Meet the Waze Design Leader Who Keeps Your Eyes on the Road
Tom Hacohen on designing an app that drivers won’t pay *too* much attention to and turning to Wazers for inspiration
We caught up with Tom Hacohen, head of UX design at Waze, to learn what it takes to create an app that’s safe, fun, and constantly changing.
Designing an app that won’t distract drivers
When it comes to user experience (UX) design, most apps focus on attention-grabbing experiences that suck users into the screen. But at Waze, we’re designing an app for people on the road, so safety comes first. We always have to keep in mind that a driver’s eyes are not fully focused on the app, nor should they be!
This is a departure from some of my previous design roles, like when I worked as a graphic designer at a newspaper, which was all about trying to catch the eye of our readers. About 10 years ago, I transitioned to digital: I was head of design at a large start-up that became one of the biggest unicorns in Silicon Valley, and last year I joined Waze to lead 25 people on the product design team.
Unlike a lot of digital work, designing Waze isn’t just about what’s happening in the app. Our goal is to help drivers without distracting them, which means taking their surroundings into account. That’s where design really matters.
All drivers need to be able to easily see text at a quick glance, while keeping their eyes safely on the road. For drivers with hearing, visual, motor, or cognitive impairments, accessibility is especially important. That’s why we stick to a strict character limit and always consider how we’re using color, font size, and high-contrast modes for text that appears on-screen. This means you’re able to interact with Waze safely as you get where you’re going.
Understanding how people actually drive
We structure and build the experience based on our understanding of how people actually use Waze. That starts with our UX research, which helps us learn what motivates people to make certain decisions on the road.
We have to think about the flow that people experience when they open Waze and start navigating. That’s how we learn where we should surface information, or what questions to answer as a person drives. Some are basic questions, like finding out where they’re headed and when they want to arrive. But then we also need to know what type of vehicle they’re driving (car, motorcycle, taxi, etc); what their preferred route is (shortest distance or fastest); and whether there’s anything they want to avoid, like toll roads or difficult intersections.
We’re always aiming to connect what drivers are experiencing on the road to what they see on their screen. Everyone’s experience looks a little different, depending on their preferences. But designing for these choices allows Waze to offer the best route for everybody.
When it comes to Waze Carpool, for example, we know we need to show Wazers information about the person they’re riding with so they feel comfortable sharing a car. We also provide details about the route and the price so they have an idea of what the cost or time savings could look like and know the ride will get them where they need to go.
What makes Waze “Waze-y”?
A question we ask ourselves a lot is “What is Waze-y?” Waze is playful, and we want to make sure that feeling comes across throughout the product. The Community powers the map: everything is reported for people, by people. We want the map to feel like a reliable friend sharing the inside scoop about what’s happening on the road.
As designers, we have to find a balance between that friendly attitude and the practical purpose of the app. Safety and clarity is our priority, though we try to focus on these while making sure our Waze personality still shines through.
Designing dark mode for night-time driving, for example, meant finding a balance between a clean, simple navigation experience and making sure our fun brand elements, such as Moods, could contrast with the darker background. A lot of our decisions come down to the question: when is it best to simply focus on functionality and when is it appropriate to add that “secret Waze-y sauce”?
What’s down the road for Waze?
When you work on an app like Waze, you’re not just launching one version and that’s that. After you design it, you have to monitor it to see how Wazers are using the map in real-time. And it needs to be able to scale and evolve. It’s like raising a small animal — you have to take care of it and see how it’s doing as it grows and changes.
Lately, our focus has been on rethinking the commute model. In the past, many Waze drivers were nine-to-five commuters. But daily routines have changed, and now we’re seeing different driving patterns emerge. It’s up to us to constantly adapt and consider the changing habits of people who use the app as we design it.
As people’s schedules become more flexible, we want Waze to become more flexible, too. Instead of focusing just on making the app great for commuters, we want Waze to be equally great for people driving to unfamiliar destinations or outside of typical working hours.
With so many people back on the road again, we’re excited to see how this impacts Waze Carpool. Right now, one of the things we’re working on is supporting real-time rides. With lots of people’s routines becoming more fluid, we expect that the desire to request on-demand carpools versus having to plan rides in advance will be especially useful. And we’re excited to bring this to Waze Carpoolers.
The importance of unplugging
Working on an app that changes alongside our audience means it’s important for us, as designers, to take a step back and look at what’s happening beyond our day-to-day work. For me, it means stepping away from the computer, whether that means having “walking calls” instead of seated meetings or trying new things whenever I can. I lived in San Francisco for many years, and it was my dream to take up a water sport, but I never did (it was too cold!). But now that I’m in Tel Aviv, where the water is warm, there’s no excuse. I’m determined to make it happen.
Which Mood do you relate to most? I’m probably Skeptical.
How would you describe Waze in three words? “I trust it.” Honestly, I do. Before I worked here, I used it every day for seven years for my one-to-two-hour daily commute. I can’t imagine how I would have survived without it.
What is your favorite thing to listen to in the car? My taste in music ranges from Taylor Swift to Johnny Cash. I’m really into Noga Erez these days, too. And on the podcast front, I really like “How I Built This” by Guy Raz on NPR and “The Daily” by the New York Times.
What three things do you always have on your desk? Coffee, my phone charger, and blank paper everywhere so I can sketch. I also have a habit of buying fancy pens and hiding them from the rest of the family.