Alex Schlepper: Designing the Perfect In-House Partnerships

Here is a brief excerpt from Matt McCue’s interview of Alex Schlepper for 99u within the website network of Bēhance. Airbnb’s VP of Design explains how to establish creative partnerships inside of a large company. To read the complete interview, check out other resources, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

Image courtesy of Alex Schlepper

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Typically, top design executives report to business-minded CEOs who know far less about design than they do. But that’s not the case with Airbnb’s VP of design Alex Schleifer, whose bosses are the company founders and Rhode Island School of Design grads, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky.

Having designers at the helm has allowed Airbnb to recast the traditional role of the designer within their world-conquering start-up. Airbnb provides two career paths, one for those who want to take the management track and another for those who want to continue designing, so they don’t have to give up their craft in exchange for a promotion.

Airbnb has also broadened the definition of a product design job by including a variety of problem solvers, from content strategists to translators, under the “design” umbrella. The company’s thinking is that the user doesn’t see the difference between what is a content strategist and what is a designer, so why should there be a barrier between these departments internally? And, since the company makes a product that is used by essentially everyone, they are open to hiring designers who come from all walks of life (including a former mechanic and modern dancer.)

Schlepper, who joined the company in January 2015, following the company’s rebrand, shares the thought process behind Airbnb’s methods, what he looks for in new employees, and the biggest mistake designers launching their own company should avoid.

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Among the Airbnb design team there is a former librarian, mechanic, insurance agent, therapist, and modern dancer. Why bring on such an eclectic group of people, and what does that do for the team?

It enriches the design and gives us more empathy as we bring in people with the ability to think through problems with different points of views. Part of what we do when we recruit is to look for potential rather than work experience, and that has served us well. Looking in unconventional places brings unconventional thinkers and those always add to the mix. We design for everyone, and that needs to be represented.

We design for everyone, and that needs to be represented.

When you say “potential” do you mean the talent to design, or the ability to think creatively and solve problems?

Every time you add different points of views into a design team, things always get better, but that’s only as long as you’re really hiring people that are good at the craft. Then everything else – process, structure, learning tools – can be taught. We provide structure. We provide an opportunity to work with a product with millions of users. We provide training. All of that stuff. What we want people to bring to the table is their craft and their ambition.

Why do the design, engineering, and product groups tend to work together from the start of a project at Airbnb, rather than designers coming in later in the process?

We try to make things real as quickly as possible here. As much of our development is switching to mobile, it’s no longer possible to look at things just in the lens of a flat mock up. You need to test a feature out with motion and real interactions on a real device. You need to bring in data. How does this look once we load a hundred different items into it? How does this look in German? How does this look in Korean?

The way we define “product design” is a little broader. We have traditional product designers, researchers, content strategists, translators, and the people who build the tools because those are all part of product design. Let’s look at how we coordinate across functions. My direct peers are the head of product and the head of engineering, so already we have this relationship between product, engineering, and design that is very close [at the top of the company].

How has Airbnb created cohesive branding across multiple properties given its size?

We have a powerful design language system we launched in April, which creates a cohesive set of patterns, design guidelines and brand components for everything that we do. Every product follows the same set of rules. Beyond that, we’re building much closer connections with the marketing team and the product team. We have shared work spaces so that the marketing team, designers, and the product designers can collaborate. [The consumer] doesn’t really see the difference between what is marketing and what is product, so we’re becoming more and more adept at doing that [internally].

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him here.

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