses a smart lock. Airbnb is lacking control over their guest experience, and they desperately need to change that.

Besides, smart locks are expensive, and only a small percentage of hosts actually invest in using them. Also, similar to mechanical lockboxes, hosts still need to manually change the codes for each guest, which can be confusing to keep up with.

I think we can do better.

Yes, Airbnb is a software company, and I love their app. But their product is almost entirely in-person, real-world.

These hacks do work, for the most part, even if they aren't ideal. But that's not the whole point. When I check in to an apartment by fishing a key out of an old MasterLock lockbox, it feels "hacky", and not like a professional check-in experience. Airbnb has already grown to massive scale, but if they want to capture every customer, they have to make the experience as seamless as possible. Hotels know how to make check-in seamless–they've been doing this for decades. Granted, it's a lot harder when your rooms are distributed across millions of hosts around the globe, but I think the process still can and should be improved. Servicing the customer isn't just about getting from A->B, it's about designing an experience.

This is fundamentally a design problem. Airbnb should want to design and control the user experience from beginning to end. Even if the check-in process works as it is currently, I know that they want to create the most seamless version possible.

Airbnb knows this as well, and has already implemented some features to make the check-in process better. In 2017, they created a visual guide feature to help guests navigate check-in. By looking at data of messages between hosts and guests, Airbnb saw that "the majority of images shared were photos illustrating how to check-in". They noticed that check-in is clearly a pain point for guests. The problem with this guide, however, is that it's still entirely digital. There's no component of this feature that connects me to the real-world process of checking in. This solution might be complementary to a physical solution, but it can't solve the problem on its own.

So what's a better way to check-in to an Airbnb? Here are a few ideas:


My mind was first drawn to the parallel between Airbnb's and Uber/Lyft's customer experience. All three deal with distributed networks, but in each case the company is still able to control the user experience. Lyft and Uber both have digital signs that drivers can place inside their vehicles (Uber's is called Beacon, and Lyft's is Amp). They used to just give drivers simple window stickers, but have since updated to products that are actually pretty advanced. With Beacon/Amp, riders can choose a personalized color from within their app, and their driver's device will automatically update to that color, making it easier to identify their car at pickup. What this tells me is that Uber and Lyft care enough about the experience of finding your driver to design a product that makes the process smoother. And these products are free. Uber and Lyft haven't charged any drivers for these yet, they simply give them to loyal drivers. That truly shows that they're dedicated to designing the best possible customer experience.

I propose designing a smart lockbox for Airbnb, which they could give (for free) to loyal hosts. Below, I've detailed what such a product might look like:

I started out by making a mind map of the key exchange process. I determined that the main factors to consider were security, ease of use, accessibility, and integration with the mobile app.

A rough sketch of the user flow is detailed in the sketch on the right. The guest unlocks the lockbox using a code, retrieves their key from the inside, then closes it up again. This box would be mounted on an exterior wall like shown in the small sketch on the bottom right.

Unlocking the lockbox would be controlled entirely from within the Airbnb app, and the code would be dynamic. No more guests scrambling to ask their host for help at the last minute. (I once wasn't able to contact a host for help, because it turned out that they had given me the wrong WhatsApp number, which happened to be the only way they were available to communicate.) The code might be a 4-digit pin sent to you at check-in, or possibly your phone itself could unlock the lockbox using NFC (like Apple Pay). Face ID could even be integrated for security. My school, Duke University, has a mobile ID card that goes in Apple Wallet, which I can use to unlock doors around campus. What if I had a mobile Airbnb card that could unlock my apartments when I check in?

NFC unlock

The product might take a few different embodiments: wall-mounted, portable, or even a smart doorknob. Some apartment buildings may have restrictions on mounting objects on walls, so a portable version might have the broadest reach among hosts. A doorknob would eliminate the need for keys entirely, but this would be much harder for hosts to implement, since they need to replace their old doorknob, rather than just installing a lockbox next to it. For this reason, a doorknob might be better as a more long-term solution, for when Airbnb has cemented itself as the premier option for travel lodging.

Above I sketched a few more embodiments of what the product might look like. Building off Airbnb's logo style of flowing, curvy lines, I wanted to make something with rounded contours. The two designs on the top-left are portable lockboxes, and the colored two are wall-mounted. The color would be bright Airbnb-red, easily identifiable by guests and strongly indicative that this is an Airbnb-branded experience. For security, the body would have to be made of metal.

An Airbnb lockbox would also standardize check-in for all hosts and guests, so there's no more confusion on either end. It can get extremely annoying for hosts to have to repeatedly instruct their guests on how to enter their home, and guests must feel annoyed as well when each Airbnb they go to has its own procedure for check-in and check-out. This is entirely due to the fact that check-in is not standardized–it is left up to the hosts to coordinate. Airbnb has little involvement or control. If each Airbnb has an eye-catching, branded lockbox, then the company can build a standardized check-in process around this product. Think back to Uber. Before they introduced Beacon, passenger pickups were somewhat of a disorganized mess, where driver and passenger were left to coordinate on their own. Beacon provides the basis for a standardized and efficient pickup method where neither party is left to guessing where the other person is.

Wrapping up

Uber and Lyft have both shown us that it takes more than just software to curate a positive real-world experience, and Airbnb should follow suit. A smart lockbox would streamline check-in for both guests and hosts. A lockbox would also be a way to "brand" the check-in process, so that it feels more legitimate and professional, which makes guests feel more comfortable. I believe that building out a well-designed product that improves the customer experience isn't a useless distraction–it's good business. I understand that Airbnb is rapidly scaling and hasn't had time to optimize every aspect of its product, so I'll be excited to see how the check-in process actually evolves going forward.

If you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to reach out and let me know!


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