Whether you're turning up the volume on your car stereo, or swiping right on Tinder, user interfaces are limited to control panels, touchscreens, and displays.
User experience is not.
Smartphones have expanded the jurisdiction of UX. Now on-demand services are stretching the scope of user experience beyond the confines of your pocket-sized touchscreen.
What Did Uber Accomplish?
Public transportation (often) sucks. You have to wait for a scheduled service, you have to pay with cash, and there's never anywhere to sit.
Traditional taxis aren't much better. You still have to wait, you often have to pay with cash, and you're charged a premium for the luxury of riding by yourself.
Uber improved upon traditional taxis by identifying and resolving friction in the rider's user experience. Now they're attempting to compete with public transportation through UberPOOL – a ride-sharing service.
Uber have had their well-documented issues but their heady global expansion tells you they've done something right.
What real-world UX problems did Uber solve to get here?
Problem #1: Wait time
Whether booking a cab the night before a big trip or sneaking out before dessert to call a cab company, the wait between requesting a ride and receiving a ride has always been a pain point.
Even standing out in the middle of the street, scanning the oncoming traffic stream for an empty cab can be a soul-destroying waste of time.
Uber used good tech to attack that challenge. Thanks to smartphones, equipped with GPS, on-demand ride-sharing services can use software to pair riders and drivers.
This pairing can be instantaneous, but not always. Uber's efficiency is a testament to how the company regulates its marketplace, not the UX of its mobile app.
Uber famously raises their prices during peak times – surge pricing – to help offset demand. Riders don't like surge pricing, but the feature ensures there are enough available rides by both decreasing demand and drawing off-duty drivers back onto the road.
There's no doubt that surge pricing has been a difficult PR challenge for Uber. Certainly, some users have fallen victim to surge pricing in the past, so Uber will soon display the approximate fare before you agree to ride, whether surge pricing is active or not.
A highly data-driven system allows Uber to tackle the issue of high demand by analyzing the proximity of one route to another and attempting to pair riders. This carpooling feature (UberPOOL) lowers rider costs, increases network capacity (which reduces wait time), and even provides a social solution for daily commutes.
Could ‘plain old taxis’ offer a competing service? Technically, yes. Many have developed more sophisticated data services. Is it in their nature to use that data creatively? Who knows, but I tend to doubt it.
Problem #2: Contact
Placing an order over the phone can be rough because vital information (i.e. credit card numbers, addresses, times, dates, etc.) have to be communicated and reviewed.
Whenever I have to book a dentist appointment or anything else that is scheduled the old-fashioned way, there's always this moment of "Umm.. I guess we're good" that I hate. Did I hear the time right? Did they write the time down right? Could there have been a miscommunication?
All vital details are stored and easy to update and share in the Uber app. Of course, this trait is shared by all app-based services, but the pain point is eliminated all the same.
Problem #3: Directions
Directions used to be a huge pain. Cab drivers are human and they can miss exits if you don't provide careful instructions and pay close attention.
With ride-sharing, GPS takes you where you need to go. Type in an address and the driver has directions.
Also, when you share a ride with a friend and you have different destinations, directing the driver can become the primary focus of your ride. Uber overcomes this problem by sending the destination to the driver and allowing riders to submit subsequent destinations as needed.
Problem #4: Making Payments
While some cab drivers still force you to pay with cash, you don't have to have a credit card on you to use Uber.
Uber also lets you split fares with your friends. This eliminates the need for a third-party app like Venmo. It reduces tension between friends and makes it faster to get in and out of cars.
Uber has serious problems, but they don’t shy away from big problems.
Human drivers are currently a source of friction for Uber. They complain about being contractors, campaign for higher wages and are trying to unionize.
Always resourceful, Uber launched a series of road tests for a fleet of self-driving vehicles to fix that too.