How Airbnb’s New App Embraces iOS 7

Few apps feel like they’re part of Apple’s ecosystem. Airbnb’s iOS 7 makeover feels every bit as Apple as Apple.

Today, Airbnb releases updated apps for iOS and Android devices. Both have been streamlined to make the app more independent of a laptop. The apps actually recognize your login, and customize the experience to guest or host, depending on your habits. By as simple a trick as funneling you into the guest or host area of the app, Airbnb has built two apps, hidden in one.


But the iOS 7 version is of particular note. In the works since July, it features full-bleed photography, artful transparency, and even parallax (that trick where images and text move naturally on screen as you tilt it). In an app market full of every aesthetic UI designers can imagine, Airbnb feels completely native on iOS 7, as if it’s an extension of the platform itself. The result is an app that, beyond its streamlined convenience for hosts especially, feels like it was crafted by a team at Apple rather than a third party squeezing its way onto the platform.

“Part of our decision was to say, we’re not going to be the first to market with an iOS 7 app. Our goal is to be the first fantastic iOS 7 app, to give you a feeling of iOS 7 without clubbing you over head with it,” explains Justin Santamaria, Mobile Product Lead. “We were like, let’s take that message that iOS 7 is trying to bring and put our slant on it. Let’s elevate it.”

Talking to Santamaria along with Airbnb’s UI Design Manager Steph Bain, the words I hear over and over are “story” and “personalization.” Each listing is meant to be a unique experience–distinguished by photography and narrative–but unified via interface. Such an idea might sound cliche, but iOS 7’s very platform is built to personalize through photography–think about the way transparent menus turn a picture of a pet on your launch screen into a bokeh-infused background, making a generic interface part of your very personal device.

Airbnb works similarly. When you click into any listing, the colors of the top photo–be it a bright red trailer or a beige loft–bleed down into the listing description, serving as a backdrop to the text. It’s an almost subconsciously distinctive effect.

“Every listing is unique,” Santamaria explains. “We want to be able to celebrate that, not sanitize that.”

Additionally, you’ll note that photo slide shows aren’t just photos–they’re being post-processed with a bit of shadow and glare. The effect is far too subtle to verge on skeuomorphism; rather, it’s just enough to add a bit of comforting texture to what could otherwise be a cold digital app (imagine titrating Instagram down to a subsconscious cue–that’s the level of soft touch that Airbnb’s team is working at here).


Another detail embracing iOS 7? Listing amenities. On the web, perks like Wi-Fi and cable are a big text list. In the new app, they’re not just clear, space-saving icons; they’re icons that are arranged in a size and shape that mimics iOS 7’s own menu panel. It’s the tiniest, slickest detail–again, not a direct iOS 7 feature clone, but maybe a sibling or cousin–that demonstrates the love behind this product.

In fact, Bain told me that there were as many as 85 iterations to some screens. And it’s been engineered, not simply sitting on Apple’s own iOS 7 APIs that generally make such effects and animations possible, but containing lots of custom code that means iOS 5 and six users get all of these same visual updates. Indeed, maybe the most impressive thing about Airbnb’s new app is how dated it makes their last (perfectly acceptable!) version look. Like a pair of jeans that have gone out of fashion, black title bars and hard buttons have given way to an airier interface. Even if you despise the iOS 7 aesthetic, it’s hard to see the update as anything but the feeling of now.

As for Android users, the app won’t resemble an Apple product so aggressively. The fonts are sourced from Android rather than iOS, and some of the 3-D and transparency effects have been removed or replaced with simpler aesthetics. The team won’t admit that some of these cutbacks are likely the natural side effect of working on a platform with more divergent hardware–could they guarantee the same performance across dozens of hardware platforms running multiple versions of Android?–and maybe that’s because their view, at the end of the day, is that the Android and iOS apps shouldn’t be identical.

“We think porting iOS 7 to Android is a mistake, to take that same thing and paste it,” Santamaria says. “While there isn’t a universal Android style like iOS, there still is a sense of something more Android than iOS. To respect that requires you to navigate those soft rules in some sense. That’s the attitude and philosophy we’re taking here.”

The new Airbnb apps are available now.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach


Attend Innovation Festival keynotes with Robert Downey Jr. and Janelle Monáe for free. Claim your pass now.