Manual Override

I recently had an unexpected experience with Airbnb. I was served with violations and potential fines of over $40,000 by New York City after hosting a guest in my room for 3 days while I was traveling. I learned a few lessons from that saga, one of which was to do with designing customer support tools.

Here’s what happened after I contacted Airbnb to tell them about my situation. First, someone from customer service responded to my message telling me that they were sorry to hear about what happened, but that it was my responsibility to know the law and they couldn’t do anything to help. I wasn’t surprised by this response, but it obviously did not put a smile on my face. So what happened next piqued my curiosity as a user experience designer.

A day or so later I received an automated email cheerily asking me to rate their customer service:

Hello Nigel Warren,

We’d love to hear what you think of our customer service. Please take a moment to answer one simple question by clicking either link below:

How would you rate the support you received?

Good, I’m satisfied

Bad, I’m unsatisfied

To recap: facing potential fines of over $40,000. Thousands in lawyer’s fees. Dealing with an unhappy landlord and building board. Months of stress. Any human could guess what kind of reaction this email would invoke. The customer service rep who dealt with me should have had some way of manually overriding this automated followup.

This seems obvious, but it’s hard to plan for all the potential edge cases when making the internal tools that companies use. Doubly so because they rarely go through as much design and testing as consumer-facing products.

The kicker to this story is what happened after a few more days had passed. I was contacted again by Airbnb, this time from someone on a different team who left me a voicemail and sent the following email:

Hi Nigel,

I hope this message finds you well. My name is [redacted] and I’m a part of the Host Consultation Team here at Airbnb. We’ve noticed you’ve been a great host on the site, and we still have a huge demand for accommodations in the New York area. Are you still interested in hosting?

Please feel free to reach out if you are interested in renting your property again with Airbnb. My direct line is [redacted] - I look forward to hearing from you soon!



I should point out that by this time, the New York Times had published my story[1] and Airbnb customer service had then reached out to me directly to apologize. The timing of this last email couldn’t have been more comic had Mike Daisey invented it for a one-man show. My girlfriend received the same message, so clearly Airbnb reps were working from an automatically compiled list of hosts in New York.

The lesson here isn’t that customer service is hard – that’s a well known fact. The lesson is that automated CRM systems need a manual override switch. It’s impossible to design for every possible edge case in an unpredictable world, so there needs to be a flag that says “the normal rules don’t apply here – shut this machine off” for when things get extreme.

  1. Although at the time of publication the violations had been dismissed, they have since been reissued and the case is ongoing. A mighty stress.  ↩