Product Hero: Steve Selzer

by C. Todd Lombardo

Steve Selzer, Experience Design Manager Airbnb

Digital experiences have impacted our expectations for experiences in the real world. With mobile banking, long lines at the bank seem that much longer. Our ability to binge watch television shows on demand has killed that anticipation we felt leading up to watching our favorite show on the same day and the same time each week. While some digital experiences make our lives better by reducing the friction of accomplishing tasks, others remove the opportunity for discovery. That careful balance of friction is a topic that our latest Product Hero, Steve Selzer speaks passionately about. As the Experience Design Manager at Airbnb, Steve is always looking for ways to inject friction that makes an experience better and people more resilient, while still removing pain points. He raises the question if making things easier to do digitally is always a better experience in his blog post “The Fiction of No Friction.” This foresight and dedication to designing a future that still promotes discovery and wonder makes Steve Selzer a Product Hero.


I had the pleasure of sitting down with Steve to talk about product management at Airbnb, friction and some real world examples, and the future of technology. Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.


C. Todd: I’m here with Steve Selzer, Experience Design Manager at Airbnb. Steve, thank you for joining us.

Steve: Hi C. Todd. Thanks for having me.

C. Todd: Why don’t you give us a little bit of background on yourself. Who are you? How did you arrive at Airbnb?

Steve: I’m an Experience Design Manager at Airbnb. I lead several different teams, including some of the teams that are focused on creating an excellent product experience for our users, as well as an excellent service experience – for those moments when people need to contact our customer support.

I’m also looking at a couple of other teams across other aspects of our product, including our payments team and our business travel. I’m able to look across a lot of different aspects of the company, which gives me a really good sense of how to create and elevate that quality experience across the end-to-end customer experience.

I made my way through a few different roles before landing at Airbnb. I worked as an engineer while creating a non-profit that worked with refugees in Ghana. I got exposed to deep, basic human problems where cultural nuances came into play. It wasn’t until that point when I realized that I could bring these two disciplines together and focus on what is the practice of design. I arrived at Frog Design, where I eventually became a creative director there. We got exposed to a wide range of problems. It really honed my problem solving skill set.

Now at Airbnb, I get to really go deep into a problem I care about personally: Creating a solution to get people to connect with new people and places around the world.

C. Todd: What is it about the problem that Airbnb solves that really ignites you?

Steve: This challenge is so essentially human, and a social challenge as well. If you think about when you travel and book traditional accommodations for example. Everything is so consistent and expected. In many ways, that’s great. It leads to a comfortable experience because you know exactly what you’re going to get. But increasingly, when we continue to get what is expected, we become intolerant of things that are not what is expected. We become impatient and less resilient to uncertainty and change.

I think this world is full of change and uncertainty. We embrace that at Airbnb by celebrating the diversity of our listings and breaking outside of the mold of what traditional accommodations offer. That creates some friction. I think it’s good friction. This space is just full of that. It’s full of that when you arrive at your listing and it’s not quite what you expected. In some cases, that’s not great and people are unhappy. In other cases, that’s great and it leads to discovery and joy.

How can we promote the latter? How can we cultivate that at a more social and even global scale? To embrace these values – that change and that things that are different are actually good for us. They challenge us and help us grow. How can we continue to cultivate that curiosity? Which I think is really key when you travel.

C. Todd: One of the things you mentioned in your blog post was the idea of convenience. As I was reading it, I was wondering, it seems lots of businesses, products, and services are created to make everything really convenient. You even mention expectations around consistency. You can go to different Hilton locations around the world, and your experiences are going to be similar. You know exactly what you’re going to get.

I was wondering, how do you design for this world of ever-increasing convenience?

Steve: I have to lead by saying that it’s generally a good thing to remove friction. It’s generally good to listen to what people say are their pain points and to remove that pain. Our relationship with technology has enabled us to remove a lot of friction from our lives. I don’t want to sound like a Luddite, or that we have to stop making progress, I don’t think that. I think it’s actually generally good to be human centered and to design out the friction.

