Harry here. I’ll be traveling to New York this week so will be a little slow to respond to e-mails but hopefully everyone had a great Thanksgiving. If you’re reading this, I’m thankful for each and every one of you for subscribing to this site and supporting my efforts here. I really do appreciate it.
Today, senior RSG contributor John Ince takes a look at a few of the week’s top stories including Uber’s new ‘compliments’ feature that seemed to rub a lot of drivers the wrong way – most likely because it wasn’t the one feature drivers really want. What’s the one feature you’d like to see Uber add to the driver app?
Uber Wants To Make Drivers’ Jobs Easier With ‘Compliments’ [Wired]
Sum and Substance: Starting today, when you give your Uber driver a five-star rating, your app will ask you to provide them a little extra feedback. It’s not mandatory, but if you choose, you can give them a sticker that says something like “Awesome DJ!” or “Great car!” or “Above and beyond!” Or you can tap a prompt at the bottom of the screen and leave your driver a more personalized thank-you note. Drivers will see these stickers and notes in the feedback section of their app, which will tally all the accolades they receive.
Uber calls the feature Compliments, and sees it as the beginning of what could ultimately be a powerful culture shift within its organization. The company has always worked hard to make its product appealing to riders. But drivers? If you’ve followed the protests and lawsuits and fights over employment benefits, you know that Uber’s drivers have not always felt all that well taken care of. And that’s a problem on a whole bunch of levels. It’s incredibly important for Uber that its platform be appealing to drivers. That’s obvious, right? Without drivers, there is no Uber. So for the past few months, Uber has been working to make the experience in the car more pleasant, not just for the rider, but for the driver.
“What we’re trying to do is rebalance that scale,” says Amritha Prasad, Uber’s product design lead. The feedback system was a logical place to start. “It’s the thing all drivers ask me all the time—I want feedback, I want feedback,” says Mike Truong, a senior product manager at Uber. The five-star rating system—which distills everything about the service a driver does or does not provide into a number—has always been inadequate in this regard. So much so, in fact, that, a few months ago, Uber briefly considered ditching it entirely. But none of the proposed alternatives really stuck.
The designers on Truong’s team created mockups of an emoji-based system. No dice. They tried a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, thumbs-sideways thing. That didn’t work, either. Everyone just gave a thumbs-up, making it look like everything was great, even when it wasn’t. Ultimately, they landed back on the five-star rating as the right way to end a ride.
What Uber really needed was a way for riders to provide more nuanced feedback—not just for bad, mediocre, and good rides, but for great, outstanding, and exceptional ones. Uber’s spent a lot of time working on what users can and should do when something goes wrong on a ride. But recently the team’s focus has shifted a bit. They feel like it’s working, like Uber is good at doing the basic thing it does, to a basic standard of quality. So they started asking: How can we celebrate the drivers who are doing especially well? The ones who have gum and water, who play the best music, who have the coolest cars. How can Uber help them identify the things their riders most appreciate, and make them feel better about their extra effort?
My Take: This simple move has turned out to be more controversial that I suspect Uber anticipated. On its surface, the notion of asking passengers to give drivers compliments is a very cost effective way for Uber to curry favor with drivers. Think of the psychology here. Whenever I would get a low rating before this move, I immediately wondered who dinged me. The old way set in motion a downward spiral of thought, as I mentally scanned my recent rides to find the culprit.
This move reverses the psychology. Driver’s start wondering who complimented them and it shifts thinking from negative to positive. And guess what? It hardly cost Uber anything, beyond the engineering cost. Good move Uber, hope to see more of them.
But wait, there’s more. The Verge followed up with a story on this that was basically a knock against Uber. The Verge story headlined, Uber adds another way to compliment drivers without actually tipping them. That noted, I don’t take issue with the Verge interpretation; personally I like the new feature. I’d like it even more if Uber included a tipping option with it. Your thoughts?
Uber policy change will allow non-violent ex-cons to take the wheel [NY Post]
Sum and Substance: Uber is reportedly set to employ people convicted of being prostitutes in a bold new scheme designed to give reformed criminals the chance to turn their lives around. The taxi app is preparing to change its rules in some American states so people with non-violent convictions can begin working as drivers.
This means that ex-sex workers can take to the road, as well as people who have convictions for harassment, resisting arrest, petty theft or minor property damage. The rules have already come into force in California but will be rolled out in Connecticut at the beginning of next year. On his Facebook page, founder Travis Kalanick wrote: “Millions of Americans have served their time and want to earn an honest living. “To break the cycle of recidivism, we need to give them a second chance.” Anyone who has been convicted of a more serious crime within the past seven years will still be banned from driving for Uber.
