Ordering an Uber is easy. What comes next isn’t. Say you’re waiting for your ride outside a concert that just ended, or at the pickup area at an airport. Everyone else has ordered an Uber, too, and you’re left texting, calling, and figuring out some ad hoc solution to meet up with your driver. Now Uber is releasing its solution after fine-tuning it for a year–during which its biggest competitor, Lyft, caught up and unveiled its own version.
It’s called the Uber Beacon, and it’s essentially a window-mounted Uber app logo that glows in any color the rider chooses. If it’s too hard to parse the make, model, and license plate of your ride, all you need to do is see the glowing Uber symbol that’s been customized by you.
“We all know how awful it is when a driver has to call or text you,” says Nikhil Goel, product lead for advanced programs at Uber. “It breaks the expectation of push a button get a ride.” But it’s not just bad for user expectations; these confused conversations are bad for business. Riders cancel trips when they can’t sync up, and every minute a driver is searching for a rider, that’s one minute less that they’re actually generating revenue by actively driving people around.
A year ago, Uber began experimenting with what it has come to call “color-pairing technology” in a pilot in Seattle. The company installed LED tubes that looked a bit like neon lights into drivers’ cars alongside a front windshield pillar. And when riders had a car incoming, they could select from a few different colors with which to customize their drivers’ car lights. The pilot was a success: People reported liking the experience, and those key metrics of canceled rides, pickup times, and superfluous communications all began to trend down.
Yet the vertical hardware prototype was difficult to install in every type of vehicle, so Uber developed in-house hardware that would perform better at scale. For the shape, the design team considered all sorts of options that played off the existing Uber “U” that you see on cars today, but it was too thin to be legible, and the U didn’t necessarily translate across cultures worldwide. “We learned from that that subtle design details get lost but bold design details win,” says John Badalamenti, senior design lead. “Coming off the brand launch from earlier this year, we chose to model this product off the rider app icon–the same logo you tap for your ride is the same [one that picks you up].”
The beacon mounts to a windshield in minutes, but the lamp sticks onto its base with a magnet–so it can be easily popped on and off the windshield as a driver goes on and off duty. There are no cords. Instead, it’s charged like a smartphone to last anywhere from one long shift to an entire week of casual trips. As for the glow itself? The device is designed with a slim side profile to minimize driver distraction, and the LED itself isn’t blinding. “Think of the brightness as the same as the icon on the back of your Macbook,” says Badalamenti.
But the real cleverness may be on the app end of the experience. Because when a rider calls a car, the Uber logo appears in a color alongside other driver information. All the rider has to do is tap to bring up to a color selector tool, not unlike Photoshop’s, to choose a custom hue. Realizing that multiple people might choose very similar colors, Uber will eventually block out parts of the color spectrum that are in use by other nearby customers, and the company will also enable multicolored Beacons for more overall variety. Until that happens, confused riders have a simple solution: Right up to the moment they get into a vehicle, they can click the color-pairing icon again to change it in real time. Nothing is fixed.
However, some might find it surprising that Uber’s beacons are almost functionally identical to Lyft’s glowing LED product, which debuted by industrial design firm Ammunition earlier this year. Given that both development time lines both span over a year, it’s hard to say which company came up with the idea first. Consumers, however, needn’t care. The fact that the two biggest ride-sharing services in the U.S. have adopted the same color interface language for pickups will only make the experience simpler for everyone.
Beacons launch today in the cities of Miami, Denver, Nashville, and Newcastle before rolling out to more next year.
[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): courtesy Uber]