Making every Airbnb trip magical with Experience Design Lead, Yuan Wang

Juraj Mihalik

Hi Yuan. Please tell us who you are and what you do.

I'm Yuan Wang, an experience design lead at Airbnb, designing to make every trip on Airbnb consistently magical. I'm also an artist, craftswoman, and mentor. Before Airbnb, I spent the past 3.5 years designing at Twitter, where I worked on projects from Growth & Onboarding, Abuse & Safety, to Tweets & Conversations. I led the design of Twitter threads, which made it easier to share longer thoughts on Twitter. Before that, I worked as a Senior Designer at Mozilla.

I was born and raised in the northeastern part of China. In 2010, I moved to the United States and overcame a long journey of finding my voice and building confidence in a foreign country. Now I aspire to be the mentor that I wish I had when I first moved to the U.S. Lately; I've been actively mentoring to help others with similar challenges grow and thrive.

Besides design, I love making art. I have a small studio named "Ink + Water" that features ink paintings of human figures, nature, and Chinese classical poetry. I have exhibited my work, sold limited prints, and led figurative drawing sessions with SF Ballet "Sensorium." My paintings are being featured in a global exhibition in Germany this summer.

I enjoy bringing creative ideas to life through deep empathy, systematic thinking, and collaborative execution. I find fulfillment in leading by example, self-learning & growing, and elevating the people around me. If I could make up my future leadership role, it'd be a founder of an independent creative studio that celebrates international and minority cultures through inspiring art and meaningful design.

If I could make up my future leadership role, it'd be a founder of an independent creative studio that celebrates international and minority cultures through inspiring art and meaningful design.

Take me through your design journey. When did it all start?

I started practicing design in my first year of college. I taught myself Photoshop and designed print materials, posters, and visual identities for student unions and the university art troupe. Even though I started as an “information system” major, I found myself more interested in the front-end and user experience. I joined a web development studio at my university, which helped me polish my HTML/CSS skills. Together with my studio mates, we designed and prototyped a couple of websites for small clients. I also created my portfolio website, which I used to apply for gradual schools specialized in Human-Computer Interaction.

Initially, I found it challenging to find a major that was mapped entirely to my interests. Instead of looking around and asking “What’s my alternative?”, I asked myself questions like: “How might I connect my interests to my field of study?”,”What are the possibilities?” and ”Anyone else is doing similar work?

Fortunately, answering these questions led me to discover new fields like information architecture, user experience research, and usability testing. During this time in China, these fields were new to both the tech industry and the academic curriculum. In order to seize every possible opportunity I could, I initiated cold calls and emails and volunteered as a research assistant. Most importantly, I shared my genuine interests in learning. These efforts led me to create my thesis on information architecture, an internship opportunity at Lenovo, and a chance to be the first visiting student at European-Sino Usability Center.

Looking back on my early journey, I’m quite amazed how determined I was about studying Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) in a place when no one else around me shared my desire. I was deeply focused and prioritized my time and energy toward accomplishing my ultimate goal. I was incredibly fortunate to have my family supporting my pursuit. My journey to design wouldn’t be possible without their faith in me.

Let’s go to your first bigger job at Mozilla. What was it like?

In 2011, when I first joined the Mozilla UX team, I was shocked that this great product that serves millions of customers was designed by a small team of less than ten people. Despite facing competition with big tech giants like Google and Microsoft, everyone on the team was deeply driven by the mission of the company. We were dedicated to making Firefox the browser that puts customers’ privacy and controls first.

Six months after I joined, I embarked on a mission to bring Firefox to a brand new platform, Windows 8 Touch. This was my proudest work during my time at Firefox. Firefox for Windows 8 Touch (AKA Firefox Metro) was a touch-optimized browser designed from the ground up for the Windows 8 platform. When I started the project, the platform was still in developer mode. I took a lot of time studying the new platform and its Metro design language. I also had to be creative about prototyping gestural concepts that embrace the new Metro UI languages.

In 2012, popular tools such as Framer, Principle, InVision, and all the other tools did not exist. I used Keynote and recorded a video concept with narration, shared with the entire Firefox open source community to gather early feedback. After a year and a half of working with a highly distributed engineering team, Firefox Metro released in beta in 2014. Firefox Metro was titled one of the best Windows 8 browsers, including the best UI design. I felt incredibly grateful to have led this project from concept to production. I even got to tap into my research experience to conduct usability studies. You can read more about the design challenges and process here: Firefox for Windows 8 — Yuan Wang.

Firefox for Windows 8

Being a non-profit organization and open-source community uniquely shaped the way Mozilla engaged with its customers. Design concepts could be shared at a very early stage with a broader audience. Blog posts were not just limited to products that were ready for launch, but also prototypes that are under incubation. Through the open source platform and messaging channels, part-time contributors and enthusiast volunteers could also provide feedback and contribute to projects of their interests.

Mozilla was one of the companies that embraced remote working from its very early years. Though I was working from one of the central offices. A lot of engineers on my team worked from different time zones. In 2014, the entire Firefox UX team was distributed across four time zones and three countries. The team developed many ways to collaborate from text-based communication to quarterly work weeks where teams are spending time together. Because the opportunities for the gathering were precious and rare, people enjoyed each other’s accompany and spending time connecting deeply. Some of my favorite moments at Mozilla were from those times spent together. Working there had made me a believer.

