In the coming weeks, a major redesign of Uber’s app will make its way to users around the world. If you’re one of them, you’ll probably like it; when Uber demoed the update for us yesterday morning, it was significantly faster, smarter, easier to navigate, and more upfront about things like cost and estimated travel time. All good things! But while increased speed, usability, and transparency are all welcome, the most intriguing upgrade to Uber’s app isn’t how much faster it loads, the way it learns from your routines, or how it scrapes your calendar for the address of your meeting across town. No—the most compelling thing about Uber’s reimagined app is a new feature the company calls Uber Feed.
Historically, Uber has focused on getting you from point A to point B. Uber Feed fills the space between. “As soon as the driver starts the trip, the app experience transforms,” says product manager Yuhki Yamashita, who led the redesign. As your car pulls away from the curb, a scrollable feed of cards appears from the bottom of the screen, covering the old-school map of your trip in progress. Swiping up moves you through a stack of services Uber thinks you might find useful during your trip. Feeling peckish on your ride home from work? Swipe left on the UberEats card to see which restaurants can deliver to your house in sync with your arrival time. En route to a restaurant in the city? A Yelp card lets you side-swipe to browse photos and reviews of popular dishes. Running late? Relax: Right there in your Uber Feed is a Snapchat card with custom filters, including one that updates your neglected dinner date on your ETA.
That’s the idea, at least. “Having a set of experiences and information that are catered to you while you’re in the car can make the trip better and make you more informed about your destination,” says Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. It’s like in-flight entertainment, but more useful. And on paper, it’s pretty compelling.
For starters, it lets Uber reimagine the lamest part of the on-demand transportation experience: the car ride itself. “Nobody joyrides in an Uber,” says independent UX designer and user-onboarding guru Samuel Hulick. This is as true in real life as it is onscreen; the least-charming part of Uber’s app has always been watching your car scoot across a map. (This is the cartographical equivalent of a progress bar, and shares many of that graphical element’s time-slowing properties.) “The car ride part of it is a means to an end, so getting a clear idea of the purpose of your customer’s trip, and how Uber can be more helpful toward that underlying purpose, beyond the transportation, makes a lot of sense,” Hulick says. Uber Feed puts that screen real estate to better use, turning a potentially mind-numbing experience into a productive one.
Of course, you can already accomplish most of this, and much more, outside of the Uber app. If there’s one thing smartphones have made humanity remarkably adept at, it’s killing time. Whether it’s Twitter or Instagram or Clash of Clans, most people already have their favorite ways to distract themselves in an Uber. So why Uber Feed at all?
In addition to the promised contextual awareness, keeping all of your activity in one app could save you some hassle. One of the most promising features of third-party integration—be it in Uber’s Feed, your phone’s voice assistant, or your favorite messaging client—is to limit the time you spend switching between apps and getting things done. “Increasing and capitalizing on the time its users spend within the app would make Uber more relevant, for sure,” Hulick says.
That’s also, though, where things get tricky. Third-party integration is very much in vogue, but it’s difficult to pull off and even harder to do well. WeChat, the messaging platform from Chinese company Tencent, has seen the most success. Hundreds of millions of people in China use WeChat to do, well, practically everything: You can use it to talk with friends, play games, order food, book a flight—all without ever leaving the simple, chat-based user interface. In the US, messenger apps like Facebook Messenger, Google Allo, and even iMessage have similar all-encompassing aspirations, but they’re still pretty limited, not just in terms of the scope of services, but in functionality.
Uber will face similar challenges. The list of partners in Uber Feed will start small (only the company’s own UberEats will be available at launch—Yelp, Snapchat, Foursquare, Pandora, and transit integration are “coming soon”), but it’s easy to imagine how the product could expand with features like weather, news, and partnerships with local businesses. But even more important than expanding the range of third-party features is ensuring that people find these services useful in the first place. The Uber Feed is designed to be predictive and personalized, based on your destination. But as anyone who was ever interrupted by Clippy, Microsoft’s overly helpful animated paperclip, can attest, recommendations are not always well received.
“The question becomes, how frequently do people have the need for this information in this moment?” says experience designer Jesse James Garrett, founder of UX design and consulting firm Adaptive Path. He uses Yelp as an example. “You’re literally on your way to the restaurant. How many people are actually going to feel the compulsion to figure out what they want to order in the car, on the way to the restaurant? And, among the people who do feel that compulsion, how frequently do they feel it?”
That’s the challenge with smart recommendations: They’re only as good as the predictions on which they’re based. And if they’re not significantly better than your usual workflow, they stand a good chance of failing. “I’d imagine a lot of people would trust good old-fashioned me-typing-something-into-Foursquare over Foursquare-brought-to-you-by-Uber, especially if they’re not finding the Uber-ified recommendations to be immediately and consistently spot-on,” Hulick says.
You can bet that Uber will be leveraging its aggregate rider data to confront these challenges, itself, and update Uber Feed accordingly. Which also speaks to why Uber wants Uber Feed to succeed in the first place. The more you stay within Uber’s ecosystem, the more data it can collect. The more data it has, the more easily it can monetize. How comfortable you are with yet another digital services company knowing everything about how you spend your time is up to you.
Regardless of whether it pulls this off, Uber’s dramatic change to its UI reflects where it’s going as a business. Consider the company’s new, self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh, and its larger vision of a fully autonomous future. What responsibility does Uber have, in a driverless scenario, when it comes to the rider experience, where it doesn’t have that human touchpoint to facilitate the rider experience? “Uber Feed starts to lay the groundwork to have software do that,” Garrett says.
It’s something riders will have to want, and opt-in for, but if Uber can own your in-transit engagement, it makes it much easier for the company to fulfill this role, even when there’s no one behind the wheel.