Wonder what it’s like to be a designer at a tech company that truly values design? We invite you to take a peek into one of our Bridge partners, Airbnb, through the eyes of Steph Bain, UI Design Manager.
Meet Steph Bain, UI Design Manager at Airbnb.
One day in 2010, Joe Gebbia tweeted that he was looking for a mobile designer. Steph DM’ed him her portfolio and before she knew it she was flying down from her hometown Victoria, British Columbia to meet the team and joined shortly thereafter. When she started, Airbnb was a small family of about 25 people. Steph has since seen the company grow to over 700 people. She now manages the UI Design team and recently led her team through Airbnb’s 3.0 iOS mobile redesign.
At Airbnb, the UI design team conceptualizes and defines the visual direction of Airbnb’s mobile and web platforms. As the UI Design Manager, Steph says, “I am there to remove obstacles to help things go smoothly in the designers’ world, review work, talk through any problems they might be having, help them be more autonomous, and succeed at designing the best work they can.”
When she’s not designing at Airbnb, she’s working on her food blog wholefoodlab.com, going on outdoor adventures, and traveling with her husband.
Steph lives in the Mission District with her husband and Boston Terrier, Penny. She wakes up super early every morning to work out in Dolores Park, just a short walk away from their place. Before heading out to work, Steph makes a green smoothie for breakfast.
“It was a crazy experience. I didn’t even really know what a startup was or what I was getting myself into. I showed up in San Francisco (this was also my first visit to San Francisco ever) and walked into this weird little industrial building. The energy in the room was crazy. Everybody was so welcoming and giving hugs. I didn’t know these people, but I felt immediately comfortable.
Joe, one other mobile engineer, and I worked like crazy on their iPhone app for three days straight. We all hung out together. I stayed on Joe’s couch. Actually, I think Joe let me stay in his bed and he stayed on the couch, which was classic Joe.”
“I decided to join because of the people. It just felt like a family. I felt like I immediately belonged here. It was clear that Joe was an amazing design leader. It was a really awesome opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
Steph has a garden behind her apartment where she grows her own vegetables. She sets out on her 40-minute walk to work with her Boston Terrier, Penny, and her neighbor Kyle Pickering (another designer at Airbnb) at about 9am.
Steph catches up with UI designer Brandon Lane in the atrium of Airbnb’s office. “The atrium is such a great space. I use it a lot for meetings when there are no meeting rooms available. We have lunches down there, and its also used for events and amazing happy hours.” Airbnb just relocated to a new space at 888 Brannan in SOMA to make room for their growth.
Steph grabs her morning cup of coffee at KP’s Coffee Shack inside the office. The coffee stand was started by fellow designer, Kyle Pickering, and has become a staple for the Airbnb team. She usually has a quick chat with whoever’s there. Today she gears up for work with Brandon and Experience Design Lead, Shaun Modi.
“I never really loved agency work, like traditional print work and concepts for ad campaigns, that sort of thing. I always tried to work on the product side of agency work—Facebook ads, websites, any digital work. That’s how I honed my UI design skills.
In comparison, I find the challenge of working on Airbnb exciting. It’s a complicated product because it’s an online product but we also have to connect people in the offline space. I really love that challenge. At first, I was worried about working in-house on only one product. I was like, “Am I going to get bored? I’ll be doing the same thing every day.” I literally never do the same thing. Every day is different. We’re always coming up with awesome features on new products. I feel like that will never change.”
What advice would you give to a designer who’s working at an agency and looking to transition to a startup role?
“Be prepared to collaborate intensely. We have three founders, but they don’t tell us what to do. They just let us figure out how to solve problems, and that requires us to collaborate with the engineering team. In the agency, I never really worked with any engineers. Collaborating with them was an adjustment. Engineers have amazing ideas! I had no clue. Sometimes they think of design-related things that I wouldn’t have even considered.
Also, design tons of stuff and throw tons of it away. The faster you design crap, the closer you’re going to get to designing something amazing. I guess that applies to any job, really. Like on my last project, I did 85 different variations for the design of one screen. It was a challenge to not get frustrated when I didn’t nail it with the first try, and to really push myself to do as many versions as I could to make it perfect. Not settling and not getting discouraged is hard.”
Steph settles in for a design session at her desk. Penny hangs out nearby throughout the day. “I block out my calendar every day for a couple 1-2 hour sessions of uninterrupted design time. Its usually my ‘headphones on’ time for me to get my design work done. Its really the only way I have found to juggle both management and being an individual contributor.”
Early on I do a lot of inspiration boards of UI, like cool interactions, maybe even animation style stuff. I usually share those with colleagues to get a temperature check. Then I dive into Photoshop to do some visual design. I’ll continue to do temperature checks with the rest of the team or a couple of my designer friends. If I get stuck on something, I’ll grab somebody from the design team to work through the problem with me or to get new ideas. Having fresh eyes is really useful for me, and I involve as many people as I can throughout the process.
I actually don’t like to spend too much time during the day designing stuff. Only maybe four hours a day. I get burned out and am not as creative if I’m forcing it for an eight hour day. I try to break it up, like go for a walk with my dog or for a run.