As we enter an increasingly frictionless world, we have to look for the places where friction is what we care about. We need to retain the friction that helps us grow, that helps us navigate change, and become resilient.

Increasingly, I think this nuance is going to become the material that we have to work with. We have to understand the type of friction more. We have to make valued judgments about where we create or remove friction.

C. Todd: Could you give us some examples where you’ve seen friction pulled out and it’s been too frictionless? And examples where you’ve tried to design friction back in to make the process feel more human?

Steve: For an increasingly frictionless world, think about the on-demand services we have today becoming faster and less expensive through automation. So much so that increasingly, there’s a disincentive to not participate in the on-demand economy. Right? Why would you leave your house to go get things? That’s friction. I can have it delivered to me cheaper and instantly. That time is saved for me to do something else. Which, I think, is actually the key to everything. What would you do with that extra time?

When you take demand economy, plus automation, plus virtual reality, we’re going to see some jobs and some industries dissolve and others emerge. We’re putting a lot of technology in front of people that is compelling that removes friction from daily lives. In some ways, creating an alternate reality for people. Literally, virtual reality is an alternate reality. Living in a home where everything can get delivered to you on demand, instant, cheap, free, is an alternate reality too. It’s a departure from the world where people had to work at a physical office and actually, you know, shop and interact with other people. I’d like to go as far as talking about WALL-E, the movie, to depict that dystopian future. Only to say, that’s not where we want to end up. That’s why we have movies like that, to remind us what we care about and what our values are.

I think increasingly, technology is moving so fast that we can very quickly get to that place and not have the time to stop, reflect and decide some of these things. We just adopt them so quickly because they’re compelling. I talk a lot about our physiology and our emotion. It takes time for that sudden shift in behavior to feel comfortable. We are physiologically only capable of so much.

I think that’s the nuance that we have to navigate when we design our products and services.

C. Todd: A great example of this in your blog post is about encouraging the guests and hosts to interact, or interact with each other a little bit more. You saw an increase in the overall trip satisfaction.

Guests were happier with their trips when they had some interaction with the host, rather than when they never saw, spoke to, or interacted with the host at all. It wasn’t a frictionless experience, but it was a better experience. It breaks that assumption that frictionless is better.

Steve: That “better” is the key. What we say is “better” totally depends on our value judgments. To say that it was better because they were happier, maybe we could all agree on that. But to say that better requires putting less effort into something is not always agreed upon.

I did this talk once, and at the end somebody came up and asked me a really good question. It really made me pause and think about this circular argument. He made a statement about this future. If he had the ability to sit around on his couch and get in shape by doing nothing, he asked, “Why wouldn’t I do that?” My response to him was, “Well, what would you do once you got in shape? What would you do with that new physical condition you’re in?” He’s like, “I would go do all these things. I’d go do everything. Anything I wanted to because now I’m in shape.” Then I said, “So what’s preventing you from doing all of those things today, not being in shape yet?” It kind of brought us back to the beginning of the argument. He could say, “Well, because I’m not in shape.” I think that’s exactly the problem. We need the end results so we can go do something and enjoy the experience and the journey.

Why wouldn’t we just start and embark on that fitness journey in the first place? Develop the skills and cultivate the appreciation of the activities themselves. I would argue that a person who wakes up and is all of a sudden physically fit doesn’t appreciate it as much as somebody who worked really hard to be fit. I think Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing worth having was ever achieved without effort.” That stuck with me. That’s again that kind of friction we’re talking about. Where does it matter? When is it actually in service of some personal growth or some self discovery? If we can get better at understanding when those moments matter, then the experience is not about being frictionless or having too much friction. It’s just a better experience for these reasons.

C. Todd: In your blog post, you mention different areas that you design for to solve for friction. One of those is design for skill-building. Could you explain that a little more?

