Uber is rewriting the mobile app playbook, again!

Taking a leaf straight out of the Elon Musk ‘first-principles thinking‘ playbook.

Whip out your mobile phone and try sending a text saying, “Elon is only bound by the laws of physics. Everything else, he’ll go up against!” How long did that take you? 10 seconds or less? Well, what if we were asking this question a short decade back?

You’d probably have taken twice the time to type it out. We didn’t have full-length virtual keyboards back then. 2006 was a time when keyboards were still ‘hardware’, not software. Virtual keyboards had just been invented and were still niche, before a certain Steve Jobs decided that they were very much the future of mobile phones and rejected all initial models of the iPhone with physical buttons before finally settling on one with the now iconic, single Home button and a virtual keyboard.

Turning the physical keypad into ‘software’ had a ‘butterfly effect’ of sorts, freeing up precious space for other hardware (even enough for fitting cameras inside the phone, that soon killed off an entire industry), paving the way for faster processors, more memory while also pushing up the mobile screen-size; heralding the transition of phones to ‘smartphones’.

“So, we’re gonna reinvent the phone.
We’re gonna start… with a revolutionary user interface.
Now, why do we need a revolutionary user interface? I mean, Here’s four phones, right? Motorola Q, the BlackBerry, Palm Treo, Nokia E62 — the usual suspects.
And, what’s wrong with their user interfaces? Well, the problem with them is really sort of in the bottom 40 there.
They all have these keyboards that are there whether you need them or not to be there.
And they all have these control buttons that are fixed in plastic and are the same for every application. Well, every application wants a slightly different user interface, a slightly optimised set of buttons, just for it.
It doesn’t work because the buttons and the controls can’t change. They can’t change for each application, and they can’t change down the road if you think of another great idea you wanna add to this product.
Well, how do you solve this?
Hmm. It turns out, we have solved it!
We solved it in computers 20 years ago. We solved it with a bit-mapped screen that could display anything we want. Put any user interface up. And a pointing device. We solved it with the mouse. Right?
We solved this problem. So how’re we gonna take this to a mobile device?
What we’re gonna do is get rid of all these buttons and just make a giant screen.
A giant screen.
Now, how are we gonna communicate this? We don’t wanna carry around a mouse, right?
So what are we gonna do? Oh, a stylus, right?
No. No. Who wants a stylus?
Nobody wants a stylus. So let’s not use a stylus.
We’re gonna use the best pointing device in the world. We’re gonna use a pointing device that we’re all born with — we’re born with ten of them. We’re gonna use our fingers.
We’re gonna touch this with our fingers. And we have invented a new technology called multi-touch, which is phenomenal.
It works like magic. And boy, have we patented it.”
- Steve Jobs, at the launch of the first iPhone way back in 2007, realised the significance of removing physical buttons on a phone long before they caught on.

Physical keyboards on mobile phones were derived from the historical telephone dial. The then mobile phone was merely a portable, leaner version of the original telephone, albeit fitted with a screen. While all other major mobile manufacturers were focused on making better-looking, leaner physical keyboards, it took Apple, a then newbie to the mobile phone industry to throw away the concept of physical keyboards entirely and make virtual keyboards mainstream.

It helped massively that Jobs didn’t have a legacy of phones to build on and could thus, adopt a first-principles approach to build what Jobs later described as, “A smartphone ahead of every other phone on the planet by at-least five years — the iPhone.”

Steve Jobs was hardly the first or only person to adopt a first-principles approach to build something new and revolutionary. It has been used throughout history by some of the greatest inventors and philosophers who have ever lived, including Archimedes, Albert Einstein, Thomas Alva Edison and Henry Ford.

What exactly is first-principles thinking?

It has become a part of popular culture ever since this dude called Elon Musk explained that ‘first-principles thinking’ was the guiding philosophy behind all his entrepreneurial ventures.

Oh, he’s the guy who revolutionised online payments as the founder of PayPal, and now runs three companies: Tesla Motors (electric cars), SpaceX (space exploration and tourism), & Solar City (solar energy), and comes up with futuristic methods of transportation (Hyperloop) in his spare time.

