Inside Uber’s Mission to Give Its Drivers the Ultimate App
Uber’s founders didn’t invent Uber for drivers. They invented it for themselves, a couple of guys in San Francisco who wanted to be ballers by summoning limos from their phones. Then they invented it for ballers like themselves—upscale urbanites, mostly. Then they invented it for anyone who wanted to get anywhere by “pool” or “x” or “SUV” or “helicopter,” even if they didn’t care about being baller. Push a button, get a car. On the other end of that button there have always been drivers, picking up rides from an app that has looked and functioned pretty much the same since the company launched. And for drivers, the Uber app was decidedly un-baller.
That changes today, as the company rolls out its first redesigned app for its partners. It’s the culmination of a massive, yearlong design process to which nearly 100 Uber employees contributed. The new app will transform Uber’s driver software into a management platform offering tools to help its drivers tend and grow their businesses. “We’ve had this fragmented communication with drivers over email and we just didn’t have information available for them,” says Jeff Holder, the longtime Amazon executive who joined Uber last year as head of product. “We wanted to completely re-invent the driver app.”
The new app reflects how the company’s take on design has evolved in the six years since it was founded. From the start, Uber’s simplicity was its selling point. And that approach was easy to maintain when the product was new and the team was small. “There’s this core principal of seamless design, there was that magic associated with pushing a button and getting a car,” says Nundu Janakiram, who, as Uber’s Head of Core Experience, first championed the redesign. “How can you apply that same magic to more things? That’s the Uber design philosophy we try to pull through all the products that we build.”
Uber, however, is getting more complex. Consider that, six years in, Uber has more than 4,500 employees in 61 countries. It’s worth more than $50-billion. In addition to moving people around, it’s taking a stab at moving packages, couches, and pizzas—among other things. It has a team in Pittsburgh, PA building self-driving cars and it’s working on its own mapping software. And unlike Facebook, Google, and other large software companies operating out of the Bay Area, Uber runs a local logistics business. In light of this, maintaining a commitment to simplicity in an increasingly complex environment becomes the ultimate design challenge. Uber’s partner app offers a case study in how the company approaches it: “Finding that core nugget of magic amid the complexity is how our design philosophy is evolving,” says Janakirm.
The redesign began just more than a year ago, shortly after Janakiram came over to Uber from Google, where he’d spent several years working on Search and YouTube. As his title suggests, he was in charge of every experience integral to Uber’s core product, from rider safety to ratings to Uber Pool. One of the first things Janakiram did in his new role was check in with folks working on everything from design research to on-the-ground operations. What he heard back indicated Uber could do a much better job providing useful information to its drivers. The app at that time, for example, provided heat maps to show drivers where they were most likely to get rides, but only when surge pricing was in effect and demand was strong. This was great for passengers, who wanted the rides. But it didn’t help drivers figure out how to optimize their business during the doldrums, when demand was normal or low.
In January, the redesign team convened its first meeting in what came to be known as the “war room,” a conference room with whiteboard walls large enough that dozens of designers and engineers could congregate in it at one time. In addition to the usual suspects, Uber added a new appointment to the mix: “Product operations specialists” are employees who start their careers in local city offices and transfer to headquarters; they’re critical to helping Uber understand the challenges of rolling out the service in individual markets.
Janakiram convened a team of people whose job it was to review copious amounts of research pouring in from around the globe. They’d sit in on focus groups and attend driver-led meetups to get a broader sense of what drivers wanted from the app. And, of course, they’d interview local drivers whenever they got in a car. They discovered some drivers kept a pen and pad next to their smartphones to record their incomes. Others complained they had to log on to a computer when they wanted to complete administrative tasks like updating their car insurance information.
The team used all this data and feedback to design a new interface that allows drivers to manage their businesses directly from the app. It opens on a personalized newsfeed that includes notes from local Uber teams, information about recent rides, and tips on how to optimize income and ratings. Along the bottom there are four icons. A map icon pulls up a heat map that illustrates the areas you are most likely to pick up your next passenger—a feature that is now available whether prices are surging or not. An earnings icon gives a more specific breakdown of the money drivers are bringing in, separating out their take-home pay. A ratings icon allows drivers to see more information than just their average rating, including comments that riders have left. Finally, an account icon allows drivers to manage their accounts from inside the app—something that used to require logging onto a computer.
And for as useful as all these new interface elements are, a lot of the app’s elegance is actually on the backend; as Uber expands to employ hundreds of engineers, the company’s designers will need a way to allow many more people to contribute to the code at the same time. To accommodate growth, the app was rewritten such that the software that underpins it can break apart, allowing multiple teams to work on updates to it at the same time.
The team began piloting the newly designed app among small groups of users in select cities—Phoenix, AZ and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for example—at the start of the summer. It was particularly challenging to hit upon a design that would work for every market, given that drivers speak a multitude of languages and have a lot of different cultural influences.
In countries like India, for example, where connectivity was an issue, drivers thought the icon denoting “earnings” was actually describing the level of connectivity the app had. So, the team adjusted the iconography to make it more universally recognizable. In another small but significant design tweak, Uber’s team discovered that in areas of the world where people are just coming online, some drivers were using smartphones for the first time, and weren’t familiar with the newsfeed’s scrolling action. So, Uber added a spinning ball above the dashboard that signaled to a user to scroll down.
The result is an app designed to help drivers maximize their income. And for drivers, that’s what will make Uber baller.