By Dan Epelle Evelyn
CCTP 820: Leading by Design: Principles of Technical and Social Systems
Georgetown University, Fall 2019
Depending on what is important to you, Uber’s Pool ride-sharing experience further provides affordability and flexibility for passengers, and even claims to be convenient for drivers. Uber Pool includes advantages that are far more reaching than cost-effectiveness for riders; like how pooling connects people in a given social network where two or more people share a short ride, then conveniently cut costs for doing so.
News stories have even been published on social relationships brought about by social connections made via Uber Pool. Think of the algorithm that executes the Uber Pool ride option; an intelligent system letting passengers share a trip’s cost while heading toward the same direction. We see here, how such an algorithm is designed to intentionally put passengers heading in the same direction together. This calculated attempt is also embedded in Uber’s acclaimed mission to make commuting affordable for riders and effortless for drivers. Five years have now passed since the service was first launched, so measuring the introduced effect of Uber Pool ride-sharing service on Uber’s User Experience (UX) is feasible.
Getting picked up at your doorstep is the opportunity cost forgone when a rider uses the Uber Pool option which saves costs but requires waiting and/or walking a distance to meet with a driver. In this document, I reflect on the User Experience of Uber since the introduction of its carpooling function. I use design thinking for deblackboxing and analyzing the socio-technical components behind the Uber experience. In doing so, I consider the technologies that have been made available to Uber which enabled the design of this innovation. I also identify the unique ways in which the design might be combined for improved User Experience (UX). In doing so, both quantitatively and qualitatively, I provide support for the hypothesis that Uber Pool diminishes Uber’s User Experience (UX) as a result of an algorithm that is weighted in favor of the driver’s convenience, over user experience for riders.
In collecting data for this paper I have utilized my knowledge of the Uber Pool experience as an observer and user of Uber as a service, combined with theories, design principles for building application software and academic resource from CCTP 805 Leading by Design course taught by Communications, Culture, and Technology (CCT) program Founding Director, Prof. Martin Irvine, at Georgetown University. This includes ideas from class discussions, weekly blog reflections, social interactions debating the subject with peers and industry professionals, and for depth, a case study directly connected to the design of Uber Pool by Uber Technologies.
Uber as an App is designed to be simple: push to start, one button. As an application of technology in transportation, Uber is also very close to so many of us, at least as many as there are, that own a mobile phone, internet connectivity, and have downloaded the Uber App for any purpose that ranges from rider, driver, partner, consultant, etc. This number is in hundreds of millions. The Uber App is built to provide safe transport of persons across distances, and when such persons are grouped together, we can trust that a combinatory arrangement of that nature can also contribute to reducing traffic-related congestion in urban areas – especially where road network problem is directly correlated with car traffic congestion. Uber has delivered this service in over 600 cities globally since it was founded in 2009 by startup gurus, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp.
Its socio-economic value has accelerated the company’s status from the pride of San Francisco to one of the fastest-growing startups in the world. All of these conveniences, however, packaged by Uber, comes with a need for consumers to compute the trade-offs when determining how much of Uber’s advertised convenience they can now afford.
Some of these computations and deliberations around tradeoffs when using Uber as a service became even more pronounced with the introduction on Uber Pool in 2014. Uber itself has had to make adjustments, which might suggest to an outsider that the company acknowledges the inconvenience brought about by Uber Pool since its release. Of course, adjustments are what you do, and not scrap off a new feature, which has otherwise become the most profitable for the company following its release. Some insights presented by research are in favor of the notion that Uber’s user experience (UX) is, however, burdened by Uber Pool. What can we expect from anything that must yield profits as a business, gain socio-economic significance as a service, and provide convenience for millions of humans as a technology? As a person, Uber might be full of stress in this regard – this, according to world data, is associated with anxieties common to the ride-share experience: passengers aren’t given any information beforehand as to where their co-riders are sitting inside the vehicle, making it difficult for them to confidently reach for the door with the vacant seat. This comes after perhaps walking a short distance to meet the driver who by design isn’t obligated to come to you at your location – because you did not pay for it.
