Uber’s latest attempt

3 Million Uber Drivers Are
About to Get a New Boss
Inside Uber’s latest attempt to rebuild its app for drivers, the
biggest experiment in the gig economy.
ALEXIS C. MADRIGAL
APR 10, 2018
https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/04/uber-driver-app-revamp/557117/
UBER
Every day, the world’s 3 million Uber drivers spend 8.5 million hours logged into the ridehailing company’s app. That’s roughly 1,000 years of Uber driving packed into any given 24
hours.
Because of this tremendous scale, Uber is the most important test case for the gig economy,
the new economic arrangement where contract workers are arranged into a cohesive labor
force by software. There are many companies that share Uber’s controversial approach to
doling out work, but none has amassed 3 million people who use the service to try to make
money. Never before has an app’s design been so important to so many people.
The Uber app is the drivers’ workplace, as much as the city where they’re driving is. Each
decision about its interface structures drivers’ interactions with Uber the company as well as
Uber the transportation marketplace. And Uber is now putting the finishing touches on a
from-scratch rebuild of the driver app.
The new build of the app draws on technological components of the new rider app, which
launched last year. But creating something for drivers is different. An Uber rider needs an
app that’s simple and fast; drivers’ experience of the app is much deeper.
The new version will begin rolling out in the next few weeks, and in an interview with The
Atlantic, Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, said it embodies the new, kinder Uber. Hundreds
of drivers were involved in providing detailed ideas and feedback about how the app should
work.
“Drivers have lived with our tools every single day, and the insight that they bring into our
app and our experience on the road is unique,” said Khosrowshahi, who has even tried
driving himself. “We would be fools not to use their experience in helping design not just
our software, but in thinking about our business.”
So Yuhki Yamashita, the product manager for driver experience, and Haider Sabri, the
engineering lead, spearheaded a new design process that sought to bring “builders” (Uber’s
terminology for engineers and designers) closer to the drivers who will be using their
software. It’s one of the things that Uber can do now. Back when the last driver app was
introduced in 2015, there were about 30 engineers working on the app, Sabri said. Now
there are hundreds.
Members of the app-building team embedded with hundreds of drivers in Los Angeles;
Cairo; Bangalore, India; London; Melbourne, Australia; Jakarta, Indonesia; and São Paolo,
Brazil. Drivers could send WhatsApp messages to individual researchers, attend group
lunches, or do rides with members of the Uber team using the new app.
Instead of taking all that information and processing it into one or several reports, they
created a private Google Plus community (yes G+ still exists!) so that engineers and
designers could immediately see feedback coming in from all over the world. Some drivers
recorded vlogs reviewing the new app. Others sent detailed messages with screenshots to
point out concerns.
The result of that research and building process is a new app that the team hopes will be, as
they put it, “empowering” and “personal,” and more understanding of how drivers move
through their days (and nights) on the platform.
Most intriguingly, the new app will take a more directive approach to making suggestions to
drivers about where to go and what to do. It will not only offer single proposals about areas
to drive, but offer unprecedented visibility into what Uber’s back-end software predicts is
going to happen across a city.
The redesign of Uber’s driver app began before the company’s “180 Days of Change”
campaign, which launched last June while Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder and former CEO,
was taking a leave of absence, and prior to when Khosrowshahi became the company’s
chief. Kalanick was forced out by major shareholders after months of news stories about
Uber’s “aggressive” culture and terrible treatment of female employees, and
Kalanick’s nasty confrontation with a driver. The six-month program was supposed to
“meaningfully improve” the driver experience. It began with a splash: the announcement
that Uber, contrary to a long-stated position, would introduce tipping.
Uber notes that it made 38 changes as a result of the process and feedback from drivers,
but the reviews on driver websites and forums indicate that drivers remain unsatisfied.
Some driver-friendly measures—like allowing them greater flexibility in picking which
direction their rides take them—had to be walked back. Others—like paying them back for
tolls incurred while getting to riders—never launched. And even when it came to tipping,
some drivers felt Uber needed to encourage tipping within the rider app’s interface.