With the right ways of working, distributed teams can collaborate effectively, develop an amazing bond and incredible culture.

What was the reason to join Twitter? And once you did, what was your role in their design team?

I joined the Twitter design because I wanted to be a part of a larger design team. My opportunity there allowed me to grow and learn from some of the best designers in the industry. Back when I was a college student in China, Twitter connected me to scholars, professors, and design programs all around the world. It was a surreal moment when I knew that I'd get to design for a product that broadened my horizon years ago.

During my first two years at Twitter, I designed experiences for new users, returning users, and logged-out Twitter visitors. I designed content for the Twitter logged-out home page, created an in-product education messaging framework, and launched a highly personalized new user experience across all platforms. Designing for growth was an eye-opening and rewarding experience. I developed a deeper understanding of the business and the barriers to growth. I also learned how to leverage data to inform design decisions and product strategies.

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After two years of designing for growth and onboarding, I joined a new team to lead the design of the essential building block of Twitter, Tweets. When I was first presented with the opportunity, I had doubts about whether I was capable of designing something so highly visible. It's so visible that it's featured in the news on TV all the time! Luckily, my manager Kate Freebairn looked me in the eye and told me, "I know you can," which was empowering and motivating.

Looking back, I'm so grateful that I said yes to the opportunity and said yes to myself. This new role stretched my comfort zone and brought more visibility to my process and thinking. I got to collaborate with designer across many other teams, and provide context to help them make more informed decisions. All of these experiences helped me uncover my strengths as a designer. I stopped self-doubting and focusing on developing my strengths. As a result, I became more confident, and my work benefited as well.

In 2017, my team announced a few major launches to make replying and sharing longer thoughts easier on Twitter. We also launched a series of improvements to reduce abusive content on Twitter. Besides what's shipped to the world, I also had the opportunity to envision the future of conversations on Twitter. How might we make conversations easier to follow along and participate? How might community-powered moderation contribute to the health of public discussions? It's a truly complex and fascinating space. Since 2018, the health of conversations has become the top priority for Twitter. It's been awesome seeing my former colleagues making significant progress on solving these problems.

You led the design of Twitter threads, which made it easier for us to share longer thoughts on Twitter. What was it like to design an experience for millions of people?

Designing a brand new content format for millions of people was an incredibly rewarding experience. I felt very lucky to have partnered with the talented Paul Stamatiou to bring the end-to-end experience to life.

So why Threads? Twitter has a long history of studying how people use our service and then creating features to make what they’re doing easier. The Retweet, ‘@reply,’ and hashtag are examples of this. In 2017, the team started noticing more and more people were creatively stitching Tweets together to share more information or tell a longer story. We realized that there is an opportunity to make it easier to create, consume, and share threads on Twitter.

Once the goal is defined, a small working group (two designers, one product manager) was assembled to explore the possibilities. Piloting a new process, we sprinted for two weeks with daily check-in with the product VP and regular reviews with the CEO. The days were long, but it was extremely rewarding to hear the early enthusiasm.

We hosted brainstorm sketch sessions with stakeholders to generate ideas and symbols of longer thoughts. We also used the cover stories technique to envision the launch from the public’s perspective.

Post-it sketch session to generate symbols for long-form thoughts

To bring the end-to-end experience to life, we divided the design work between consumption and creation, and defined the guidelines for each:

Creation

  • Do not complicate a single tweet composition flow
  • Easy to go from a single tweet to multiple seamlessly
  • Support both batching thoughts and updating as you go

Consumption

  • Help people discover & comprehend threads
  • Reduce the friction to sharing a thread
  • Make threads a native content type on Twitter

As the designer focusing on consumption design, I went through many iterations exploring the content format.

A fraction of the format explorations

To make an informed decision of all the options, I developed a set of criteria to stress test each option:

  • Clarity: can represent a singular threaded Tweet; compliments the full display in the detail page
  • Scalability: Scales well to all clients; scale to display extremely long threads
  • Consistency: consistent affordances across all surface areas (home timeline, profile, notifications, and more)

In total, the team did three rounds of research:

  • Round 1: Understand motivations and existing experience from thread creators. Focus on understandability and discoverability.
  • Round 2: Understand consumption needs from non-creators. Focus on consistency & format with prototype variants.
  • Round 3: Usability test before launch with creators & non-creators. Focus on task completion, discoverability, edge case validation.

After eight months of hard work, the team launched a new experience to the public. Since then, it’s been incredibly humbling to see the public sharing more and more thoughtful stories on Twitter.

A fun fact is that the team initially considered naming the feature “Tweetstorms” instead of “Threads.” The main reason being it was a stronger positioning on the brand and aligned with names, such as Tweets and Retweets. Later on, market research indicated that customers resonated with more positively with “Threads.” The team decided to go with the ption that customers wanted, and “Tweetstorms” remained as the internal name for the project.

Judging from your words, the Twitter design team was a great experience. Why did you decide to leave?