In all, the inconveniences posed by Uber Pool are felt mostly by riders, and this negates the pledge for ease of use the brand promised since inception. Although recent updates to the Pool service shows concern from Uber about its UX design, not so much exists as ‘changes’ made specifically to reconcile the difference.
If any support for claims that Uber prioritizes the experience of drivers over the convivence of riders is shown, what could possibly be the design justification of Uber Pool? How does Uber justify a design that intentionally directs rider traffic to drivers, increasing demand and offering ‘reduced costs’ to passengers at the expense of their own comfort? A key component of Uber’s service is its promise for ease of use and increased convenience. In what ways does walking a distance to your driver or perambulating with strangers to strange drop-off locations sound convenient?
In addition to these budding problem statements, Uber Pool is also reportedly growing inaccurate with coordinating navigation data, this sometimes can keep a rider irate, anxious and confused all through a ride – I have personally wondered on one such occasion if the predicament was worth the $0.87 saved for choosing to pool with others. It is essential to know that this choice exists because Uber presented an option which is designed to be perceived as convenient for riders.
“I have personally wondered on one such occasion if the predicament was worth the $0.87 saved for choosing to pool with others” – Uber Pool Reviews
Universal Design Principles: Uber as an App
In today’s climate, humans are growing more and more dependent on technology. Apps that confidently and repeatedly promise convenience while offering a user experience that combines minimal human effort for implementation, will most likely succeed. Uber has successfully capitalized on this from the start, and its commitment to providing convenience in commuting as an advantage over the traditional cab is now globally acknowledged as successful. After success, however, comes failure – a given with nearly all technologies that have been designed and pushed on the market as super convenient and overly efficient. After taking hundreds of Uber rides in tens of locations including Africa, Europe and the United States of America, I confidently report that; user experience is not the same for any two cities, neither do I expect it to be, given the complexities involved with cross-cultural translation of design for products and services in general. The main ideas however that brought about research into Uber’s diminishing User Experience (UX) with respect to Uber Pool, came about by firsthand knowledge of the shortcomings with Uber Pool in location-specific Washington DC, Los Angeles, and New York City.
Designing a transportation solution for use in a clustered and compact city will have considerable limitations if (or when) applied as a solution in a less-dense and wider population cluster. These limitations might take the form of the need to vary design combinations and employ additional technology that supports and satisfy a location-specific need. To re-imagine Uber as an App and its implementation of universal design principles, one can think about a few questions that support the design of applications built as technology for transportation.
- In what ways has Uber combined and executed a special implementation of technology for transportation?
- In the use of general technology for App development, which features make the Uber App unique?
- To what extent is Uber customizable to fit the unique needs of people and cities?
Some obvious combinations are manifest in the User Interface (UI) layer of the Uber App. All transactional functions are implemented via a payment gateway in handshake with banks and other associated financial institutions. Uber has no special in-app bank and operates a cashless system (in some countries) but combines technology for card transactional services by leveraging an Application Programming Interface (API) to simplify the implementation and maintenance of financial services. Maps to unlock the iOS and Andriod geolocation feature is also seen implemented as a GPS approximation and navigation function in the design of the Uber App. This technology is implemented by a MapKit and CoreLocation Framework on iOS which allows Uber to customize the observable features like device tracking, routing and uses a scheduler for adding riders based on real-time simulations and approximations on a server. On an Andriod device, Google’s location API’s is the equivalent technology being implemented on Ubers technology stack.
All in-app communications including driver-rider communication, corporate communications, disputing cancellation fees or reporting a lost item after a ride are done by implementing the conventional mobile text messaging and telecommunications technology. Uber employs Twilo, Apple Push notification service, and Google Cloud Messaging to make these features a possible part of the Uber experience. Uber also dabbles into gamification for designing algorithms that execute business development strategies – like the sale of Uber Pass, the latest combination that offers discounted rides up to 10% each month at a flat rate of $14 as a monthly subscription fee. Again, this is a designed effort to stimulate some sense of convenience, while guaranteeing steady monthly earnings for the company. Lastly, all of the clicks and swipes within the App are also implementations of the standard operating principle of a mobile phone.
