User Experience in the real world – what renting an Airbnb shows about the value of immersion in user research

A lounge room featuring a 2 seater couch and a small coffee table

As a consequence of the pandemic and how we’ve driven our business development, we’re able to work from anywhere. While we’re primarily based in Melbourne and have occasional face-to-face meetings, most of our client work is now over Zoom, MS Teams or Google Meet. Sometimes we even speak on an old-fashioned telephone!

So we recently took the opportunity to pack up the van, load up the kid and the dog and drove ourselves to Brisbane. All in all, we were away from Melbourne for six weeks, and in Brisbane for three of those. We rented an Airbnb for those three weeks.

We had a wonderful time and caught up with family and friends, as well as getting a lot of work done with our Brisbane-based clients and colleagues.

The point of this story is not about the work but about the experience of staying in this Airbnb.

I would like to preclude this by saying I am not usually this much of a nitpicker! I also want to state that the stay in the house I’m talking about was brilliant and we would happily (and probably will) stay there again. For the context of our stay and the demonstration of user research, it is important to be a little nitpicky!

The value of user research

As anyone who has worked with us can attest, we are huge fans of human-centred design and everything that comes with it. This is the basic premise that you must empathise with your customer to truly understand them, and that empathy and understanding are driven by primary research.

One of the greatest methods of primary research that any business can do is immersion. This is where you put yourself in the position of your customer experience your product or service through their eyes.

As an example: If you’re performing research on the impacts of long-haul flying, then not only would you interview travellers and observe them, but you would also immerse yourself in the experience. You would get on a long-haul flight to have the experience yourself. Only then can you understand the failings or otherwise of the food, seat comfort, baggage access, bathrooms, etc.

Whether you look at this as a case study of us doing immersion, or the possibility of us and our behaviours being observed by someone else – the premise is the same – you must look through your customer’s eyes to understand their pain points, moments of joy, as well as met and unmet needs.

This is why user research, personas, and journey mapping are imperative for almost any business.

The persona and the scenario

In any customer relationship, personas and scenarios are going to differ depending on the needs of your audience and what you can offer them.

In this situation, we (the persona) are business owners who run a successful consulting business. We have one child and a dog. The majority of our work is done online and we have a fair bit of freedom as to where we are for most of the year.

The scenario is that we want to spend some time in Brisbane as we have several clients and colleagues there. We also want to make a bit of a holiday of it too, as we have a lot of friends and family in Brisbane as we both grew up there. We will be working while away and will need a dedicated work area, as well as fast internet.

So now we’ve set the scene, let’s get into the process.

Booking the house

Regardless of your opinion about Airbnb, it’s hard to fault the User Experience (UX) of their website. Of any of the similar platforms, such as Stayz or, the Airbnb booking experience is second to none.

The value of trust

Trust is the most important part of any business transaction. We looked at many houses on Airbnb and this one looked like it suited our needs the best.

The house itself only had one review, which was mildly concerning. The host, however, had several reviews for another property that they rented through Airbnb. The listing also had a very generous cancellation policy, so we went with it and booked it.

As anyone who has booked an Airbnb knows, the address of the property is made available to you as soon as you book. When that came through, we of course looked it up on Google Maps and had a virtual wander around the neighbourhood. As noted earlier, Elyse and I both grew up in Brisbane, so we knew the area reasonably well anyway.

The host soon emailed and mentioned that the house had been recently refurbished after being damaged in the devastation that was the 2022 eastern Australia floods. They noted that they had lived in the house for years and rent it out when they’re away for work.

Now, that’s all fine and it’s a very plausible story. However, by simply Googling the address of the house, we could see that it had been recently sold. So, no, the owner of the house had not lived there for years. And as we were about to find out, they didn’t live there at all. No one did.

These two points mean absolutely nothing to someone renting the house through Airbnb, so why fib, especially when the truth is so easy to find?

So, let’s dive in and check out the house we lived in for three weeks…

The Living Room

As you can see, the house was beautiful, airy, light-filled, and spacious. Everything you could want for a working holiday.

Let’s take a look at the living room first…

Now, let’s consider what scenarios might happen in this room.

Let’s also think about who is staying in this house. It’s a three-bedroom place, so it’s likely that the tenants would be three or four people. Maybe two adults plus one or two kids, or two or three couples sharing the house while on holiday. In our case, it was two adults and one child (and a dog). Potentially though, six adults could have stayed here.