My Take: Folks, we can’t make this stuff up. Add two more states to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s social cause to “break the cycle of recidivism.” Yes, and now a lucky few riders not only in the Big Apple and California, but also in Connecticut and Rhode Island may be given a ride home by a former prostitute or topless dancer. Does this boost ridership or scare people away? Your thoughts?
Rule-breakers bring dark side to ride-share culture [Star Tribune]
Sum and Substance: An Uber and Lyft driver waited to pick up passengers at Lagoon and Hennepin avenues in Minneapolis after bar closing time in August. The cars started lining up an hour before pop music star Gwen Stefani wrapped up her concert at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.
As 5,000 concertgoers streamed out of the arena, the drivers went to work. “Do you want an Uber ride?” asked one. Another held up a big piece of paper marked “Uber” and told passersby they could save a lot of money by paying him cash for a ride. In the scramble to get home, it was impossible for customers to tell which of the drivers actually worked for Uber.
Half the vehicles were not displaying corporate logos, as required by law. Most of the drivers openly solicited potential customers on the street or agreed to take cash for a ride, tactics that are illegal for Uber drivers. Such scenes have become common in the Twin Cities, where Uber and the rival service Lyft now provide more rides than traditional taxicabs. Operating with little city oversight and less stringent rules than taxis, an informal and dangerous ride-sharing culture has emerged in which people casually hail unmarked cars and barter for rides.
Uber and Lyft both tell customers they shouldn’t get in vehicles unless they first book their ride through the companies’ phone apps. But many people ignore the warnings, accepting rides from strangers who sometimes turn out to be predators.
At least five women in the Twin Cities have been abducted or assaulted by men who presented themselves as Uber drivers in the past two years, police reports show. In Atlanta, Los Angeles and other cities, men pretending to work for Uber have been charged with attacking women after luring them into their cars.
Chicago police warned last year of robbers posing as Uber drivers. “The whole idea behind this service was that people were supposed to know what they were getting,” said St. Paul Council Member Dan Bostrom, a former policeman. “I am concerned that folks are putting their lives in the hands of somebody they don’t know in a vehicle they don’t know anything about.”
My Take: There have been a flurry of stories running on this theme: fake drivers, imposters, rule breakers all making a buck off the platform and potentially rendering the service less safe. These are serious issues and they basically fall upon the passenger to make absolutely sure to verify the identity of the driver on the platform. While almost all of the examples cited in these stories came back to a careless passenger, the point remains that people will do anything to make a quick, illegal buck – or they may be in it for even more dangerous reasons. Trust, but verify, before you get into any Uber or Lyft vehicle you call.
How Uber Drivers Decide How Long to Work [New York Times]
Sum and Substance: The ride-hailing company Uber is best known for upending the taxi industry. Now it may be making waves in the economics profession as well. For nearly 20 years, economists have been debating how cabdrivers decide when to call it a day.
This may seem like a trivial question, but it is one that cuts to the heart of whether humans are fundamentally rational — in this case, whether they earn their incomes efficiently — as the discipline has traditionally assumed. In one camp is a group of so-called behavioral economists who have found evidence that many taxi drivers work longer hours on days when business is slow and shorter hours when business is brisk — the opposite of what economic rationality, to say nothing of common sense, would seem to dictate.
In another camp is a group of more orthodox economists who argue that this perverse habit is largely an illusion in the eyes of certain researchers. Once you consult more precise numbers, they argue, you find that drivers typically work longer hours when it is in their financial interest to do so. The question has implications for other workers, like farmers and small business owners. And it has taken on added importance as the so-called gig economy grows, leaving more people in the position of deciding how many tasks to perform each day, from furniture assembly to tagging photos.
So who is right? That’s where Uber comes in. When one of the company’s researchers, using its supremely detailed data on drivers’ work time and rides, waded into the debate with a paper this year, the results were intriguing. Over all, there was little evidence that drivers were driving less when they could make more per hour than usual. But that was not true for a large portion of new drivers. Many of these drivers appeared to have an income goal in mind and stopped when they were near it, causing them to knock off sooner when their hourly wage was high and to work longer when their wage was low.
… “A substantial, although not most, fraction of partners do in fact come into the market with income targeting behavior,” the paper’s author, Michael Sheldon, an Uber data scientist, wrote. The behavior is then “rather quickly learned away in favor of more optimal decision making.” In effect, Mr. Sheldon was saying, the generally rational beings that most economists presume to exist are made, not born — at least as far as their Uber driving is concerned.
My Take: This is now a very old article, but hey, it’s a slow week and I was saving this story for just such a situation, because it’s an interesting story – well researched, and thought provoking. How do you decide when to turn off the app?
Readers, what do you think of this week’s round up? Also, how’s your Thanksgiving driving weekend shaping up, if you decided to drive during the holiday?
-John @ RSG