“In November we launched the 3.0 version of our iPhone and Android apps. I worked on the iPhone part of it. It was a four‑month process. We basically redesigned every single screen of our existing app. We rethought user flows and interactions and tried to one-up our last app visually and functionally to make it easier for users while pushing our design forward. I really like working in mobile because the constraints of the small space are so challenging.”
Steph led the team through the 3.0 iOS mobile redesign. Every screen of the app was updated for iOS7 and to introduce a new navigation menu style called “Airnav.” New features for hosts allow them to manage their inquiries in a “Host Home” section. The team also crafted hosting versus traveling into two different experiences in the app.
“I think my biggest challenge is to make everything mom friendly. That means the app is hyper-intuitive, easy to read, easy to use, and really understandable. I have to constantly remind myself to step back and look at our work through the “mom” lens. As a designer, I naturally want everything to look really beautiful, but sometimes that’s not best for the user.”
Airbnb has an in-house chef that prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner for the team every day.
Steph chats with a few designers about a potential new iOS feature in the Thayer room. Thayer is Steph’s favorite room in the office.
Most meeting rooms at AirBnB are modeled after a listing, but Thayer was created as a functional design space. Thayer is Steph’s favorite room at Airbnb. It’s not modeled after any listing, but its been converted into a functional design space. It has tables from RISD which are covered in paint and all the walls are covered in sketches, design mocks, and Post-Its. “It feels like a really creative space to explore and get messy.”
Our team has an all hands meeting every week to go over what everyone’s working on for visibility and consistency and to catch up as a team.
In terms of crits, we do a formal one for each team on a weekly basis. I’m working on mobile right now, and our mobile team meets every Thursday with Brian [Chesky] our CEO, Joe, and a bunch of other stakeholders on the project. We’ll spend an hour going over our work for the week and getting feedback. Then we spend the next week making revisions and trying to push the project forward. Throughout the week, we informally check in with other designers and have one‑on‑one critiques.”
Steph goes into another design team meeting in the Milan Dining Room. Just outside of this room are more rooms from the Milan listing.
You started out as a UI Designer and in the last year you transitioned to UI Design Manager. What was it like to make this transition?
“It was definitely a challenge at first. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I don’t have any management experience so I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m going to be the world’s worst manager, and people are going to hate me, and I’m going to get fired from this job that I really love.’ So far, I think it’s helped to be really honest and transparent with the people that I manage. I tell them if I’m doing something stupid, please let me know. Good time management skills and saying no to things are also really important.
I would say if you’re an ambitious design manager, you should definitely still contribute as an individual designer because your team members will have more respect for your feedback. I feel that continuing to design is also really important just to stay relevant. I push myself to not get stale and to continuously grow my skills. I always want to be designing. It is what I love to do, and I won’t be happy if my day-to-day is all meetings.”
The UI design team consists of 3 other designers — Kyle Pickering, Brandon Lane, and Jason Mamaril.
“Not having an ego is my number one thing. A designer should be able to both take and give good criticism, which goes hand‑in‑hand with not having an ego. We’re all in this together, and we all want to make Airbnb the most beautiful product that we can. Being a really good collaborator is definitely important.”
Here’s a little bit about four members of the design team.
1. Emily Lawrence is a hands-on designer and enjoys the challenge of making complex ideas accessible. At Airbnb she’s primarily focused on their mobile experience. Prior to joining Airbnb, she spent most of her career designing products for music enthusiasts. When she’s not pushing pixels, you can find her exploring California, next road trip: The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
2. Derek Bradley is an Experience Designer and happy hour companion at Airbnb. Before joining the team full time, he was one of the first Bridge designers. He’s currently working on the core web experience, partnering with a wide variety of talented teams. He hearts NY, Outkast, and donuts.
3. Derek Chan is a graphic designer at Airbnb. Prior to Airbnb Derek worked at Facebook and Nike as part of their Global Retail team where he helped design their beautiful flagship store in Portland.
4. Anne Kenney is a user researcher and experience designer at Airbnb. She’s currently thinking about how to adapt Airbnb for the Asian market. Prior to working at Airbnb, Anne designed mobile experiences for Tellme Networks & Microsoft and studied Engineering Psychology at Tufts University. She also joined Airbnb through Bridge last year.
“I usually will wrap up my day between 4:30 and 6:00pm. Some days I work late if we have a deadline. A few of us usually go for drinks a couple times a week, and every Thursday the product and graphic design team all go to Mars Bar for happy hour. It’s dog friendly, so I can bring Penny too! My husband will sometimes take the Facebook shuttle (that’s where he works) to SOMA and walk home with me, or we meet at home and have dinner together.”
“When I was a young designer, I would design something and think, ‘Oh, this is amazing,’ but then when I looked at it the next day I’d be like, ‘What the hell was I thinking? This is terrible.’ So now I design something and then put it to bed and look at it the next day. Sometimes I’ll completely hate what I did and start over with fresh eyes. Sleeping on it is important.
Also, don’t be afraid to try crazy stuff. When I was young, I wasn’t a confident designer. Having the confidence to stand up for your work is really important.”
“It feels like we are still only in the beginning stages of what Airbnb could be. I think we will grow into something bigger than what we are now, and there are endless directions that we can go in. That’s really exciting for me.”