You have to be a pretty big deal to become a verb. When design is profound enough, that’s what happens to a business. We xerox documents, we google information and we now Uber places. Ethan Eismann is Director of Product Experience at Uber. Through a couple of chats and some written collab, we dug into the technical, social and creative inspiration and impact that Uber has to first plan, then manage, when it enters a city.
[ Alex Vitlin ] Maybe a quick few lines first up to describe your role would be great?
[ Ethan Eismann ] I lead Product and Marketing Design at Uber, with a focus on worldwide growth. The best way to describe my team is a combination of a full-stack product design firm coupled with a full-service creative agency. Our mission is twofold: On the marketing side we tell stories that move people to take an action, like riding and driving. On the product front, we build experiences and tools that make Uber feel magic whether you’re in the driver’s seat or the backseat. This is all in service of our ultimate goal which is to make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone.
In a previous conversation, we asked Dantley Davis, Design Director at Netflix, how you approach something in the magnitude of a 130-country roll out, as they did with Netflix Everywhere. I’m interested in similar challenges you have in scaling into new cities.
Uber is in 400+ cities across the world, each of which possess their own unique cultures, governmental structures, transportation systems, and mobile infrastructures. When you put that all together it creates enormous challenges and epic opportunities across six continents. Thankfully, from day one Uber has been built as a platform meant to be customised and scaled to meet the distinct needs of each city. The rider and driver experience one might have in NYC will be different from that in Beijing, which will be different from that in Mumbai and so on.
With that in mind, the Uber design team works with city teams across the world to identify how to customise the Uber experience for each local market. Often, this means we build on top of the existing platform to run unique experiments to learn what works and what doesn’t given local conditions. For example, we’re experimenting with mobile only sign up - no email required - in countries like India and China, where everyone has a number but most people don’t have an email address.
In addition, we also seek to identify entirely new opportunities that solve local problems. When this occurs, the team may build a new solution nearly from the ground up. A great example of this was our work to bring cash payments to India, where credit card usage is low.
"When we design for cities, our scope is so much larger than the screen. So we are constantly asking ourselves, how do we account for something as complex as a city?"Ethan Eismann
Every announcement and change Uber makes get analysed as it hits the market, but what happens before that? In designing for a global platform, what are some of the very human considerations and processes that you go through? As you note, every city, every culture has highly specific behaviours, etiquette, technology footprints, things like that, that would impact on how you design for that territory.
This is one of the main reasons I love working at Uber — I really enjoy the opportunity to learn about and amplify transportation options in cities everywhere.
One of our core cultural values is “Celebrate Cities.” This is a value that pervades all that we do. When we design for cities, our scope is so much larger than the screen. So we are constantly asking ourselves, how do we account for something as complex as a city? It’s a design challenge that we’re all excited to tackle. Our current approach is to spend time immersed in the cities we serve. We have design teams focused on specific regions, and these teams will spend up to three weeks at a time learning from our drivers and riders, taking trips, analysing transportation dynamics and exploring the urban infrastructure. We embed in these cities so we can experience the competition, viscerally feel the transit pain points, and brainstorm with our city operations teams. The result is a structured analysis that is as much a cultural atlas as it is recommendations for regional product and service improvements.
How do you begin to account for the myriad behaviours across cultures in the products in your particular portfolio? Can you even have a methodical approach to designing for a future state, or is it by nature a more fluid process?
We methodically use research, prototyping and experimentation to help us design for a future state. We’re highly adaptive, constantly evaluating and making adjustments to our assumptions as new data provides clearer direction. One way we do this is by conducting audits of our product in market on a regular basis. This helps us learn, plan, and respond. Being eager to learn means we also need to be eager to modify our course if we discover we’re going the wrong way. We’re still so young. We’ve only been in big international markets for a year or so. So we’re quickly discovering what works and what doesn’t. That’s part of the fun. We’re always experimenting, both with the things we build, and with the way we build them.
You must discover plenty of cool new things, being so embedded in so many unique cities. What’s something nifty you’ve come across?
This insight isn’t nifty, but it’s important: we need fewer vehicles on the road. After travelling across the globe with an eye focused on solving problems with transportation, it’s clear that we’ve got too many vehicles on roads all around the world. You know, you hear about this, and you’ve read the numbers (Ed: Mobility Lab, for example, estimates 85% of cars on US roads carry a single occupant, and UCLA’s Donald Shoup suggests most vehicles spend an average 95% of the time parked, not being used). But it doesn’t truly hit you until you’re stuck in traffic in Manila, which has some of the worst in the world. Or when you experience the smog in Dehli or Beijing. Or when you see first-hand how personal vehicle ownership is rising in emerging markets and threatening to make the situation even worse.
"After travelling across the globe with an eye focused on solving problems with transportation, it’s clear that we’ve got too many vehicles on roads all around the world."Ethan Eismann
Of course, this isn’t simply a congestion problem, it’s a huge climate problem. 2016 is trending to be the hottest year on record. In the US, transportation produces nearly 30 percent of all emissions that contribute to global warming. We can fight this by putting technologies and infrastructure in place to reduce the need for personal vehicle ownership. This is something we can have a huge impact on by working at Uber. It’s important that we all act now and do what we can to combat climate change. There is no more important, or shared goal that unites the entire planet than this.
How early in the piece do you begin to consider design and application challenges? Say, with services like Pool or Eats or Courier, how and when do you know it could work for a territory? Or a culture? Or do you kinda just send it out there and see and iterate on the evidence that an MVP provides?