OK – let’s imagine it’s dinner time. The dining table is there with easy access to the kitchen and there are four stools at the table. For most scenarios this is a pretty great setup.

Now, let’s imagine all the occupants want to sit down and watch a movie.

What’s the issue?

There’s only couch seating for two.

While there are dining stools at the table, the fact is that only two people can ever sit in a relaxed and comfortable manner to watch TV, chat or just relax. As we’ve noted, there’s a strong chance that there are more than two people staying in the house.

The simple solution here is to add more comfortable seating to the living area.

The main bedroom

The main bedroom is beautiful and large. It has plenty of space and features a four-poster bed.

So, what’s the issue here?

For starters, we suddenly have seating for four or five people in the bedroom. Why are all the seats that should be in the lounge room, in the bedroom?????

Let’s also add a scenario here…

The visitors have arrived and throw their suitcases onto the bed (and couch).

What happens next?

They unpack…. into what?

There are precisely zero cupboards in this room. None. There are a couple of small bedside drawers, but nothing else.

It’s becoming noticeably clear that nobody actually lives in this house. While it looks wonderful, it is becoming increasingly impractical for the purposes of accommodation.

The other two bedrooms had a similar lack of cupboard space although did not feature the considerable seating of the main bedroom.

The simple solution here is to provide cupboard space and move the additional seating to the living room, which also solves the seating issue there.

The bathroom

The issues with the bathroom might be harder to spot, but again, consider scenarios.

Let’s imagine that one of the occupants is wanting to shave or apply or remove makeup. Where’s the mirror? While there’s ample room for one above the basin (where you’d expect to see it), there isn’t one.

There are multiple mirrors against one of the walls, and while these did suffice, the obvious solution is a mirror stuck to the wall above the sink.

Let’s also imagine the showering habits of the occupants. I don’t know about you, but I’m a huge fan of leaving my towel on the towel rail. In this bathroom, there is one towel rail for a house that could potentially house six people. While the video doesn’t make it clear, there was plenty of room for additional towel rails in front of the shower and behind the door.

The simple solutions for this room are to provide a mirror above the sink, as well as additional towel rails.

The workspace and setup

small workspace with empty frames on it
The workspace in the house was a small nook off the living room.

I’m not going to harp on this as the house had three bedrooms and our intention all along was that one of the bedrooms would serve as our office space, which it did well.

In the context of someone needing a workspace when all three bedrooms were occupied, this would have been problematic. It’s small and has no privacy. Note the empty photo frames as well. Again – why say that someone lives here when they clearly don’t?

Also, note that when we arrived there was no internet access. While we could connect to the wireless network, there was no coverage at all. The host was fabulous and put us in contact with their ISP so we could troubleshoot. The issue was that the modem and router hadn’t been connected properly and needed an ethernet cable to connect them. Luckily, we travel with a bag of ‘just in case’ tech stuff, and one of those things is ethernet cable, so the issue was quickly solved.

Had the tenant not been tech-savvy or not had quick access to the correct cabling, this would have presented itself as a larger issue. The problem also further illustrated the initial realisation that nobody lived in the house.

Personas and scenarios change everything

While I appreciate this post may make me look like a pedant, I assure you I’m not! I do think this is a great illustration of the value of user research, and immersion in particular.

We gave our Airbnb host our feedback and rated the house 5 stars. It’s a brilliant place and was perfect for us on our stay (apart from those few little niggles).

If we were to map out the user journey of a weekend traveller to this house, it would have been largely unaffected by the quirks of the house that we discovered. A family staying for the weekend would likely not bother to unpack into cupboards and would probably not all sit down to watch a movie together if they’re only in town for a short time. However, anyone staying more than a few days are going to feel the pinch of a poorly laid out dwelling.

How to use observation and immersion in your business

So, what does that mean for your business?

Do the thing your customers do!

Walk into your shop and gauge whether the lighting is good or if the music is too loud.

Go to your website and click around and try to buy something. Is it as easy as it should be? Get your friends to do the same – ask their honest opinion and be sure to listen to it.

Ask your customers what the think and perform multiple forms of primary research. Then use that information to improve the customer experience of your product or service.

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Avatar for Sam HemphillNow a digital veteran, Sam Hemphill initially trained as a drummer and high school teacher and spent 10 years as a touring musician and tour manager. During that time, he...

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