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How Uber design products (and why)
The story and playbook behind Uber's design for 130 million riders worldwide
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This week, we’re going to share exclusive insight on Uber.
Great companies can teach us a lot as product builders (designers, PMs, or builders).
Ethan Eismann and I connected first when Slack partnered with ADPList — still our most valued partner today. I found Ethan to be the most thoughtful, intentional, and principled design leader I’ve met. Ethan is currently the SVP of Design at Slack, previously Airbnb and Uber. We’ve had several conversations about his time at Airbnb and Uber; they were all-powerful. Below, Ethan has agreed to share his hard-won design lessons from Uber on designing for a global product at scale.
For more from Ethan, follow him on Twitter/X.
Imagine designing for citizens in 450+ cities and on 6 continents
In just 6 years, Uber has become integral to the way people in cities around the world get from where they are to where they want to be. I’ve been here for a little over a year, and one of the biggest challenges — and also one of the most gratifying parts of my job — is helping to design a service that works for so many different people in so many different places. With over 50 million monthly riders worldwide and over 1.5 million active drivers, scaling the Uber experience is central to everything we do.
To help you understand how we do this, I’ve written three pieces: the first tackles what it means to design for cities and their citizens. Through it, I’ll answer the question of how we create and maintain a global product that feels local and usable in 400+ cities across the world
Designing Beyond the Screen
Take a moment and think about your last transportation experience. Were you in a car, on the bus, riding the train, or taking a subway? Did you walk, bike, or skateboard? How many people did you come into contact with? How did you experience your surroundings? What was the weather like? Was that trip stressful? How much did it cost?
Now think of the last time you visited a different city or country. How were your transportation experiences different from back home?
Travel can be easy or hard, comfortable or confusing. And that’s because regardless of the way you travel or where you do it, the way you feel when you travel — your experience of it — is always inherently physical, cultural, and emotional. It’s contextual and complex.
Our goal at Uber is to interact with this complexity to facilitate worldwide transportation experiences reliably and well. We want to save people time and money, offer them a sense of calm, and, ideally, evoke a sense of joy. To accomplish this, we must think — and design — far beyond the screen.
Designing in Five Dimensions
We think of our design skills in five dimensions. Our designers are psychologists; we develop deep empathy for our users and try to see the world through their eyes. We are ethnographers, researching cultures across the world. We are scientists, working with data sets to derive insights that help inform our user experience. We are entrepreneurs, utilizing our understanding of people and markets to set strategy. And we are craftspeople, guided by aesthetics to build beautiful and usable experiences.
We leverage all of these skills to design scalable products that meet the needs of our users in cultures across the world. Our rider and driver apps are designed with both usability and customizability at their core. This ensures that while the fundamental experience of Uber is reliable everywhere, it is flexible enough to adjust and adapt in ways that celebrate the uniqueness of every city and the needs of its citizens.
A few examples:
Designing for Citizens
Cash payments in India
When our design team turned their attention to India early last year, it quickly became clear that we weren’t meeting all riders’ needs. With the country’s relatively low penetration by credit cards and other digital payment methods, Uber riders in India wanted to pay with cash. Our team reimagined the Uber experience to allow riders to use cash, and it was incredibly successful. Within a couple of months, cash payments spread across India and throughout the world to other cash-heavy markets. Now cash is available in many other emerging markets, too.
Uber for deaf or hard-of-hearing
We also design for universal usability, creating unique solutions to ensure that Uber is accessible to everyone, everywhere. For example, we wanted to ensure that Uber could be used by people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. On the rider app, we added an extra prompt to let riders know their driver may be Deaf or Hard of Hearing. We also turned off the calling feature and encouraged riders to communicate via text if they needed to give special instructions for pickup. On the driver app, we added a flashing light to the trip request screen to help draw attention to trip requests that otherwise might have been missed without sound. We first launched these changes in four American cities in August 2015. Today, the program is live in over 300 cities and is used by thousands of Uber drivers worldwide.
Designing for Cities
UberPOOL in NYC
Manhattan is an island full of narrow side streets, one-way roads, and turn restrictions. We found that asking a rider there to walk a little during commuting hours could shave 20 minutes off of the trip. We redesigned uberPOOL to make it more efficient for riders and drivers alike by directing passengers to a nearby corner for easier pickup. In the app, we use dots to represent the walk and a solid line to show the car’s route. By lowering ride time, we also improve efficiency since drivers no longer need to divert from main thoroughfares and make unnecessary loops to pick up passengers.
UberHOP in Manila
In metro Manila, the average commuter spends 1,000 hours per year commuting. Unlike Manhattan, where a quick walk can ameliorate the pain points of one-way streets, Manila requires a general reduction in congestion and a better pickup location. We introduced higher-capacity vehicles that can pick up more passengers per ride and operate along fixed routes. This enables commuters heading in the same direction to share a ride during rush hour for a flat fare. By targeting areas with the highest density at the busiest times of the day, we’re able to get more people into fewer cars.
We’ve also designed the experience so that riders see directions in the app, as well as how much time they have left to get to the pick-up spot. This enables commuters heading in the same direction to share a rider during rush hour for a flat far. Since uberHOP’s launch in Metro Manila, we estimate that riders have saved 60,000 miles of driving and over 2,000 gallons of fuel (comment: I love this sustainable angle) compared to what they would have used driving individually.
Designing for Specifics, Universally
Designing Uber for cities stretching across the globe and for citizens representing the full spectrum of human experience requires us to consider factors far beyond the screen. Our user experience is defined not only by the icons in an app but by the different physical and cultural infrastructures of every city and the unique perspective of every citizen. This richness, this complexity, makes designing for Uber incredibly challenging. And that challenge is what makes design at Uber so unique and rewarding.
Stay tuned for the second part in this series — Software to Streets — where I’ll dive into the set of considerations that go into each product challenge we face at Uber. You’ll get an inside look into the different modes of interactions we design for, and the set of primary constraints we design within.
I hope you enjoyed it and share this with your colleagues! Have a productive week 🙏
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