Field Research at Uber

Observing what people would never think to tell us

Uber Design
Sep 23, 2015 · 8 min read
Uber design researcher, Grace, observing a research participant request a ride in downtown San Francisco. Photo credit: Peter Ng

As technology becomes more ubiquitous in our lives and a networked economy emerges, it’s important for companies to understand the physical, emotional, and social contexts in which people engage with their products. This is especially important for Uber and other technology-enabled services that depend upon interactions and experiences that happen outside of an app. Our end-to-end user experience spans multiple modes and locations, and asks customers to engage in both digital and physical interactions — sometimes at the same time.

In an ideal world, we could design every moment of that journey to ensure comfort, safety, and ease-of use. But in the real world, key service moments are affected by factors beyond our control: public infrastructure, differences between riders and driver-partners, including varying social and cultural norms, and even the way the sun hits a partner’s windshield in the early morning. While we can’t predict or control these things, we can design for the need to adapt and respond to such dynamic factors. However, before we can design a solution, we need to clearly define the problem.

The Uber Design Research team uses a range of research methods to uncover what matters most to riders and partners, and how our product helps or hinders them as they go about their lives. Often, we invite them to our lab to participate in interviews and usability studies. We also conduct phone interviews, surveys, and unmoderated usability studies to reach riders and partners all around the world. Getting research participants who visit our lab to tell us stories about their lives, and not just about our products, is one way to discover moments of friction in the product flow. But there are certain things participants may never think to tell us. Frequently, these are moments they don’t recognize as disruptions to their experience, but rather, they see them as small annoyances or frustrations that they have adjusted to over time.

To catch a glimpse of these small but highly significant moments, we need to conduct field research. Field research, put very simply, is getting out of the lab and into the world to talk with and observe people in their environment. It’s trying our best to walk in their shoes, see their point of view, and understand the context they live and work in. By seeing it ourselves, we recognize workarounds, physical artifacts, and motivations that are essentially invisible to our participants.

Uber is one of the most fast-paced startups in the world. Some might argue that field research would slow down a company of this velocity, but it actually saves us time. We could spend an hour interviewing someone telling us about their experiences or we could take an Uber ride with them and see their point of view first-hand.

Field research uncovers workarounds

When researching a new feature for the Uber Partner app, Grace Vorreuter will go out driving with partners and give them real world scenarios and tasks to test. Since she is getting into their car, she gets to observe not just how the app is functioning, but also physical artifacts that the partner interacts with. Some partners mount their phones on the left side, some on the right, while some prop it up in their cup holder. We take note of the arm’s-length gestures the partner makes to interact with our app and how it’s difficult to see the screen when there’s a glare — all things we could never encounter if trying to replicate these scenarios in the lab. We also see workarounds that partners create to fill in the gaps of their work flow.

An Uber Partner added the anonymized rider contact number to his contacts and uses the voice command “call muppet!” when contacting the rider.

While studying the new partner app on-trip flow, Grace conducted in-the-car research, running partners through different test scenarios. During one of these tests, she discovered that one partner had created a contact in his phone called “muppet,” which had the anonymized phone number of his upcoming rider. He did this so that he could easily call the rider using the voice command “call muppet!” A partner might not mention in an interview that he or she had created this workaround — by going out into the field to conduct this test in real driving scenarios, we were able to learn about this unmet need and this one partner’s unique solution.

Field research shows the effects of physical environment

Lane and sidewalk barriers extend throughout downtown Guangzhou, China.

In a sense, every Uber employee is conducting research every time he or she takes a ride. This helps create empathy across our organization for riders and partners. However, we are aware that our experiences in San Francisco or other US cities are not representative of the range of experiences users have with Uber across the world. When Amy Chong went to Guangzhou and Shanghai in China, she noticed important differences in the physical environment that are unique to those locations and cannot be understood from a distance. For instance, barriers that are meant to control pedestrian entry onto roadways extend multiple blocks along the sides of roads in Guangzhou and Shanghai. Amy also saw that highways run above street level in downtown Shanghai. These seemingly small physical differences could wreak havoc on uberPOOL pickups.