In 2018, Uber’s new motto has been “building together.” The company held a first-of-itskind forum with drivers and Khosrowshahi in January and has continued to talk a much
better game about the people working on the platform.
There is one big reason to believe that Uber might be serious about treating drivers better:
Acquiring and keeping drivers on the platform is a major expense. The ride-hailing business
is a complex two-sided market, where companies like Uber and Lyft have to compete for
both drivers and riders. One way they do so is subsidizing the cost of rides, paying drivers
more and charging riders less than is profitable. That’s a major contributor to why both
companies have lost staggering sums of money so far. Uber, for example, lost $4.5 billion in
2017 and $2.8 billion in 2016. (Lyft’s revenues and losses are both much smaller.)
The most obvious thing that keeps drivers happy is more money. “We have mostly been
talking with drivers about basic per-mileage rates, deactivation issues, and other bread and
butter concerns,” said Jeff Ordower of Silicon Valley Rising, a group that’s beginning to try to
organize drivers in the Bay.
But pay is not the only consideration. Serious investigations of how it feels to work for Uber
have found a variety of considerations, big and small, that shape the driver experience.
Luke Stark, a media-studies scholar at Dartmouth College, and Alex Rosenblat, an
ethnographer at the Data and Society Research Institute, explored the specific working
conditions designed into the Uber app in a 2016 paper. For example, drivers are not given
passenger-destination information before they accept a ride. This is good for riders, as Uber
drivers cannot discriminate based on where they’re headed, but it means that drivers have
to accept the ride “blind,” which can lead to unprofitable trips. “You’re driving around
blind,” one driver told Stark and Rosenblat. “When it does ping, you might drive 15 minutes
to drive someone half a mile. There’s no money in it in that point, especially in my SUV.”
The app is both the factory and the boss, and its design has ramifications on drivers’
autonomy, power, earnings, and quality of life. The technical system determines how rides
are assigned, how much drivers get paid for each ride, and how workers are evaluated
through rider ratings and other factors. These kinds of tasks all used to fall to humans. Now
they don’t. Carnegie Mellon researchers have termed these new forms of organizational
control “algorithmic management.”
“Through the Uber app’s design and deployment, the company produces the equivalent
effects of what most reasonable observers would define as a managed labor force,” write
Stark and Rosenblat. “At the same time, the decentralized structure of Uber’s systems and
their rhetorical invocation of ‘platforms’ and ‘algorithms’ may render the impression that
Uber has a limited managerial role over driver behaviors.”
Whether this kind of management is better or worse for drivers than traditional taxi
management is an open question writers like Tim O’Reilly have been exploring, but it is
different: The management possibilities are centralized in the company design process and
delivered via mobile phone.
The Uber driver app has to do a wide variety of things. The app must allow drivers in cities
across the globe to find people, provide rides, and deliver food. It must push drivers to the
places where riders are waiting, balancing the market’s supply and demand. And, from
Uber’s perspective, it must give drivers the tools to run their own one-person taxi business.
The company viewed the old app as a “one-stop shop to run your business,” Yamashita said.
The main non-driving screen was a kind of “news feed” with different promotions, events,
and other announcements that could be pushed to drivers by corporate or city operational
teams. Drivers often found the number of data points overwhelming (or underwhelming).
There was an earnings tab that let you see how much money you’d made. There was a
ratings tab that helped you keep an eye on your rank within the system.
“With the old app, the attitude was: ‘Here’s a bunch of information organized in these four
different tabs. Go find what you need,’” Yamashita said.
The new app, the team hopes, will act as more of a personal coach than an impersonal shop.
This approach can be seen in three changes. In the previous iteration, drivers slid a switch to
take themselves online. To the design lead Bryant Jow, that felt impersonal, like the driver
was a cog who had to be turned on like a light switch. The switch was replaced with a
button that simply says, “Go.”
The next change is more significant. Before, when a driver would open the app, they’d see a
map of the city with “surge” areas outlined in different warm colors. Drivers had to make a
pretty complex calculation about where the most profitable place to drive might be. Now,
Uber’s app will offer up a simple suggestion that doesn’t necessarily tell them to “chase the
surge” (a plan most drivers think is dumb), but that will help nudge them to a better area.
