Mark Ranneberger, Mark Larus, Tyler Stromberg, Jeff Mascia, Kate Swanson and Akhilesh Gupta from Uber’s Apple Watch team.

The Inside Story of Uber’s Apple Watch App: Look, Tap and Go

Mark Rogowsky
May 20, 2015 · 7 min read

That was clear to Mark Larus, Uber’s Lead Engineer on the Apple Watch project, who had just joined the company back in January. He was thinking about the vehicle-selection control in the Uber app that lets riders choose between uberX, UberBLACK and UberSUV.

The slider wasn’t going to fit on the small Apple Watch screen nor did it make sense to try to miniaturize the whole Uber app when you already had your smartphone nearby. “We thought about it for awhile,” Larus said. “We had a lot of debates over what is our story for the Uber Watch app and kept coming back to the fundamental that everyone still has their phone in their pocket.”

So the Uber Apple Watch app distills Uber down to a few basic functions: request a ride, know who your driver is, what car they’re in and what the license plate is, and — critically — when the car will arrive. It’s about providing the most important information with the fewest distractions.

“The goal was clearly not to replicate the Uber experience on the watch,” explained Yuhki Yamashita, the Product Manager on the watch project. “It’d be ridiculous to make a smaller version of the app on the watch.”

Peter Ng, a designer on the project, explains they almost made that mistake, treating the Watch as a shrunken smartphone. Other apps did follow that path, though, and most haven’t met with a great reception.

Steve Kovach at Business Insider, in reviewing the Apple Watch, could have been channeling Ng when he talked about the first wave of apps: “Too many try to mimic the smartphone-app experience on a tiny screen, which makes them cumbersome and unintuitive… Most developers don’t seem to realize that interactions on the Apple Watch work best when they’re as brief as possible.”

A walkthrough of the Uber Apple Watch app, with the project’s lead engineer.

The Uber team was seeking that very simplicity when they set out to design the Watch app. With a goal of making it better, not just stripped down they went back to basics. What was necessary to request an Uber? What information was critical once you did? These goals are part of Uber’s development process on iOS and Android, but the extra screen real estate and the ability to dig deeper inside those versions allow for more varied functionality. In short, they allow the development teams to do more. Here, they had to figure out how best to do less.

In a recent post on Medium, Uber’s Pedram Keyani talked about placing limits around yourself on purpose: “Constraints are a remarkable force multiplier for innovation.” The small screen on the Watch was just one constraint here. Apple Watch also doesn’t have common smartphone gestures like pinch-to-zoom and traditional menus, challenging developers and forcing them to go back to first principles. (Even respected, long-time Apple developers have had to think through how to best work with the Watch.)

Watch + Uber = A Perfect Match

But perhaps most critically, the Uber team had an advantage over some other apps: The Uber app is inherently about brief interactions, not about long sessions inside the app itself. “Our use case really stands out,” Larus noted. “Facebook is about keeping you immersed in their app. Our goal is about helping you find a ride.”

Yamashita, the product manager, made it clear that the streamlined Watch app can’t entirely replace the smartphone app today. If you just need to order a car to the spot you’re standing, it works well. If you want to switch vehicle types or enter a destination, you’ll need your phone. He likened it to the difference between the Amazon app and the the new Amazon Dash buttons that you can stick around your house to allow you to reorder Tide or Bounty by pressing a single, dedicated device for that purpose. “You’d never have that be the sole experience of Amazon.”

The Amazon Dash button makes reordering Tide a single-click affair.

With the Apple Watch app, the Uber folks had the chance to build something not quite as extreme as those Amazon buttons, but with a new approach to a familiar problem. And they relished the challenge.

“It was really liberating to step outside the main app,” Tyler Stromberg, an engineer on the team said. “There’s a tendency to not want to break the main app. By moving outside of that, it gave us a lot of freedom to play around and try new things.”

So the engineers had a fresh start, a chance to be free of existing code and established ways of doing things. But before they could reinvent Uber for the small screen and new interactions of the Apple Watch, they’d have one more hurdle that was among the more unusual any of them had faced.

Software without hardware

No one had an Apple Watch to test things on at Uber, or at any of the numerous companies building Watch apps for that matter. There were development tools that allowed for simulations of functionality but not the real thing. In many ways, Uber’s team was flying blind.

While that makes development challenging, it makes testing the product that much more so. Normally, new features for the Uber smartphones app get a substantial testing cycle as employees worldwide spend time putting them through the wringer and providing feedback to the development team. With the Watch app, that luxury — the dogfooding phase — would have to be skipped here. At least until the first watches were delivered to customers on April 24.

Man in the middle

Larus was at Apple prior to coming to Uber. While there he described his work as often involving taking an existing application and making it work on something with a different screen size. The Watch project at Uber wasn’t precisely the same thing but it was certainly up his alley. He came to Uber in January and almost immediately became the main point person on the Watch project.

Apple did provide opportunities for developers to run their apps on the Watch itself, though it required spending time in Apple’s secretive test facility near its headquarters. There Larus could get some insight into how Uber’s Apple Watch project was working. But because the app needed to exist on the streets of the city to really be tested — something that was impossible before the Watch’s release — there were going to be a lot of unknowns.

Rushing to beat a deadline, not knowing when that is

One of those unknowns was a precise time when the app needed to be done. Projects at Uber always have deadlines, but this project was special. The Watch had been promised by Apple for spring, but details beyond that were short. Even with developers, information was scarce until Apple invited media to a March event that was to be the Watch’s second unveiling.

The Uber team was approached by Apple, which wanted to show off the Watch app at that event. With such a tight timeframe, it was a race to get the basic functionality done on time. But when the moment came, the team was able to get a working version in the hands of Apple. The Uber app featured alongside a select few others at the March coming out party for the Apple Watch. Larus was especially thrilled. “The keynote was so exciting,” he said. “It was always one of my goals to get something I did in an Apple keynote.”

Having hit that deadline and delivered a working app to Apple in time for the Watch’s launch, the team was already looking ahead to what could come next. “The project is never really done,” Stromberg, the engineer, explained. “There are things we would have liked to have finished — a huge world of possibilities.”

What happens next?

With Uber users in 57 countries and more than 300 cities around the world, that presents its own set of challenges. If a rider has a problem with their Uber app — on any device — they typically file a support request and someone in one of the “city teams” needs to understand how to address the concern. With Apple Watch, none of the Uber support personnel had experienced the Watch app prior to its shipping, so much of the preparation was based on the best knowledge available. The Watch team took into account this reality in determining what the app would and would not be able to do.

But as with everything at Uber, there will be changes and iterations to come. Everyone on the Watch team now has access to real-world hardware as do numerous Uber customers and employees throughout the world. From their feedback, future versions of the Uber Apple Watch app will doubtless look and work differently than today’s.

But the simplicity will remain. “With the Uber app, I see people constantly looking at their phone: ‘Where’s my driver? When does the car get here?” explained Akhilesh Gupta, the engineering manager on the project. “The Watch has the potential to get rid of the constant worrying.” It’s the information you need when you need it. And in that regard, it tries to capture the essence of what the Apple Watch is all about.

Mark Rogowsky

Written by

Founding Editor in Chief, The Block. Multiple-time entrepreneur. Ex-Uber, Apple, Oracle, MongoDB. Long-time Silicon Valley observer.

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