Want to know the secret to Airbnb's success and world-class user experience? You might want to turn to the Disney movie Snow White.

But before I can explain why, let me introduce you to Tom Wolfe. 

"Not Seeing is Believing, but Believing is Seeing."

Tom Wolfe was known for revolutionizing journalism in the 60's by combining the colorful storytelling more commonly used in fiction writing, and applying it to his non-fiction reporting. 

In the opening pages of one of his books, The Painted Word, Wolfe describes his sudden, astonishing epiphany about the radical movement of contemporary art--in particular, about the rise of abstract paintings that you look at and think, "Well, I could've made that."

Wolfe's epiphany was sparked by a New York Times critique of realism art. In short, the critic-in-chief wrote that, without a theory to go with it, it's hard to appreciate a painting.

Wolfe vividly recalls reading this and being rattled, having a serious "aha moment." For the first time, he finally understood contemporary art.

"All these years I, like so many others, had stood in front of a thousand, two thousand, God-knows-how-many thousand [paintings] . . .  All these years, in short, I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well--how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. "Not "seeing is believing," you ninny, but "believing is seeing," for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text."

Well, like a painting, experience design starts with words; words that ask and answer a question. How do you want to make someone feel? What message do you want to send? What behaviors do you want to encourage? 

Great experience design is, as Wolfe described, completely literary--a narrative of an outcome that is achieved through the design of a product or service. 

How Airbnb Used Storytelling (and Hired Pixar Animators) to Design Cutting-Edge Experiences

Each person within a company contributes to the experience design by telling stories. Stories throughout the experience design process capture the essence of each moment for the customer and the ideal outcome, without confining the design process to a specific solution: what the customer does, thinks, and feels at every step.

And like Wolfe, Airbnb harnessed the power of storytelling to create an customer experience breakthrough in the early days of the company.

When Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky read Walt Disney's biography, he discovered a technique invented by Disney and his animators to create Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The technique was called storyboarding, creating comic-book-like outline of the story to allow all of the film's collaborators understand the shape the vision of the film's narrative.

It was a light-bulb moment for Chesky, who immediately decided to adopt storyboarding to design the future of the Airbnb customer experience.

As Fast Company reports, this project was code-named "Snow White" and started with a list of the emotional moments that comprise the end-to-end Airbnb experience, which quickly evolved into stories shared around the company. 

Ironically, to increase the fidelity of the stories as a communication tool, Airbnb hired an animator from Disney's Pixar to illustrate the storyboards of the customer experience. 

Here's how the storytelling process became a roadmap in the early stages of the company:


To inform the stories-driven design process, Airbnb wanted to tell the story of the perfect trip. In a podcast interview, Chesky describes an experiment in which he offered a single customer the trip of a lifetime: Airbnb spent tens of thousands of dollars to give one person the best possible experience traveling as possible. 

That one customer's mind-blowing experience was the foundation of the story that, when broken down into the storyboards, would eventually scale into what's known today as Airbnb trips

Every Designer is a Storyteller

Every business breakthrough starts with a story, from a customer's pain point or, like in the case of Airbnb, a story about a particularly excellent experience a customer once had.

Most designers or entrepreneurs strive for product innovations with wireframes or product sketches. But why not start with a text? Whether it's a movie-script-like document written in Microsoft Word, or a comic-book strip drawn on paper. 

Granted, stories don't always precede form. Stories and designs inform each other symbiotically--working through a design can help inform the story, too. But starting with storytelling can make the process more digestible and sharable.

Start with text because, as Wolfe once taught us, the things we make only exist to illustrate stories we want to manifest into reality; whether it's an animated Disney film or an innovative product or service.

Published on: Jul 10, 2018