Steve: That’s right. I use the example of Blue Apron, or Purple Carrot. These services remove the logistical friction of getting the right ingredients, the recipes, and the portions. They ship the products over to your home, but leave the last step for you, which is the cooking. The act of cutting the vegetables and cooking. They are facilitating those skills. Other companies out there deliver a ready made meal and you don’t have to develop those skills.

Look at your product, whatever that may be, with that same lens. Particularly with Airbnb, I could argue there’s outrageous skill building here. On the host side, we want to cultivate the skills of being a good host. We provide a lot of resources to help our hosts embody that mindset of what it means to really be a host. The best hosts can read and empathize with their guests. The hosts don’t sit around and say, “Hey, let’s hang out.” They say, “The room’s over there. Go ahead and set your stuff down. The bathroom, towels…everything’s ready to go. When you’re ready, if you want to come back out here, I’ll make some tea.”

These are essential (but nuanced and sometimes invisible) skills that go into being a host. I’d argue the same thing on the guest side. The skill set is maybe a little bit more ambiguous there, but I would argue it’s like being a good traveler. Being a good guest in somebody’s home requires a skill set too. When you’re in somebody else’s home, treat it well. When you travel, we want to develop the right skills around cultivating an open mind to drive curiosity and navigating uncertainty.

C. Todd: What is Airbnb’s relationship with users when it comes to testing?

Steve: It’s a pretty experimental process driven by empathy, user insights, and data to help us reach our ultimate outcomes. When we have specific outcomes in mind, we look at all of the product moments we might be able to improve to reach that goal. We experiment with smaller things, see how they work, and track the data over time. If things do end up working well and moving us toward that outcome, we will roll those things out to the wider audience. That is an iterative process.

Generally I think we’re very mission driven. We’re both growth driven and mission driven. Of course, I think our mission for anyone to belong anywhere is a big aspirational idea. We want to be as inclusive as possible to support that. I think we often come back to those missions as our north star.

C. Todd: What are the relationships like between Engineering, Design, Product, and Research? How do they work together at Airbnb?

Steve: It’s a multidisciplinary approach with Product, Engineering, Design, and Data Science all working together. Within Design, at our organization, that includes qualitative research and also quantitative data through activities like surveys. We also have Content under Design here. That’s another important piece. So much of our product is how we communicate. Going back to points I made earlier around the mindsets of creating the community, the culture, the mindset of becoming a host, a lot of that is in how we communicate with our communities.

C. Todd: What do you see as the future direction of design and designer products?

Steve: That’s a great question. I can speak from my personal experience going from a consultancy to a product organization. Companies come to consultancies for innovation and design thinking, the things companies don’t feel they have in their organization.

Increasingly, even those clients I can think of from years ago, have since created internal design teams and carry that practice in house. When you hire a consultancy, you’re hiring an external party to take a more objective look at your situation and challenge you. Outside agencies leverage all of the insight that they have from looking across different kinds of problems for different types of clients. They leverage this really broad spectrum of insights and apply it in this one specific area that you’re asking for.

Getting that kind perspective in-house is harder. You’re very focused on reaching your outcome and marching toward that. At best, you’re creating space to follow the human centered design process and can have philosophical discussions about adding friction back into the experience.

You have to make an effort to create space to do that, but I think it can happen. Most importantly, it requires a culture that understands experimentation through design. I think our culture at Airbnb is much more receptive than others. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy working here, we value design. Two of the three founders are from design backgrounds. We have a VP of Design who reports directly to the CEO. You may not see that at a lot of other companies too. I think these things are deliberate decisions that we’ve made as a company.

C. Todd: That’s great. Thank you for all these wonderful insights.

Interview notes:

  • When examining friction with own product: keep friction that develops skill building while removing friction that causes only headaches and frustration.
  • Designing for a frictionless world means creating a world without discovery or surprise.
  • Follow Steve on Twitter and make sure to read his full post “The Fiction of No Friction” on the Airbnb blog.

About C. Todd Lombardo

C. Todd is a leader who wears many hats, all at once: Author, designer, scientist, professor, and visualizer.  After originally beginning his career...