“Pack your bags!” the email told me.
I looked at the boxes around me with a lump in my throat. Boxes of my clothes, books, the cafetiere we bought together (I didn’t take much but I couldn’t do without fresh coffee in the morning). I looked at our wedding photos on the bookshelf: I wouldn’t be packing those.
My cat walked in and wound herself around my legs, purring. “Do you know I’m leaving?” I thought. I bent down and scratched her neck and she bowed her head accordingly. “How quickly will you forget me?”
There were a lot of things I needed in that last week at home, as I prepared to move out of our marital home into an AirBnB round the corner, so we could trial separation: a hug; some reassurance; to know if I’d ever be coming back.
What I didn’t need, was a series of auto-generated emails from AirBnB designed, clearly, for someone going on holiday.
“Pack your bags!”
“Amy, it’s almost time for your trip!”
“Welcome to Hertfordshire!”
Each one of those exclamation marks was a gut punch, a grammatical knife in the heart, an absurd misjudgement of my situation that might have been funny if it hadn’t been so awful.
In Design for Real Life, Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyer talk about stress cases: the moments that put our content and design choices to the test of real life.
“Real life is complicated […]. We might experience harassment or abuse, lose a loved one, become chronically ill, get into an accident, have a financial emergency, or simply be vulnerable for not fitting into society’s expectations.”
I have never felt this so acutely as in January, when I separated from my husband, my partner of 12 years. AirBnB was the tip of the iceberg.
I found myself bombarded with relentless adverts for ovulation kits from companies assuming we were trying to have a baby, opening emails from Mr and Mrs Smith advertising the best romantic getaways, and tortured by this-time-last-year memories from the photos app on my iPhone, featuring picture after picture of James smiling at me over dinner; cuddling reluctant cats; our wedding day.
My world was turning upside down and the algorithms hadn’t caught up, leaving me in a Twilight Zone of content that felt cruel, callous and mocking.
I tweeted about AirBnB’s emails and received an array of responses, ranging from “I’m so sorry you had to experience that” to “get a grip, snowflake”.
I thought about all the unpleasant reasons people might use AirBnB: funerals; visiting sick relatives; displacement from war, or climate change, or a house fire. I thought about how much salt had been rubbed into how many wounds, and wondered whether AirBnB thinks about this too.
Life is not one dimensional, and the experiences we design should reflect this.
It’s not a hard problem to solve.
Had AirBnB asked me about the nature of my trip, and designed for their many users who are not travelling for pleasure, I could have been spared that additional pain.
But they didn’t, they haven’t, and so I wasn’t.
And so here’s my plea for more thoughtful content:
Content that accommodates the complexity of life.
Content that goes out of its way to avoid harm.
Content that is, above all, kind.