Why Uber Spent a Year Trying to Make Its App Faster to Use

Uber App

Open up the newly redesigned Uber app, and you’re greeted with a straightforward question.

“Where to?”

It’s a simple query, but one that used to take a few clicks — and some familiarity with the app — to get to. Now, an impossible-to-miss text bar asks you to type in your final destination as the very first step.

“Everything in the new design is based on the idea that time is a luxury,” says Didier Hilhorst, Uber’s design director, who led the year-long redesign effort. “It’s all about saving the user precious seconds.” Instead of giving people the option to swipe from screen to screen, now the app follows a clear workflow — beginning with you choosing your endpoint.

In case typing it out isn’t fast enough for you, three shortcut buttons appear on the app’s home screen. With a single click, you can choose a ride to any of your most likely destinations, as chosen by an algorithm that takes into account your history and your current location. The options are hyperlocal, so being in different cities will present you with different options — and being at your office will result in different options than being at home.

Of course, before you can start using the new app, you need to answer a different question: “Allow Uber to access your location even when you’re not using the app?”

Before, the app only pulled location data when it was in your phone’s foreground, so opening a different app meant Uber was no longer tracking your whereabouts. Now, the app collects data from the moment you hail a ride until five minutes after you’re dropped off.

That change in policy has already creeped out a number of users. But it makes sense, especially if you’ve ever hailed a ride then walked a few feet away, only to have your driver call you to ask where you went.

Tracking the final five minutes probably has a less clear application for users. The reasoning, Uber says, is to help the app detect whether customers who get dropped off in a specific location are crossing the street, for example, or doubling back in the direction their car came from. That might indicate some kind of obstacle or unsafe condition — or maybe a temporarily relocated entrance — that drivers should know about when making their drop-offs.

It’s not the only privacy-related revelation that has worried customers recently. On Monday, a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that Uber employees had spied on ride data from their exes, as well as from celebrities, including Beyoncé. Later that day, in an email to employees (acquired by Fortune), Uber’s chief security officer asserted that much of the information in the story was out of date, and that the company’s security policies had changed since the facts of the story were gathered. (Much of the report’s information stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2014 by a former employee.)

If Uber plans only to track your ride window, you might be wondering why you need to answer the question about letting the app monitor your location constantly. That’s a product of the way the Apple Store’s location data policies are constructed, as NPR noted recently. Apple doesn’t differentiate between apps that want to constantly track you, even when you’re not actively using them, and apps that, say, only track you for five minutes after using them. So Uber either needs people to opt-in for 24/7 tracking or opt out of it entirely. Opting out means you turn off location data for the app entirely and instead must manually input the addresse where you’d like to be picked up and dropped off.

Privacy concerns aside, the changes do lead to a time-saving design — and a less confusing one, too. The ride options are now sorted under Economy (UberX, UberPool), Premium (Black Car, Uber Select), or Extra Seats (Uber XL, SUV). A simple swipe lets you scroll through the various options, each of which is displayed with the price and the estimated time at which it’ll get you to your destination.

“When the app was last revamped in 2012, Uber only offered black cars,” Hilhorst says. “Things were getting more complex, with a lot more options for the user. We needed a design that presented all that without being overcomplicated.”

Hilhorst showed Inc. additional updates to the app, which will roll out for users by early January. It has options like “Uber to a Friend,” which lets you travel directly to a pal (so long as he or she opts in to your one-time request). You’ll also have the option of syncing the app to your phone’s calendar, which will allow it to quickly know where you want to go and when. And Uber will detect when your destination is a train or bus station and, through an app called Transit, will automatically pull up that hub’s schedule table.

Uber also has integrations upcoming with Snapchat (a selfie filter that flashes your ETA), plus Yelp and Foursquare (reviews and other information about the place you’re traveling to), that Hilhorst hopes will make the app about more than just getting a lift.

“When Uber first launched [in 2010], it made sense that there was only one thing you could do with it,” Hilhorst says. “Now, people expect things to be more personal. The key is for the app to ask you the right thing at the right time.” And, it should be noted, not be too creepy about it.

Corrections: This post has been updated to clarify that “Uber to a Friend” lets a user choose the drop-off location with the approval of a friend. Opting out of data tracking requires users to manually enter both pick-up and drop-off locations. In addition, the update clarifies that the information related to Apple’s privacy settings came from an NPR story.

Source: INC

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