Challenge— CouchSurfing (CS) is an online community that facilitates local exposure and human interaction in travel by connecting surfers with hosts around the world. Faced with increasing competition from other services like Airbnb, how might CS improve the experience for current members and gain insight on barriers to entry for non-users?

Process— This project was for an introductory course on ethnographic interviewing, so we focused heavily on in-depth interviews with a diverse range of CS members. I don’t think I could ever forget my first 2-hour in-home interview! We also surveyed couch surfers and non-couch surfers to gauge general feelings, motivations and hesitations about couch surfing. Without a doubt, the highlight of our research process was a wildly entertaining and informative spaghetti dinner party we hosted for the Chicago CS community. The party immersed our team in the CS community and also let us observe (and participate) in fascinating conversations between CS members.

Insights— Positive references are inflated. People are reluctant to leave negative references, instead opting to give credit for good intentions or say nothing at all. The reference system should be revamped to better reflect experiences with a person instead of outright judging him or her.

New members face a steep learning curve and would benefit from extra support over those first few experiences. There is a significant gab between what experienced members expect from each other and what new members know to do. Additionally, a person’s first experience is crucial in determining whether he or she will keep participating in the community or dismiss it once and for all.

Solution— Our final presentation poster categorized members into overarching typologies that can be used to help CouchSurfing better understand who is getting involved and target new initiatives at specific types of users. We also identified shortcomings that frequently take away from a CouchSurfer’s experience and potential opportunities to make the service even better.

Credits— As a CS member since 2006, I was the team’s defacto subject matter expert and “in” to the CS community, recruiting interviewees and party guests. I also developed the research protocol, led user interviews, baked bread for the party, and oversaw the communication design for our final poster. As always, this was a delightful group effort with Jorge Angarita, John Shin, and Stephanie Smith.