Designing the Uber Cash Experience

Designing magical experiences is a local effort.

Uber was imagined as a private driver that appears at the tap of a button. And, since your private driver would never ask you to hand over money at the end of your ride — neither would driver-partners using the Uber platform. An elegant and hassle-free exit has always been core to the Uber experience.

The Uber Design team is always looking for ways to improve the Uber app for both our riders and driver-partners. And on the India product team, our job is to unlock growth by removing barriers and eliminating friction-points specific to our Indian users. To accomplish this, soon after the India product team formed we traveled from San Francisco to Bangalore and Delhi to immerse ourselves in the markets.

We immediately discovered that users in India live in a different payments landscape than most Uber riders around the globe. The difference: 95% of Indians don’t have access to a credit card, and due to local regulations, paying for anything digitally is a cumbersome process. When your service relies on mobile transactions, like Uber does, that’s not great. However, India has a well developed e-commerce ecosystem. Companies like Amazon and India’s home-grown Flipkart have thrived by facilitating their customers’ primary payment needs: cash.

Sitting in San Francisco, or any other major city in the western world, it’s hard to imagine preferring to pay your UPS or Fedex driver with cash. Today, Europeans and North Americans carry little or no physical currency. India couldn’t be more different — cash is the ubiquitous mode of payment. It’s reliable, trustworthy, and free of service charges.

For us to ensure Uber was available to every potential Uber rider in India, we knew we needed to do it with cash. The team returned home ready to take what we had learned and apply it to a new design solution.

Back Home — Time to Reevaluate as a Group

After our trip, we gathered together at an offsite house to collaborate on solutions.

We started our process by documenting the existing user journey and all of its pain points. We then moved on to the cash user journey and sketching out the flows for both the rider and driver experience. Soon, there were five post-it pad sheets stuck to the side of the house and the flows were fully sketched. None of these were particularly beautiful documents, but the content was invaluable. Seeing everything was a relief; cash didn’t look so intimidating after all.

Sketching with the engineers, PMs and analysts.

Bringing the whole team through that early design exercise was galvanizing. Traveling, believing, and designing together were important so that we all felt ownership over the paradigm-shifting experiment that we were about to pitch to our colleagues at HQ.

Selling Cash in San Francisco

A principle of Uber’s culture is that the best idea wins. But, not everyone was immediately convinced with our plan; a cashless experience is so core to Uber’s product identity. Whenever there’s a stalemate at Uber, we turn to the data. And, in the absence of data, we generate some. So to convince everyone that cash is king in India, we launched an experiment. To get there, there were some unique design challenges that needed to be addressed.

Getting the Experience Right

Existing user research and our own usage told us that, at the end of the trip, riders often have the Uber app closed or their phone tucked away in their pocket. Obviously, we didn’t want riders to get out of the vehicle and forget to pay. The driver-partner also needed to know that they were conducting a cash trip so that they’d make sure to collect the fare. We knew that their end-trip screen would need to be responsible for taking care of this critical moment before the rider exited.

Having that interface clearly communicate the trip was a cash trip was a challenge, partly because driver-partners in India have varying literacy rates. To help with this constraint, we used color, iconography and breaking of the driver-partner’s memorized app routine to remind them that a cash trip was different.

With the new demands on this screen, another issue became clear: notoriously spotty wireless networks across cities in India. Frequently you’ll pass through 3G, 2G and zero connectivity zones driving through Mumbai, Bangalore or any other Indian megacity. This wasn’t an issue with credit card transactions since payment could be processed long after the end of the trip. But for us, having the fare at the end of the trip was essential. Our engineering team came through with a solution that falls back to a redundant fare calculation happening on the driver-partner’s phone. Barriers removed!

George, sketching. Eric, thinking.

On-the-Ground Testing

With the experiment designed and built, we flew to Hyderabad for a week of field tests. Working with the local city team, we were able to team up with a small group of driver-partners who wanted to participate. To test the rider experience, all Uber team members in Hyderabad were set up with a special Cash vehicle type in our personal rider apps.

Armed with rupees, we headed onto the streets for the first ever Uber cash trips. Right away, our trips were successful! Handling cash came naturally for the driver-partners. Our user research had told us that partners were eager to have spending money in between their weekly payments. Seeing that happiness on their faces was great validation. From our perspective as riders, while certainly different, paying with cash was easy. We were even having fun.

The first ever Uber trips paid with cash.

Like any good experiment, some of our hypotheses were proven wrong, so we put together a plan to tweak our design with the new learnings. One example is we had assumed a prompt at the start of the trip announcing that this was a cash trip would be useful to the driver-partner. Nope. It turned out that, by the end of the trip, our partners felt the initial prompt was not useful. We removed it altogether.

Hanging out with the awesome Uber team in Hyderabad.

After testing and squashing bugs in the code for the week, the team flew back to San Francisco satisfied with the qualitative success of our experiment.

Letting the Data Speak

Having proven that cash was a viable option for a tiny group of employee-users, we rolled out a more expansive test to the entire population of riders and driver-partners in Hyderabad. Today, while still in testing mode, the data has been impressive. In fact, the majority of our trips in Hyderabad are now paid for in cash.

With this data, we were able to justify that a cash option is needed for our Indian users and the experiment has now rolled out to every Indian city Uber operates in. The cash option has also been rolled out in Nairobi, Kenya and other markets where cash is also preferred. We’re excited about the results so far and we’ll keep working to deliver a truly Uber experience, whether you have credit cards or cash in your wallet.

Want to help us improve transportation in India, China and beyond? We’re hiring designers, engineers, product managers, and more. You can contact me directly about positions with our India and China teams. Let’s move the world!

Thanks to Adam Starr, Andrew Crow and Ethan Eismann for editing drafts of this post.