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Uber’s Quest To Redesign Its Toxic Relationship With Drivers

Travis Kalanick got fired. Uber’s designers got to work.

June 22, 2017–the day after Travis Kalanick was fired as CEO of Uber–marked the beginning of 180 Days of Change, a breakneck attempt to remake the company’s adversarial relationship with its own drivers. Gone would be Kalanick’s GTFO attitude. Instead, there’d be listening tours and features that drivers had long agitated for, including tipping and easier ways to find surge pricing.

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At first, those capabilities were simply bolted onto the existing app. But soon, those initial improvements yielded to a much more ambitious effort to remake how Uber works, so that it could build a more humane product overall. A year in, that new design process has produced a new driver app. Pay attention the details, and you get an object lesson in how better UX flows from better org design. Co.Design got an exclusive look at them.

An Unavoidable Problem

The designers behind that process were of course hesitant to attribute the mess that was the previous driver’s app to Kalanick’s well-documented shortcomings–but it is almost impossible to avoid. Even if some teams had wanted to treat their drivers better, the organization wasn’t set up to do that. The old driver’s app grew organically: At first, the only thing it did was alert drivers to pickups, and track their earnings; as the company grew, so did the features, such as maps, music, ride tracking, and messaging from riders and the company, too. Then came Uber Eats, then Uber Pool.

[Photo: courtesy of Uber]
All of it was either jammed into tabs or into a feed of information that contained every notification. More importantly, the features themselves reflected the underlying organization. The various tabs were in fact mapped to the product teams inside of Uber. As a result, what users saw wasn’t just a piece of software, but a mirror of Uber’s org chart. None of the product teams had a holistic view of their user. Whatever insight they did have was limited to their tab, be it profile management or ride tracking. “You couldn’t see importance details, like where the rider was getting picked up,” says Bryant Jow, a design lead on the project. “It was like dropping people into an airplane cockpit. The goal was to make the app more like a copilot.”

Products built around org charts instead of user needs are a classic problem in design. As I’ve reported, you can see examples of it in almost every company you can think of, from Disney to Nike. The problem springs from organizing a company for operational efficiency rather than user need. As a result the user eventually becomes a vague concept, managed by only one silo of the company.

Uber’s Design Team Redesigns Itself

To solve that, Uber’s design team reorganized itself. Instead of having designers embedded in the product teams, they were reassigned to groups mapped to the driver’s user-journey. “Where before we were shipping something that looked like our org chart, now the studio is three tracks: Getting Started, Doing the Job, and Managing Your Business,” explains Zack Gottlieb, Uber’s senior design manager for driver experience. Importantly, designers can move among those groups from project to project.

Tapping Into Drivers’ Key Needs

The app itself is organized in the same way. The differences between the old and new app flow from those changes. Where once the home screen when a driver was offline was a feed of undifferentiated notifications–including potential fares awaiting a ride–today there are only three basic pieces of information that drivers said they needed: A tracker up top showing how much the driver has earned that day, a better map of where the surge opportunities are, and a “Go” button to get started.

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[Gif: courtesy of Uber]
That Go button itself was a conscious but telling choice. It’s meant to be more human than the on/off switch that preceded it, which almost treated the driver herself as a machine.

The visual design of that surge map is dramatically smarter. No longer is it an avalanche of decimal points; instead, you can now see the underlying streets, and the surge information is simplified. If a rider messages the driver, the driver doesn’t have to flip through to a messaging tab and drill down to find the message. Instead, there are quick replies right on the ride-progress screen.

A New Research Approach

All these features were ideated, tested, and refined through a new, on-the-ground design research process that closely resembles those at Facebook and Google. In the last part of 2017, designers and researchers fanned out to seven cities, inviting 500 drivers at a time to beta sessions with the new app. They did ride-alongs, home visits, and dinners with drivers.

One less-common detail was pairing many beta testers with a pen pal–someone on the design or research team that they could text with while they were using the app. But importantly, the research itself is meant to be holistic. Rather than cover a specific feature, as it once did, the point is to synthesize all the learnings back into an overarching user narrative. “Before, there was research, but it focused on whatever feature mattered to a silo,” says Bjorn Hubert-Wallander, the UX research-lead who worked on the Driver app. “But research itself needs to be integrative, because the issues that come up can only be understood if we know the user end-to-end.”

Will It Mend A Broken Relationship?

No doubt, all that effort and better design will make for an easier driver experience. The question is whether drivers will in turn feel just a little bit better about Uber–enough that they’ll keep the app open even as they continue to use any one of Uber’s many competitors, Lyft included. It was probably inevitable that there would be a commodification of Uber’s offering. But you can’t help but think that the company would have been in a better place if only it had thought to redesign the app–and the organization–around its drivers just a little bit earlier.

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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