“I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [When reasoning by analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done or it is like what other people are doing — slight iterations on a theme.
First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “What are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there.” — Elon Musk

If you thought Apple had it tough entering the smartphone industry, raise that to a gazillion and you might have a slight inkling of what Elon went up against, when he sought to enter the space exploration industry. Oh, a smartphone is cool and shit, true but it is no rocket science.

If Musk had estimated how much it would cost to make rockets by analogy, and looked at other rockets on the market, SpaceX would literally have never been off the ground. Instead, he went by first-principles, and first figured out what the necessary parts of a rocket were. He then found out how much the raw materials cost in the open market. The result was startling — If SpaceX could make the production process leaner and more efficient, they could build a rocket for 2% of the typical price. And the rest, as they say, is history.

“Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”
With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”
It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”
It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realises.”
Elon Musk

You might have noticed a funny pattern. How completely new entrants to a market are able to innovate in entire leaps while incumbents are stuck with incremental improvements derived from the legacy of their previous products. That’s because it’s way harder to adopt a first-principles approach by ditching all assumptions when all the success that you’ve already had has been based on those very assumptions. Having no comparison to fall back on frees up newcomers to a first-principles approach that has been the cause for most innovations in the tech industry.


Moving on to the mobile app landscape, let me now show you a magic trick…

Snapchat is an image messaging, app-only product with more than 150 million daily active users. The USP of Snapchat which catapulted it to the big league is that the ‘snaps’ are not permanent and are only available publicly for 24 hours. My snaps won’t load and I look for support inside settings.

Here, like so many apps today, the app magically becomes a website and takes me to a webpage with a long list of FAQs; which only serves to frustrate me further. After searching around for a bit, I find an option to email Snapchat which seems deliberately hidden deeper inside. It’s pretty much the same case with Twitter, Tinder and Fitbit, other apps I use daily. Mind you, these are some of the most popular apps on the planet with hundreds of millions of daily users.

Tada. Fitbit app becomes a webpage on trying to contact support!

How we communicate with users inside of our mobile apps today is broken and I know why. .

Just go to the help section of pretty much any app you use today and look around for options to contact customer support. I bet 9 out of 10 apps will take you to a webpage or an email client to help contact them. Most companies, even today, treat the mobile as a shrunken down version of the PC, and consequently an app as a shrunken down version of the web.

It’s telling that some of the foremost apps today are still suffering from a hangover from the web era when customer support used to mean multiple threads on email and long waits on the phone to customer care executives. That was the normal then.

In the past couple of years, social media has brought in the tenets of immediacy and transparency to how customers interact with brands and businesses, where users expect super-fast responses and quick resolutions. User communication from the web era has crossed over to the app era even though it’s well past its sell-by date.

Abraham Kaplan famously called this the Law of the Instrument. Kaplan said and I quote, “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

Kaplan’s law is similar to a common proverb you have likely heard before: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If you only have one framework for thinking about the world, then you’ll try to fit every problem you face into that framework. When you think of customer support and engagement as email, you tend to fit that everywhere, even inside an app where it clearly doesn’t belong. This is a clear case of legacy thinking, the anti-thesis to thinking from first principles.

The times, they are a changin’

Millions of people are now spending half their day on the internet, and none at all on the web. This would have been inconceivable even a decade back. There’s a whole generation that has skipped the web era that you and me were a part of and jumped straight to the app era. This is because they’ve skipped PCs altogether and jumped straight to smartphones. Mobile devices and their proliferation have been the primary driver of this phenomenon. For the majority of the world, a mobile will be the only computer they will ever know.

Adding to that is the deeper shift in people interacting with businesses through chat more and more, on different mediums. This shift to chat is not just on mobile; chat is slowly eating the web too, which points to a deeper paradigm shift in how customers want to interact with a business.

As conversational apps take centre-stage and chatting with bots and businesses alike becomes the new normal (before this year is out), email will die; a bit slowly at first and then all of a sudden. The winds of change are already afoot, as Mary Meeker’s Internet trends report shows.

Mary Meeker’s report clearly points towards the fact that chat will kill email sooner than later.

The net result is that you and I will be talking (read chatting) to brands and companies over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, and elsewhere before year’s end, and will find it normal.

