What would be the 10-star experience & beyond?

This episode from podcast Masters of Scale made me think. Masters of Scale is a podcast series hosted by Reid Hoffman, Co-founder of LinkedIn. In each episode, Reid talks with industry leaders on how companies grow from zero to a gazillion.

In this episode, Reid interviewed Brian Chesky, Co-founder & CEO of Airbnb on how they build up their superb user experience from 0 to 1, then scale to what it is today.

What is a superstar experience? How to think towards top-notch experiences? Brian Chesky’s thought process is impressive. Below are quotes from the episode:

CHESKY: If you want to build something that’s truly viral you have to create a total mindfuck experience that you tell everyone about. We basically took one part of our product and we extrapolated what would a five star experience be. Then we went crazy. So a one, two, or three star experience is you get to your Airbnb and no one’s there. You knock on the door. They don’t open. That’s a one star. Maybe it’s a three star if they don’t open, you have to wait 20 minutes. If they never show up and you’re pissed and you need to get your money back, that’s a one star experience. You’re never using us again. So a five star experience is you knock on the door, they open the door, they let you in. Great. That’s not a big deal. You’re not going tell every friend about it. You might say, “I used Airbnb. It worked.” So we thought, “What would a six star experience be?” A six star experience: You knock on the door, the host opens. “Hey, I’m Reid. Welcome to my house.” You’re the host in this case. You would show them around. On the table would be a welcome gift. It would be a bottle of wine, maybe some candy. You’d open the fridge. There’s water. You go to the bathroom, there’s toiletries. The whole thing is great. That’s a six star experience. You’d say, “Wow I love this more than a hotel. I’m definitely going to use Airbnb again. It worked. Better than I expected.” What’s a seven star experience? You knock on the door. Reid Hoffman opens. Get in. “Welcome. Here’s my full kitchen. I know you like surfing. There’s a surfboard waiting for you. I’ve booked lessons for you. It’s going to be an amazing experience. By the way here’s my car. You can use my car. And I also want to surprise you. There’s this best restaurant in the city of San Francisco. I got you a table there.” And you’re like, “Whoa. This is way beyond.”

The thought process went on.

CHESKY: So what would a ten star check in be? A ten star check in would be The Beatles check in. In 1964. I’d get off the plane and there’d be 5,000 high school kids cheering my name with cars welcoming me to the country. I’d get to the front yard of your house and there’d be a press conference for me, and it would be just a mindfuck experience. So what would 11 star experience be? I would show up at the airport and you’d be there with Elon Musk and you’re saying, “You’re going to space.” The point of the the process is that maybe 9, 10, 11 are not feasible. But if you go through the crazy exercise of keep going, there’s some sweet spot between they showed up and they opened the door and I went to space. That’s the sweet spot. You have to almost design the extreme to come backwards. Suddenly, doesn’t knowing my preferences and having a surfboard in the house seem not crazy and reasonable? It’s actually kind of crazy logistically, but this is the kind of stuff that creates great experience.

Pause there. The rest of the episode was talking about scaling and how to make it real.

The “design the extreme” think tank is such a wonderful process. Going far for users, you may end up implementing an experience that’s several levels farther than your original plan.

Superstar experiences I’ve shared
Over the years, I jotted down some awesome experiences: some were a whole journey, while others were just flash moments. They all shared something in common: something pleasantly unexpected.

  • A thoughtful hand mixer design that considers:
    • How can it leave a good impression when she first meets it?
    • How can it be quickly unpackaged?
    • How can it be easily understood by her?
    • How can it be a good experience when she uses it?
    • When she’s done, what makes it easy for her to clean things up?
    • When she needs to put it away, what can be done to help her to make that easier?
  • A cozy eating experience at a family-owned Japanese restaurant with a lovely mama-san
  • A towel in the shape of Mickey Mouse was waiting for me at the Disney World resort (From my write-up on some bad, good, great experiences)

Start pushing towards a superstar experience

I was a bit bothered by myself while listening to this episode. I found myself sometimes tend to go to the “feasible”, rather than thinking broad enough about the “star experience” for my users.

Trained academically as a computer science student, I was used to/still sometimes evaluate feasibility too early. In those occasions, when a solution appears, my mind starts asking “is this feasible” very quickly — talking about the downside of having an engineering mindset: you may run “feasibility evaluations” for your design solutions your head too early, rather than putting more the solution options onto the table, and waiting for your engineering partners’ expertise. This resulted in eliminating certain solutions prematurely. When you care about “what is feasible” too much too early, you also abandon the opportunity to travel an extra mile for your users.

Or, you know you’ll have a lot of pushbacks from engineers, so you’re scared to push it further.

Or, you simply have a lazy brain moment. You want to get it done, find a solution as fast as possible.

If you ever have run into any of these scenarios above, here’s how I’m consciously practicing to get out of it.

  1. Note down those great experiences that you can’t wait to share with others. Capture those inspirations.
  2. Force yourself pushing for another level experience. Once you’re done, think about what the next level should be — It’s like a game!
  3. Go far for brainstorming when you explore designs, flows, components. Explore different inspiration sources. Do not stop at the first few things that pop up in your head. They’re usually the norm, the “feasibles”, the stuff that everyone can think of. You should think beyond that. Jog them down, but put them aside. You may come back to them later if any of work does work.
  4. Pick your top 2-3 solutions after giving it some considerations on design constraints: how much space you have to put that new feature in, whether some of your options impact existing applications. Leave the question of feasibility to your engineering partners.
  5. Throughout the process, work with your Product Manager partner to evaluate them based on the project scope / Work with your engineering partner to review feasibility. It’s true that you’ve been working with them since the beginning. You understand the project scope. You know that engineers have little time for any fancy new UI. But, do not let that limit your imagination on a 10-star experience. At least you can talk about what you’re aiming for.
  6. State why those solution(s) work best for your users, explain how they benefit users. You go through all the collaboration with PM and Eng, and you may end up picking a solution direction that’s not ideal (even mediocre). But, at least you’ve pushed far enough for your users. You’ve been their best advocate.


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