Design for the Angry Citizen


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Airbnb and Systems of Trust

I was angry. It was 3:00 in the morning, and there was yet another springtime alleyway party in the Airbnb hotel behind my building. I live in the West Village of New York, which is home to a number of these buildings.

Let me describe how the Airbnb hotel works.

The Airbnb Hotel: An absent landlord owns a large building with multiple small units in a hard-to-reach location. The building itself is not well maintained, and the few rentals that exist suffer from high turnover because there are no services. When Airbnb came along, the landlords found that their profits rise substantially, sometimes generating 4-5 times what could be earned through longer term rentals.

The result: if you live near one of these buildings, you learn that they can change your life and your sleep patterns for the worse. You suddenly have 50+ short term one night tenants so the greater the likelihood of a loud late night.

The dance between Airbnb and the citizens, State and City of New York has been complex. Short term rentals are technically illegal. But most acknowledge the problem is not the long term tenant letting out her apartment for a weekend, but instead in the density of these multi-unit landlords churning through people. Various legislators have proposed bills and fines to punish bad actors in the system.

Don’t Galvanize Me

Airbnb’s initial attempt was to try to mobilize customers as citizens to protest and advocate on behalf of Airbnb renters throughout the city. The company covered highly trafficked subway stations and took out television and Youtube ads with heartwarming tear jerking stories. The widow who made pancakes for her guests was the most memorable.

I received emails urging me to protest against various measures – one in particular from Airbnb’s Global Head of Public Policy, urging me to: “Tell the City Council to protect middle class home sharers, not punish them. Sign this petition right now.”

I actually responded to this request, asking for a better interaction with the company. One that was more interactive. A chance for customer/citizens dealing with the unintended consequences of massive growth to have a considered dialogue with the company, to give constructive and even helpful feedback. I didn’t hear back.

Last week, Airbnb attempted to take one step forward to more interactive dialogue with citizens.

Airbnb Neighbors

Airbnb now wants to hear from neighbors like me. “If you think your neighbor is an Airbnb host and you have a complaint, we want to know.” The company asks you to submit a complaint, and if you do the extra work to find the actual listing on their service, they’ll follow up with you.

Airbnb Neighbors


Systems of Scale, Systems of Trust

Airbnb is one of the fastest growing revenue-generating systems we’ve ever seen in the history of business. The designer-founders who started the company and their design-minded team have put careful thought into how they encourage trust-based interactions between hosts and guests with messaging, and layers of reviews and reports.

It’s a beautiful system they’ve designed. But it’s not the whole system.

We are hosts, guests, but also citizens, and the way you feel about the company changes if you experience the negative consequences.

The neighbors interface on Airbnb is a baby step, but it’s a critical moment for companies like Airbnb to officially acknowledge citizens as stakeholders.

Stakeholder management is a theory for how to run a business in contrast to the shareholder-centric view. The belief is that companies need to engage all stakeholders in a system, including angry citizens, government bodies, and the environment. The reality is that stakeholder management is often just a theory, or relegated to “corporate social responsibility.”

Perhaps the future is to move stakeholder management outside of the communications silo and into product and service design. Stakeholder engagement shifts from theory to a designed and deliberate interaction.

Where could this future take us? How could you see design for the angry citizen affecting a company in a positive way? How would you design a more citizen-engaged Airbnb, Uber, or Amazon?