Applying First-Principles to mobile:

If you made your app today (in the app era), how would you talk to your users on mobile?

Email is clearly a slow, high-friction medium, and voice is an intrusive medium that involves a lot of waiting on the user’s part. For support, on-boarding, user feedback or any kind of communication/interaction, users need a low-friction, lightweight interaction which is at the user’s convenience right from within the app, one which doesn’t disrupt their experience by asking them to leave the app and take them outside to email or the web.

In-app native chat is the undoubtedly the best medium for talking to users on mobile. Messaging is low friction, non-intrusive, works at your own pace, and is perfect for multi-tasking. It’s asynchronous, easy to consume, informal and most of all, brilliantly convenient.

Convenience is also why we’re willing to take 100% of our photos with a camera the size of a lentil, and play games or read books on a screen the size of a playing card. Convenience will always trumps power in technology. It’s just human nature.

That chat is the future of communication inside apps is obvious in a way all great innovations seem obvious in hindsight. In an increasingly mobile-first world where your app is the only touchpoint your user has with you, why even take him anywhere else for any kind of communication?

What’s Uber got to do with any of this?

Say goodbye to support@uber.com

Uber has quietly announced that it is testing out in-app support on its mobile app, which it will be rolling out globally soon.

“After all if you can get a ride — or work — at the push of a button, why shouldn’t you be able to get great customer support as well? Well, we’ve now built a simple, easy to use in-app answer.”, reads a press statement from Uber.

There are scattered examples of apps embracing in-app chat already, but those examples are few and far between, and fit in a Product Hunt collection rather than demand an entire App Store (wait for it!). Indeed, there has been a slow shift towards in-app support and engagement in mobile apps lately, but Uber implementing it is massive in more ways than one.

Uber is the foremost example of a mobile-first company in the app era. It doesn’t have a website for functional purposes. While Google and Apple have the platform authority to set guidelines and standards, apps like Uber, Snapchat and Tinder are now very much a part of pop culture and have the mass appeal to set a new de-facto order for mobile apps around the world.

While Slack is killing email for collaboration at work, Uber implementing in-app support might just have sounded the death knell for email for user communication on mobile.

Some of our own data, while we power in-app chat for some of the biggest mobile apps on the planet corroborates this phenomena:

  • First response times in support are upto 10X faster with chat compared to email, and issue resolutions times come down 5X.
  • Marketing campaigns inside the app give 7X more impressions compared to emails and upto 4X more click throughs.
  • Average reduction of 55–60% in customer support emails across apps using in-app chat. This has a ripple effect on agent productivity, time saved.
  • Customer happiness levels increase by 20% on average with in-app chat versus email.

Once you take a look at the plain numbers, it’s quite clear that there’s no real comparison between email and chat as a tool for communicating with your users on mobile.

But then numbers don’t really mean much unless an industry leader takes notice. Canesta, the San-Jose based startup which had made a working prototype of the world’s first virtual keyboard as early as 2002 chased PDA manufacturers in vain to make it the de-facto standard, yet it wasn’t until Apple recognised the world-changing potential of making the keyboard a software that a whole industry stood up and took notice. Overnight, the smartphone playbook had been rewritten and that is exactly what Uber’s move signals for the rest of the app ecosystem.

Email is a very inferior way of communicating with and supporting your users on mobile. Unfortunately it’s now a legacy, a piece of technology so entrenched in the industry and with us, the consumers, that it’s tough to break away from it. And while Uber is one of the first off-the-block with killing it off, they aren’t going to be the only ones. This will upend the de-facto form of communication for the entire mobile ecosystem. It’s like when Ford introduced the first car. Once there’s a car on the market, you can no longer compete on faster horses. You need to build a goddamn car yourself.

It’s the conversation economy, stupid. Some brands and businesses are wholeheartedly embracing the future and going out of their way to provide this for their users. Some are going through the motions. And some are doing business as usual unmindful of the changes sweeping the world. Which camp do you fall in?


Hotline is a definitive new way to provide support and engage with your customers right inside your mobile app, from Freshdesk, the global leader in customer support with over 80,000 customers worldwide. You can try Hotline for free here.