I’m the kind of person who often looks for reasons to stay instead of reasons to leave. I had decided to stay with Twitter during some of the most challenging times at the company. From 2014 to 2016, there were multiple lay-offs and re-orgs. I was determined to stay during those times because I saw the personal growth opportunity and the direct impact with my work. After three and a half years, I’ve become a more resilient person in the face of change. I’m genuinely grateful for this experience.

All of this made leaving Twitter a tough decision. I felt ready for a change in my professional life. However, I didn’t know what kind of change I needed. After a long journey of searching, I debated among offers at two other companies and staying at Twitter. To finalize my decision, I created a scorecard based on my values and graded each opportunity against the scorecard.

Ultimately, Airbnb stood out because of the following reasons:

  1. Travel and hospitality aligned well with my personal interests.
  2. Designing for a double-sided marketplace was a new challenge.
  3. Thinking beyond the pixels, shifting the focus from the online experiences to offline experiences.

As an Experience Design Lead at Airbnb, you make sure that every trip on Airbnb is consistently magical. What are the primary activities you’re involved in?

Imagine the end state and then work backward” is one of the key product principles at Airbnb. My proudest contribution thus far is the work I led last year to envision the future of accommodation listing platform. Every day millions of guests come to Airbnb searching and browsing places to stay for their future trip. How might we help guests better assess the fit? How might we establish better trust between hosts and guests?

With this output, my team now portraits a robust body of forward-looking projects that are getting momentum and support from leadership and cross-functional partners. It also has resulted in new ways of collaborating with partners across the organization.

Airbnb is rapidly growing, and many initiatives and projects are happening within the organization. Since my team works on the accommodation listing platform, there are many teams that we collaborate with regularly. To ensure guests will have a consistent and high-quality experience using Airbnb, I often find myself spending time influencing and collaborating with designers from stakeholder teams and rallying others to solve key problems for guests.

You also initiated, designed and led the first mentorship program dedicated for Airbnb design team. What was this program about?

Starting the mentorship pilot program for Airbnb design meant a lot for me personally. Shortly after joining Airbnb, I noticed that although the entire design team had a healthy gender balance, there was progress to be made for the design leads group. That motivated me to think about ways to better support the growth of the women within our team.

I approached this project as to how I would solve for a product design problem. I conducted a few casual interviews, gathered data from my research, and wrote down a 1-pager to outline the problem and propose solutions and timelines. The proposal was well received. With the leadership support, I collaborated with a small team to execute every phase of the pilot program, which included designing survey questionnaires, pairing mentors and mentees, and coming up with biweekly topic suggestions.

Mentorship pilot program kick-off event, featuring guest speaker Bek Stone

After all of the hard work, it was incredibly fulfilling for me to see 70 mentors and mentees signed up and paired up. Many of them co-created an amazing relationship during this program. Following the success of the pilot program, we have successfully scaled the program to benefit teammates of all genders. We have so many ideas to implement and make this even better than the pilot program! If anyone is interested in starting a mentorship program within their organization, I’d be happy to share the lessons I learned in depth.

Coming to your aspiration of becoming a mentor. What did you miss the most in terms of mentorship when you started in design?

When I first started designing, I went to many design events and networking opportunities in SF. Despite making some great connections, it was challenging for me to find seasoned design leaders who are women of color. It was even more difficult to find women of color with an international background. As a result, I had to learn things the hard way. I did not negotiate my salary early in my career. I did not persist, asking for something that I wanted, whether it was a promotion, a green card sponsorship, or an intern. I thought as long as I’m doing good work, good things will happen to me. I couldn’t be more wrong.

Women don’t arrive until their voices are heard.

It took me a long time to finally arrive and find my voice, build my confidence, and know what I deserve. When I reflect and share my introspective journey, I found my experience particularly resonated with women, people with international backgrounds, and under-represented minorities. It deeply motivated me to share my story more broadly and continue giving back to the community.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love making art. Since 2015, I’ve been running a small painting studio named “Ink + Water.” I practice live figure drawing using classical Chinese painting techniques. I have exhibited in group shows in Germany and led figure drawing sessions with SF Ballet “Sensorium.

People often ask me, how do you find the time to keep pursuing your interests when you have a full-time job? To me, the most useful thing is to create a routine for your interests so that it becomes the default. For example, if I were to decide every week whether I should spend time figure drawing, I may let it slip. Instead, I made a long-term commitment and signed up for 22 weeks of drawing sessions. This way, there was no excuse not to show up.

Any last words, advices, tips, or lessons learned for aspiring designers?

Persistence matters. To become proficient at a skill takes dedication and persistence. Don’t give up if you do not see the immediate progress. Create a routine. Build a habit. The hard thing is to keep going.

Focus on your strengths. Focus on what you already have, including your background, passion, and experience. Designers come from all sorts of backgrounds. Think about how your experience could make you a better designer, thinker, and collaborator. Tell that story for your next interview.

Bonus Question: What’s your favorite way to eat an avocado?

I love making my avocado breakfast sandwich. I add finely diced shallots and drizzle with my secret ingredient, chilli oil.

Want to stay in touch with Yuan? Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or check her website.

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