Highways above street level in parts of downtown Shanghai, China.

Imagine you are an uberPOOL passenger and you’ve just been matched with another rider who is standing on the other side of the street — in seemingly close proximity. In Guangzhou, a partner may need to drive more than four blocks to reach an opening where they can turn around and drive to the second rider. Or, imagine you’re riding on one of the highways above Shanghai when you’re matched with another rider, but that person is standing below you on the street level. Your Uber Partner would need to exit the highway and wind their way down to the street level and then return to the highway again. A car-sharing nightmare! Had we spoken to a rider from Guangzhou or Shanghai over the phone, they might have told us that wait times for uberPOOL are long. But they might not have thought to mention the physical details of their environment because they are immersed in it. Yet, it’s critical for Uber to consider these factors when calculating the estimated time of arrival for a partner in Guangzhou and Shanghai.

Field research reveals motivations and embedded attitudes

Alisa and Brion tag along with an UberRUSH Courier to deliver a package in New York City.

It’s one thing for an UberRUSH bike messenger, known as a “Courier,” to tell us about what it’s like to deliver a package from Chelsea to the West Village in New York City. It’s another thing to ride behind him as he navigates vehicles, avoids pedestrians and struggles to mark a job “complete” using the app on a snow-soaked iPhone screen.

Braving a bike ride on a cold February day allowed Design researcher Alisa Weinstein and UberRUSH’s lead designer, Brion McDonough, to see the tension between the needs and motivations of customers requesting an UberRUSH delivery and Couriers making the delivery. Customers often don’t consider how an item is transported from point A to point B — just that it gets where it needs to be as quickly as possible. Couriers, however, are primarily thinking about how a package will affect their ride. Their ability to navigate the city streets and control their body and bike is central to making a safe, successful delivery.

So while a customer may not be focused on the size, shape, and weight of a package, the Courier knows those factors affect his balance. Understanding the motivations of different actors in an end-to-end experience helped Alisa and Brion design with both sets of needs in mind. They may not have understood the importance of the physicality of the job had they not been there to see it for themselves.

Like any exploratory research method, fieldwork is an excellent tool for uncovering previously unknown or little-known motivations and problems that affect the way services are used and perceived. Sometimes the solutions or next steps are clear, but other times we may learn something that isn’t immediately actionable. This is often why some teams may push back against doing this kind of in-depth, exploratory research. But, we believe the payoff for this type of research is worth the time invested because the insights are so much more rich, nuanced, and tangible.

Field research is especially effective when product managers, engineers, and designers venture into the field with us to observe. When this happens, we see them internalize the experiences and stories much more than bullet points presented in a research report. We’ve seen these team members become stronger advocates for research, and also riders and partners, because they’re drawing from their own first-hand experiences in the field. Our field research gives our designers the confidence and conviction to design from a place of knowledge and deep understanding of riders and partners, rather than from a place of speculation and guesswork.


Grace Vorreuter is a design researcher on the Driving Experience team at Uber. Grace enjoys bad movies, cross stitching, and people-watching. She also puts way too much sugar in her coffee.

Amy Chong is a design researcher who focuses on experiences and initiatives related to Supply Growth at Uber. She loves to travel and run marathons; running a marathon on every continent is on her must-do list.

Alisa Weinstein is a design researcher at Uber who has worked with the Uber Everything, Uber for Business and Partnerships teams. She is a passionate armchair TV critic and has a Masters in Design from the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago.

Thanks to Shruti Kataria and Rick Bond for your editing help!

If this sort of research interests you, the Uber Design Research Team is hiring. Please get in touch with us! It’s not a requirement that you wear glasses…

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put…

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.

Uber Design

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Creating great experiences that shape the way people move through the world. Work with us: Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.