These makeup for some of the most obvious technological features combined and designed as a socio-technical system for transportation – but what other invisible elements constitute the combinatory design principle that enables the Uber experience, the Uber experience brought about to be, that which we cannot merely see?
“Pattern recognition is an essential skill for creators. See the patterns in user behavior and how to change them. Understand the implicit patterns of use, layout, and function in your work. Then, make them explicit.” — 77 Things, Uber Technologies.
Socio-Technical analysis and Uber’s BlackBox
The boundary mapped by Uber in a social-technical system suggests how modern and native to America the App really is based on the technologies it adopts and the human actors at play individually or as corporations that directly service Uber. In orchestrating the Uber experience, we see how modular and customizable Uber is an APP. Considerable changes in Uber’s design is first tested out in some regions before spreading out to other locations permissible by its global footprint. Uber has shown this layer of its controlled operations by making available Uber Pool in few US cities – as with any new function before it would be spread out to other locations – albeit if Uber Pool succeeds in the select locations.
Uber, like every other company, keeps trade secrets of its own which empowers the company to succeed and keep its competitors on their toes. To point out one way in which I have determined that these hidden configurations exist, I draw oversight from a notable competitor.
Lyft is taking forward steps to uniquely combine transport technology to gain a competitive advantage in the growing industry. Ridesharing on Lyft boasts greater conveniences as it posits through its unique service that; picking up a rider from their location should be prioritized – but at a small extra cost which Uber scratches off when a rider walk in the case of Uber Pool. There are obvious differences and this orchestrated complexity is weighted on how each company combines and coordinates its own computation for maximum profits in the ride-sharing business.
Below is an instance analyzing the rideshare option on Uber and Lyft. The locations are set identically, with rides requested at the same time of the day, commuting to the same destination.
The table below compares all identifiable differences and similarities in the featured App data:
In the random sample analyzed above, we visualize some important decisions a rider might make, each time ride-sharing becomes an available option to them. Depending on what is most important in the moment, a rider might opt for either of the service providers above and a user’s experience with using either of these services is dependent on the outcome of such decision.
“User Experience UX is an iterative process where you take an understanding of the users and their context as a starting point for all design and development” –
Uber is built as a mobile application and adopts universal design principles to enable basic user interaction like adopting swipe, click and touch features of a mobile device for ease of use. Uber has also scaled to becoming a venture with several other sub-ventures offering services that relate to servicing logistics needs for billions of people around the world.
At this time, there isn’t room for riders to customize and coordinate the Uber App, so the constraints faced by riders who opt for Uber Pool would linger until it is addressed by Uber to directly enhance its dwindling user experience. In the meantime, we can, however, challenge the complexity of the Uber App design and ask why functions like Uber Pool are designed the way they are and not some other way. Already Uber attempts to give answers by providing a ton of options within its App, enabling users to take part in decision making and giving them a sense of inclusion in the design process.
- How much do you value your time at the moment?
- How much are you willing to spend?
- Are you open to the concept of social networking, chatting with strangers or meeting your next best friend?
“It’s like playing with Lego: the basic brick doesn’t change, but the builder uses it to create, unleashing its potential. Our components are basic at their core, but also highly customizable through style overrides and can be configured in many ways” – Uber Technologies.
Key findings from this paper are summarized thus:
- The affordances or constraints of native mobile device features, and most of the hidden layers behind the Uber app, have nothing to do with Uber:
- Modularity allows Uber to manage a larger and more complex whole structure by dividing up its functions into separate, interconnected components, layers, and subprocesses.
- Data network design is organized as a stack of layers for the abstraction of functions into separately managed modules that pass information “up” the stack for the functions of the whole network.
“No product is an island. A product is more than the product. It is a cohesive, integrated set of experiences. Think through all of the stages of a product or service – from initial intentions through final reflections, from first usage to help, service, and maintenance. Make them all work together seamlessly.” — Don Norman, inventor of the term “User Experience”