It would be foolish for us to run product experiments in cities without strategy. We take many factors into consideration before launching new ideas. In fact, it’s useful to think of each city as a matrix of consideration points. We try to model whether the product meshes well across those points, and if we think it does, then we’ll explore launching it. We ask ourselves whether the product meets a true need of the people, whether it fits within the prevailing transportation infrastructure and habits of a particular urban population, whether the network and market conditions are suitable for the product to gain fit and growth. Once we have that baseline understanding, we’ll launch something small, get real data from the product in market, and then iterate based on what we learn. As I mentioned before, we work fast, so typically we’ll know what and how to optimise our products fairly quickly once they attain a level of usage that delivers us significant insights.
How does a company the size of Uber, and one growing at the pace you guys are, apply design principles down through its business. Are there universal truths about design you have learned from being such a diverse and far-reaching organisation?
We’re a very principle-driven company, and we have a highly principled design culture. We inherit this principle driven approach from our CEO, who sets principles that really get to the heart of our mission, and then we build out from there. We always refer back to the four big components that make for a magical Uber experience: time, money, joy, calm.
"We’re a very principle-driven company, and we have a highly principled design culture."Ethan Eismann
On the design team, we’ve taken steps to establish a core set of experience principles that are used to inspire our work, and also to evaluate it. These principles are broad enough to apply to the wide range of projects we work on across Uber, but are indeed specific to Uber. Note that these are experience principles - not just design principles. This is crucially important. We don’t want these principles to apply only to design. Instead, we want these principles to be usable by, and resonate with every person at Uber. So we’re rolling them out and putting them into practice and iterating on them. They are becoming part of our shared language and laying the foundation for a culture of product, brand, and marketing excellence.
"Now this might not seem like much [employing people from lower classes in India], but it’s a material impact on people’s lives. It changes the game. Once life is easier, it may be easier for the kids to study, to excel at school."Ethan Eismann
What are the memorable moments - ‘victories’ you might say - that happened as you implement and watch people user Uber across the world?
In India, the difference between lower class and lower middle class is minimal. Uber in India employs many people who come from the lower class, and after driving with Uber they are finally able to afford to buy a refrigerator, or an air conditioner, or a washing machine. Once they have that convenience, it makes life easier, and amongst their peers, they are now middle class and able to continue moving upwards. Now this might not seem like much, but it’s a material impact on people’s lives. It changes the game. Once life is easier, it may be easier for the kids to study, to excel at school.
One other example is how we’re making it easier for women within Egypt to receive quality transportation, harassment free. Traffic is a huge issue in Cairo, public busses aren’t entirely safe, and most women complain of having been harassed by taxi drivers . Within this context, Uber implemented sexual harassment training for its partners. This, coupled with rider side training and the ability for riders to rate and report on their drivers, has made Uber a safer alternative to most other modes of transportation.
And another example is how Uber has helped to increase access to rides in the outer boroughs of New York. Since adjustments to pricing that started in February, ridership in the Bronx increased by 33% and in Queens by 21%.
Ethan Eismann will be presenting at Sydney Semi Permanent on a Future State panel, presented by Qantas - Find out more
Design seems to have become the catalyst in a lot of businesses for pursuing or establishing innovation as a genuine part of the business. As someone whose role it is to innovate one of the world’s most innovative businesses, why do you think it begins there? Is this shifting somewhere else?
At Uber we don’t have a formal innovation practice. However, our company structure and cultural values create the right environment for innovation. One of Uber’s main cultural values is to be an owner, not a renter. What this means is that every Uber employee is responsible for our success, which give us all the freedom to work across boundaries. And it’s when people cross boundaries that innovation really happens. It happens when people use their creativity and intellectual rigour to synthesise variables into a new equation.
"One trip to India is enough to spur 100 new ideas. When a local experiment works, that new innovation is likely to get pumped back to our headquarter team where we then distribute it out to the rest of the world."Ethan Eismann
Because Uber is a worldwide company where everyone is empowered to make decisions for the betterment of our users, we find that innovation comes from all angles. In Uber’s headquarters, in SF, we take learnings and experiences we’ve had in one country and use them to inform product and feature improvements in another. One trip to India is enough to spur 100 new ideas. Likewise our worldwide city and regional teams also participate in innovation. City teams often identify opportunities within their local markets, create and deploy solutions, and monitor the results. When a local experiment works, that new innovation is likely to get pumped back to our headquarter team where we then distribute it out to the rest of the world. In some sense, you can think of our innovation model as a circulatory system. The heart is in headquarters in SF, pumping ideas and products out to cities across the world, who experiment with these ideas and create new ones, the best of which are pumped back towards the heart, in a perpetual cycle to be pushed out globally.
More generally, where do you think represents the greatest opportunity or fertility for design, especially with regards to promoting Uber’s goals of accessible transport and improving cities? What are the challenges that you are most excited about?
Uber is the ultimate design challenge because Uber is designing for entire cities. We’re not just focused on human interaction with devices, or human to human interaction mediated by devices. Instead, we’re focused on complex challenges that involve people interacting directly with each other in a very close environment; within the context of their urban environment - the streets and the sidewalks; within a greater context of local transportation dynamics; within the greater context of cultural traditions, societal norms, and governmental regulations. And these variables change depending on the city. If you are inspired by the intersection of urban design, transportation design, interaction design, and brand design, it’s a great place to be.