The other bit of feedback on the main screen that drivers will receive is a prediction for
when they’ll be pinged for a ride. Will it be two minutes or 20 minutes? And if the answer is
20 minutes, maybe a driver will opt to do something else rather than spend low-earnings
time on the platform.
Taken together, just those adjustments on the home screen are a serious revamp of the
nudges that drivers are being given. But Uber has also made a more radical change to the
data that it’s sharing with drivers. In the old version of the app, drivers could see if an area
was surging, or city-operations teams might push a message predicting that a special event
might cause heavy demand. Those were the only tools available.
In the new version, there are demand-prediction charts that drivers can access to help plan
when they want to drive. This is a major departure for Uber. “This is a highly experimental
feature because this is the first time we’re trying to show this data,” Yamashita said.
Sharing this information is in Uber’s interest. They have the very difficult challenge of
balancing the load between riders and drivers, so the better decisions that drivers make, the
more efficient their matching will be. For those reasons, drivers responded strongly to the
idea. But in so doing, they also created a problem for the team: The demand projections
that the app was initially showing were not as reliable as drivers were hoping that they
would be.
“The honest answer is that they loved the idea of it, and oftentimes it was helpful for them,
but we didn’t always get it right,” Yamashita said. “We realized that we needed to improve
these features.” That interest and feedback drove a new round of improvements, which
they hope will meet drivers’ standards for usefulness.
The app will begin to roll out soon to small portions of drivers (say, 5 percent) within select
cities. Then, they’ll roll out to all the drivers in a few cities, comparing the data they see with
similar cities elsewhere.
The reason for the phased “responsible” rollout, as Yamashita put it, is that they found
themselves in trouble last year. As part of the “180 Days of Change” push, Uber gave drivers
the ability to set their general direction for giving rides six times per day, when previously
the “destination filter” had only let drivers do that twice.
It doesn’t seem like the biggest change. And when Uber tested it with a small number of
drivers in each city, it worked fine. But this feature was huge for drivers, who immediately
took advantage of the ability to drive in their chosen directions throughout the day. They
loved it. So many took advantage of the feature that Uber said that it hurt the overall
market conditions.
“As an individual driver, you’re like, ‘Of course I want six! That’s so much better for me,’”
Yamashita said. “But then when everyone has it, it creates these weird things where there
are certain riders not getting service and that really messes up the marketplace.” Uber
decided to revert the change. They’d just gotten an entirely new way of working, and the
company retracted it. It was as if the factory line had been reconfigured to benefit workers,
then the company put it the back the old way. Drivers were not happy.
Nonetheless, Uber maintains that what is good for drivers, as a group, is good for Uber. “If
you optimize for your driver partners, that is a long-term winner,” said Khosrowshahi. “That
is certainly our it intention with this app.”
Drivers, to put it mildly, have not always thought Uber was looking out for their best
interests. In 2017, before Kalanick resigned, he got into a fight over fare cuts with an Uber
driver. In the wake of that incident, a driver told theAssociated Press that “a lot of drivers
feel that Uber always looked out for themselves first and foremost and relegated drivers to
a second tier.”
For drivers, the money they make remains their number-one issue across all the places they
provide feedback to the company and consult with each other. And the app
won’t directly change their cut of the ridesharing proceeds. In fact, Khosrowshahi
maintained that even if he wanted to increase earnings for drivers, he couldn’t just hike
rates without hurting them just as much.
“In general, if rates overall go up, demand goes down and if demand goes down, driver
utilization goes down, and then overall earnings often go down or don’t go up,” he said.
“There is actually very little that we can do in terms of overall earnings for drivers.”
But what about the direct lever that Uber has to increase drivers’ take-home pay, which is
cutting into Uber’s slice of the pie?
“If you look at the earnings of the company, I don’t think you can accuse us of overearning,” he said of the company’s multibillion-dollar losses. “Our goal is to be in a fair
position and that’s what we’re optimizing for.”
As the new app rolls out to workers on the platform, we’ll see if they agree.

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