Uberdesign: Lessons in Experience Design from an Uber Driver


I’m a lead experience architect at EffectiveUI, but my side gig is driving for Uber. I drive the late night shift for five or six hours on weekends and I love exploring the city, finding new places, and meeting interesting people.

It’s pretty incredible what you learn by spending enough time in a car with so many people. Since I’ve started driving, I’ve realized there are some comparisons to be made between my Uber experience and solving design challenges. If you’re a fellow designer or work in the UX space, here are just a few reminders about people and experience design.

You’re trusted with the lives of others.

In my first few weeks of driving, I was so nervous when people got into my car. I imagined all of the accidents I could get into, and drove like a student driver in training. When that rider steps into my car, they’ve chosen to trust me to deliver them safely. Sometimes they have a DUI or a record and need the help of Uber to get around town, which means I’m supporting them in their need. It’s a healthy burden to feel the weight of responsibility for the care of others… it builds empathy, thoughtfulness, and selflessness.

Try to remember that time when you first started trying to solve design problems or worked on something that affected the lives of hundreds, thousands or millions of people. It’s a pretty heavy burden that can leave you with butterflies in your stomach. I know the first few times I approached design problems and thought of the people they affected, I was just as nervous. It’s an honor to be trusted with that kind of weight, so don’t take it lightly, even if you’ve been doing this for decades. If you’re in the agency world, you’re also trusted with leading the client in their experience, and your team with their overall growth. So, use the trust carefully and care for the people you affect. And please, don’t call them “users” — they’re humans.

It’s good to go above and beyond (in moderation).

When driving, I try to delight riders with the little things. I stock the car with gum, chocolate and bottled water so people have something if they need it. It adds value for the rider and increases my driver rating over time. If it’s snowing or slushy out, I’ll help people into the car. If it’s raining, I’ll grab an umbrella and make sure they stay dry. I’ve had riders who need to pick something up, so I’ve crammed bikes into the trunk and carried wedding gifts and champagne for newlyweds in the front seat.

As a UX designer, it’s much the same. It’s good to add a little extra to the experience with clients or customers if it adds value to the relationship. It often takes the form of a late night for the extra effort to deliver something exceptional, or making sure a feature or aspect of an experience makes it into the final designs. This kind of social investment quickly builds trust and a sense of partnership.

Don’t stay out past 3:00 AM.

Driving after 3:00 AM isn’t fun. It’s stressful, tiring, and you pick up a lot of people heading to Taco Bell for drunk food (taco meat isn’t easy to clean off the seats). I sometimes end up out on the streets too late, wandering through the city looking for riders, and trying to squeeze in a few more fares before I head home. After many long nights, I’ve realized that when 2:30 rolls around, I’m at my limit and I should be heading home for the night. Sometimes it’s just not worth the opportunity cost.

As you hone your craft in UX, it might seem worth it in the beginning to go for the stretch work — the stuff that might not be in your wheelhouse or it’s outside your comfort zone with timing, budget or expectation. It often happens when you need the money or really want to land the client. Sometimes it pays off and you deliver greatness or use it as an opportunity to grow, but it’s much more likely that you end up stressed, exhausted and falling asleep at the wheel. I’m not saying that it isn’t worth it to take risks… it’s important to step out in the face of failure. I’m just saying it’s good to know your boundaries and when to call it a night (or walk away from the work).

People aren’t rational, and things get crazy.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost had accidents and near misses. When the bars let out, the streets turn into an episode of Jerry Springer. People run into the street, fights break out, and general chaos ensues, and I’m often navigating through all of it and trying to keep my cool. I’ve swerved around people walking directly toward traffic down the middle of a four-lane street. Sometimes I just have to pull into a parking lot, turn the car off, and take a deep breath.

In the UX space, when so much is on the line, we won’t always agree. The project may go over budget or over time, the client sometimes gets upset, and customers usually give feedback you don’t want to hear. It’s OK, because we’re all in it together, even if someone makes a bad call or messes up a presentation. When you find yourself overwhelmed, upset with a peer, or surrounded by craziness, step outside for some fresh air and let go of it from time to time.

Know your way around.

I’ve been in Denver for a year and only driving for Uber for about five months now, so I don’t completely know the city yet. When a rider jumps in my car, I make sure I know more than where they want to go, but how to get there. Sometimes I know exactly where they’re talking about. But most of the time, I need to ask them if they have a preferred route or I need to pull up Waze for directions. It’s OK to need directions sometimes, and getting them before you start driving builds credibility with your rider. Even with directions, sometimes the app glitches and I’m left to figure it out on my own. In Denver, that’s pretty easy since the whole city is a giant grid and there’s more than one way to get somewhere.

In the UX world, it also helps to be prepared before you start the journey or begin solving a problem. Framing the problem in the right way lets you know that you’re even heading in the right direction. And in this industry, there’s a lot of space to navigate and there are different routes for getting to the same place. You definitely aren’t expected to know how to solve every problem, but some up-front planning and research will really help you figure out the preferred routes of others who have gone before you. It’s good to know the pitfalls and obstacles in your way before you get started. Oh, and it’s OK to stop and ask for directions.

Some people get car sick easily.

I’ve had many riders (especially after the bars let out) who often get car sick. When they do, they need to keep their focus on the passing road or put the window down for some fresh air. Although I’ve witnessed flying vomit out of the window at 70 MPH, I often try to help alleviate their anxiety and stress by driving a little slower and watching for the bumps and hard turns.

At EffectiveUI, we sometimes have clients who might not have a deep understanding of UX, design process, or even might not be fully on board with an approach. It’s good to make sure you know if they’re getting queasy with the process or the outcomes, and adjust accordingly. That might mean slowing down a bit, watching for hard turns in a project, or listening to their concerns so they can be more comfortable with the journey. Making sure they understand the true meaning behind the work will bring them along for a smoother and more pleasant ride.

Have fun with it.

On Halloween, I rented a giant bunny costume and picked up riders with my rabbit head sticking out the window. It was fun for me, surprising and delighting (and sometimes frightening) for my riders, and overall it was an incredible night.

Don’t take your job or the problem too seriously. Yeah it’s great to solve it well, but make sure you find ways to embed passion in your approach. Whether it’s getting out and testing in the real world, paper prototyping, or running workshops and design studios with a team, make sure you’re having fun in the process. It results in a better outcome for everyone involved and a more delightful experience for the customer or client who benefits from your work. Play, fun, and creativity come across in the final product.

About EffectiveUI

This article first appeared on the EffectiveUI blog.

Guided by the belief that technology will only live up to its promise when it is well designed, EffectiveUI creates transformational digital products, experiences and insights for the Fortune 500 and ambitious innovators. Drawing on our deep expertise in UX and technology, we help organizations reinvent significant aspects of their business — from the experience they provide to their customers, to the tools they use to streamline operations, to the products they bring to market, to the ways their workforce stays connected. Learn more at effectiveui.com.


Originally published at www.effectiveui.com on December 1, 2014.