Home-sharing service Airbnb is famously passionate about design. In fact, without design, there might not be an Airbnb: Cofounders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia famously met while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, then hatched the plan for their startup during a design conference.
For designers, tablets offer a wealth of intriguing creative possibilities. Which is why it feels a bit weird that only now–a half-decade into the iPad era–is the company releasing an Airbnb app for tablets.
The fact that no Airbnb tablet app existed doesn’t mean it was ignoring tablets. For one thing, its website works well on them, and 12% of all visitors to it use a tablet. For another, the company just wasn’t in a rush to get something out.
“We do things when we believe they have the right to exist and we know we’re going to build something incredible,” says design head Alex Schleifer, who recently gave me a sneak peek of the new app. “We’ve been looking at tablets for a long time.”
Despite having lacked their own apps until now, he says, “the tablet feels very Airbnb, because it’s something you can pass around and share—’what do you think of this?'”
The company kept that in mind as it reimagined its service for iPads and Android tablets. At first glance, it looks more like a glossy lifestyle publication than an e-commerce application: The photos are big, enticing, and skimmable, and details such as pricing are played down until you’re ready to dig into the details of making a reservation. “This needs to look like a coffee-table book,” Schleifer declares. “We’re pushing the highest-resolution photography we ever have.”
Though the versions for Apple’s and Google’s tablet operating systems are functionally identical, there are some subtle differences. Their designers were careful to follow each platform’s conventions, which means the toolbar that appears at the bottom of the screen on an iPad is up top, and more tablike on Android. “It needs to feel like the same app, but it needs to feel uniquely Android on Android and uniquely iOS on iOS,” says Schleifer.
And over time, the versions of Airbnb that are unique to smartphones and the web will also take on some of the flavor of the tablet incarnations, he says: “This visual aspect to our business is a huge differentiator, so why don’t we double down and make the photos core to that experience?”
Despite having described the new apps to me as “incredible,” Schleifer ended our conversation by maintaining that he didn’t want users to give them much thought. “This is the first 1 percent of the Airbnb experience,” he says. “I keep telling my design team we want to reduce engagement as much as possible. Our business is about getting people out in the world.”