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Uber redesigned its driver app with input from actual drivers

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New prominence for ‘quests,’ ‘badges,’ and other gamified elements

“How do you do, fellow drivers?” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi personally tested out the new driver app before giving it the green light.
Photo: Uber

Uber drivers want a lot of things, but most just want to get paid as quickly and easily as possible. With that in mind, Uber announced the latest effort in its never-ending quest to repair its tarnished relations with drivers: a redesigned driver app. The app is noticeably less cluttered with a better method of tracking overall earnings and workarounds that solve for connectivity issues. But it also gives more prominence to features that some consider psychological inducements to influence when, where, and how long drivers work.

When redesigning the app, Uber did something it rarely does: it consulted and ran tests with hundreds of drivers in over half a dozen cities before rolling it out globally, and their suggestions and feedback influenced the final product. This more collaborative strategy allows Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi — who tested the app personally before giving it the green light — to employ soundbites like “built for drivers, with drivers.”

Before we get into the design process, let’s talk about what’s different about the app. An earnings tracker now sits at the top of the screen, letting drivers know how much they’ve earned since going online and how many trips they’ve completed. It also allows quick access to “quests,” “badges,” and other gamified elements of the driver app that critics dismiss as psychological tricks meant to keep drivers on the road longer. Uber argues these features are popular with drivers because they often put more money in their pockets.

For example, drivers are rewarded with bonuses for completing 20 trips in a certain amount of time, or they can earn badges for good feedback from riders. Some drivers complain these features dehumanize the experience of driving for Uber, while others tout their quests and badges with pride. The redesigned driver app puts many of those features front and center.

“We realized that a lot of drivers don’t even realize that they’re on these [quests] and then they get a bonus later,” says Yuhki Yamashita, Uber’s product manager for driver experiences. “They don’t realize throughout that’s happening because the app really doesn’t put that information in the forefront. It was pretty much buried. So those are some of the areas that we want to make sure that drivers have a lot of visibility into.”

Drivers will surely appreciate the transparency, but it's not clear how well they respond to these types of inducements. (Lyft employs similar methods to encourage its drivers, as do other gig economy companies like Postmates.) Uber drivers are independent contractors who lack many of the benefits and protections of salaried employment. Uber argues this gives drivers the flexibility to work at their leisure and be their own boss, but some drivers feel as if they’re at the mercy of Uber’s algorithm.

“I’m curious to see how the ‘gamification of driving for Uber’ continues as I don’t think Uber and its drivers always have interests that are aligned,” says Harry Campbell, a former Uber driver who runs The Rideshare Guy website. “Drivers want to work as little as possible for as much money as possible, which is why surge rides and the weekly promotions are so important. Uber is looking to maximize a driver’s efficiency and get them to work more for the same amount of money.”

Rather than bombard drivers with text messages about surge pricing, the new app will highlight areas of the city where higher fares are in effect and start the navigation process as a way to more forcefully nudging drivers to certain parts of the city. Yamashita says the goal was to break drivers out of their daily habits and guide them to locations where they can earn more money.

“Some of the suggestions that we might have for a way to go next may actually surprise them,” he says. “It turns out that a lot of people kind of have this pattern they build up based on tribal knowledge — you know, their daily habits on how to drive. It may be that conditions change, and they don’t have all the information necessary to make the right moves.”

The new app also seeks to solve a common problem with network connectivity, especially in those cities in emerging markets. Often, drivers in internet dead zones will have to drive past the dropoff location, sometimes to the next town over, before finding the network connectivity to end a trip. The new app will record the driver’s GPS location on the phone so a trip can end even in the absence of a signal.

The app’s “feed,” with information about insurance, driving classes, and other tidbits of market-specific information that Uber sends to drivers, has been repurposed as an inbox, so drivers can revisit certain items without fear of losing them. The driver’s rating page has also been redesigned to include compliments from riders and the total number of trips completed in their lifetime. The goal, Yamashita says, was to let drivers know that they were more than just the sum total of their ratings.

Last year, in the midst of the many scandals and lawsuits that roiled the company, Uber launched its “180 days of change” effort aimed at improving relations with drivers. Highlights included a new in-app tipping option for drivers, allowing drivers to message riders, additional layers of feedback for bad ratings, and more money for out-of-the-way pickups.

Uber sees the redesigned app as phase 2 in an ongoing effort to bolster drivers’ loyalty. Lyft, emboldened by Uber’s PR disaster and fresh financing from investors like Google, began marketing itself as the “driver-friendly” alternative. Uber’s only play was to involve drivers directly in its efforts to build better features. Before launching the new app, Uber consulted with hundreds of drivers and beta tested the app in seven cities: Cairo, Bangalore, Jakarta, London, Melbourne, Los Angeles, and São Paulo. “2017 taught us the importance of deeply listening to our customers and that the right thing wasn’t just about quickly rolling out this new product no matter how much we believed in it,” Yamashita says.

The current version of the app was built by 30 engineers, while the redesigned app is the end product of over 300 engineers, says Haider Sabri, director of engineering for Uber’s driver experience team. The aim was to design it for Uber’s ride-hailing drivers, but also for those driving for UberEats, UberPool, and any future transportation service that the company has yet to launch.

The new app will be a big deal among Uber drivers, who number in the millions across the globe. Most will be laser-focused on the changes made around earnings, says The Rideshare Guy‘s Campbell. “Drivers care about pay first and foremost so any improvements or changes to the app are definitely welcome, but unless they affect a driver’s bottom line, I don’t think a re-designed app will move the needle much for drivers.”

Most drivers agree the app needed some improvements. “There are times when the app freezes and doesn’t show the driver moving toward the rider, resulting in frustration and cancellations,” says Noemi Torres, an Uber Black driver in Los Angeles. “That needs fixing.”

But for Torres and thousands of other drivers, the biggest concerns with Uber aren’t software-based; they’re with the fundamental relationship between Uber and its drivers. “Uber needs to understand that while riders are the ones paying for the service, drivers are the ones providing the service, and we are upholding our end of the deal,” says Torres, who has a 4.96 rating after four years and 7,000 trips for Uber. “We drivers are the face of Uber, yet we are abused, underpaid, undervalued, have no health insurance, no benefits, no 401K or retirement... Yet Uber counts on the sustainability of this business model because of the unlimited amount of drivers willing to work, in some cases for below minimum wage.”