I came to Uber looking for a fast-moving environment, and the experience did not let me down. On the first week, I ran a usability test for the product team. Within two weeks, I planned a global foundational research project, took almost twenty stakeholders from multiple disciplines with me to three continents, conducted six types of research with four target audience groups.
The pace was just the tip of the iceberg. Within less than a month at Uber, I was particularly impressed with a couple of things, which will be addressed in this article. The early experiences with Uber made me think of a question I like to ask during job interviews: “What surprised you the most about this company?” I wondered what my answer would be if a candidate asks me the same question. As a result, I decided to document some of my observations and share them with UX researchers considering a role at Uber.
1. Everyone is genuinely passionate about the user experience
At some companies, UX researchers are usually the ones who spend the most time with users and have the deepest knowledge about them. This is not the case at Uber. Due to the nature of the product, most Uber employees are users of Uber. As a result, everyone has empathy with users’ needs and pain points. However, being avid users of the product isn’t enough for our customer-obsessed UX team — we always want to learn and understand more.
An example of this commitment to our customers was a small usability test I ran during the first week. It was supposed to be a quick and dirty small-scale project. As a result, I only invited immediate stakeholders to observe the research sessions. When a senior product leader in Seattle learned that we were running the research he asked to be involved. I was moved by his willingness to make time to learn more about users despite his busy schedule when no one asked him to.
In the user research world, it is not uncommon for researchers to provide incentives, such as donuts, coffee, or snacks, to attract team members to participate in research sessions. At Uber, the proactive interest from colleagues meant I didn’t have to worry about generating internal research session participation, which was a refreshing experience for me.
During my first few months on the job, I witnessed a first-hand example of this dedication to better understanding and improving the customer experience by working with one of our engineering managers. A former employee of a B2B cloud company, this manager seemed like one of the least likely types to engage in hands-on UX research. Before joining Uber, I found engineering managers are usually pretty far away from users, especially in B2B settings. However, every time this engineering manager travels to a new city, he puts himself in the shoes of local users and documents his end-to-end Uber experience with photos and detailed notes. His write-ups include user pain points, casual conversations with driver-partners, observations, and findings. At the end of the document, he includes his thoughts on what can be improved. Then, he shares the document with related teams and tags people who are in charge of each corresponding issue or improvement area.
The team works equally hard to empathize with driver-partners. To better understand the driver experience, I signed up to be an Uber driver-partner and tried to drive every day before going to bed. However, I didn’t know that the same engineering manager is not only driving but also delivering food. When I was still summarizing my takeaways from driving, he already completed a write-up, made a slide, and shared his learnings to the entire office during lunchtime.
He is not the only case of being customer-obsessed. Based on my experience traveling and conducting research with the product team, teams at Uber work very closely together and are happy to help each other out. Everyone from product managers to engineers is actively involved in helping with research by note-taking, recording, synthesizing, etc. Members who had experience in research also stepped up and volunteered to lead some of the research sessions in parallel with mine, so that we can achieve more in less time.
2. A product beyond the digital world
I once went to a large music festival to conduct research. During the downtime, I went to the Uber rider lounge, helped distribute water to exhausted event-goers who wanted to get a ride home after a long day.
Many people approached the water supply station with shyness and hesitation -“Are they free?”, “Can I get some more?” I will never forget the sparks in their eyes when we told them “yes it’s free, get as much as you want”, and how they happily ran away with an armful of water bottles while saying “thank you so much for taking care of us!”
Users’ sentiment toward Uber might come from all kinds of experiences beyond the actual product. The interactions with driver partners, the response from customer support agents, the music during the ride, and so on.
For UX researchers, a cross-channel experience like this is always more interesting and challenging than a single touchpoint experience. A counterexample would be an email platform. Even though people might interact with it under different circumstances, they still, at the end of the day, mostly interact with the product through digital interfaces. What’s exciting about Uber for me is a lot of the interactions happened offline.
For example, after launching cash trips in South America, most drivers were able to understand how it works and knew that they have to pay outstanding platform fees to Uber in cash. However, the local customer service team then faced a challenge — when drivers brought in cash to pay the fee, how do we process and store them? Taking real-world problems like those into account and design an end-to-end experience is a common practice at Uber, making the projects extra challenging and interesting.
The safety of riders and driver-partners on our platform is another important consideration. Therefore, Uber hires experts with experience in law enforcement and public safety to build protections into our products and services. This is also a topic I didn’t need to think too much about in previous jobs, working on purely digital products.
3. Close cross-functional collaboration
Cross-functional collaboration is the ideal best practices in the realm of user-centered design. On one hand, it ensures that the team approaches problems from different perspectives; on the other hand, it provides a more seamless experience for users. However, sometimes it could be easier said than done.
Nevertheless, it is not the case at Uber. In my first meeting at Uber, I was surprised by the diversity of roles in the room. Besides the standard combination — PM, Design, and Engineering, there were also Operations, Product Operations, Data Scientists, Data Analysts, Product Marketing, and so on. And that was just a normal, regular meeting.
I especially enjoy working with the operation teams. They are the local teams working with government, policymakers, driver-partners, etc., to bring the products we designed to live and make sure they run smoothly in each city. They have lots of insights into the city and market. Since some of them are at the frontline interacting with driver-partners, they also have rich user insights. Being able to work with them in research projects increases efficiency and effectiveness.
Before joining Uber, I wasn’t sure what to expect besides the faster pace. I was glad that the first experience was full of pleasant surprises. Perhaps my view will evolve again as I spend more time with the company. Until then, I am enjoying the complexity of the problems we tackle, the engaging product team, and the skilled research team.
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