Uber: An Empathy Question

This is the second part of a five-part series on how the new tech companies are making use of motivational techniques from the behavioral sciences to exploit their workers.

The original article appeared in The New York Times

  

April 2, 2017 for The New York Times, 

In early 2016, a group of roughly 100 Uber employees responsible for signing up drivers and getting them to drive more voted to change its name — from “supply growth” to “driver growth.”

The vote was not unprompted. For much of the previous year, Uber executives had agonized over how to lower the rate at which drivers were deserting the platform.

Alongside Uber’s already daunting targets for expanding its pool of drivers to meet mounting demand, the high turnover threatened to cap the company’s growth and throw it into crisis.

Uber conducted interviews and focus groups while executives peppered employees with questions like, “What are we doing to have more empathy for the driver side of the equation?”

Underlying the tension was the fact that Uber’s interests and those of drivers are at odds on some level. Drivers, who typically keep what’s left of their gross fare after Uber takes a roughly 25 percent commission, prefer some scarcity in their ranks to keep them busier and push up earnings. For its part, Uber is desperate to avoid shortages, seeking instead to serve every customer quickly, ideally in five minutes or less.

This is particularly true of shortages so pronounced as to create a “surge” — that is, a higher fare than normal. While surges do mitigate shortages, they do so in part by repelling passengers, something directly at odds with Uber’s long-term goal of dominating the industry. “For us, it’s better not to surge,” said Daniel Graf, Uber’s vice president of product. “If we don’t surge, we can produce more rides.”

As a result, much of Uber’s communication with drivers over the years has aimed at combating shortages by advising drivers to move to areas where they exist, or where they might arise. Uber encouraged its local managers to experiment with ways of achieving this.

“It was all day long, every day — texts, emails, pop-ups: ‘Hey, the morning rush has started. Get to this area, that’s where demand is biggest,’” said Ed Frantzen, a veteran Uber driver in the Chicago area. “It was always, constantly, trying to get you into a certain direction.”

Some local managers who were men went so far as to adopt a female persona for texting drivers, having found that the uptake was higher when they did.

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“‘Laura’ would tell drivers: ‘Hey, the concert’s about to let out. You should head over there,’” said John P. Parker, a manager in Uber’s Dallas office in 2014 and 2015, referring to one of the personas. “We have an overwhelmingly male driver population.”

Uber acknowledged that it had experimented with female personas to increase engagement with drivers.

The friction over meeting demand was compounded by complaints about arrangements like aggressive car leases that required many drivers to work upward of 50 or 60 hours each week to eke out a profit. Uber officials began to worry that a driver backlash was putting them at a strategic disadvantage in their competition with Lyft, which had cultivated a reputation for being more driver-friendly.

Uber had long been a reflection of Mr. Kalanick, its charismatic and hard-charging chief, who has often involved himself in corporate minutiae. According to an article in The Information, Mr. Kalanick had complained to subordinates that he was not informed sooner about a glitch with the company’s push notifications and had personally weighed in on the time at which employees could receive free dinner.

Now Uber began a process of, in effect, becoming a little less like Mr. Kalanick, and a little more like Lyft.

It rethought a lease program, softened the hectoring tone of its messages and limited their volume. At times it became positively cheery.

During roughly the same period, Uber was increasingly concerned that many new drivers were leaving the platform before completing the 25 rides that would earn them a signing bonus. To stem that tide, Uber officials in some cities began experimenting with simple encouragement: You’re almost halfway there, congratulations!

While the experiment seemed warm and innocuous, it had in fact been exquisitely calibrated. The company’s data scientists had previously discovered that once drivers reached the 25-ride threshold, their rate of attrition fell sharply.

And psychologists and video game designers have long known that encouragement toward a concrete goal can motivate people to complete a task.

“It’s getting you to internalize the company’s goals,” said Chelsea Howe, a prominent video game designer who has spoken out against coercive psychological techniques deployed in games. “Internalized motivation is the most powerful kind.”

Mr. Amodeo, the Uber spokesman, defended the practice. “We try to make the early experience as good as possible, but also as realistic as possible,” he said. “We want people to decide for themselves if driving is right for them.”

That making drivers feel good could be compatible with treating them as lab subjects was no surprise. None other than Lyft itself had shown as much several years earlier.

In 2013, the company hired a consulting firm to figure out how to encourage more driving during the platform’s busiest hours.

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At the time, Lyft drivers could voluntarily sign up in advance for shifts. The consultants devised an experiment in which the company showed one group of inexperienced drivers how much more they would make by moving from a slow period like Tuesday morning to a busy time like Friday night — about $15 more per hour.

For another group, Lyft reversed the calculation, displaying how much drivers were losing by sticking with Tuesdays.

The latter had a more significant effect on increasing the hours drivers scheduled during busy periods.

Kristen Berman, one of the consultants, explained at a presentation in 2014 that the experiment had roots in the field of behavioral economics, which studies the cognitive hang-ups that frequently skew decision-making. Its central finding derived from a concept known as loss aversion, which holds that people “dislike losing more than they like gaining,” Ms. Berman said.

Still, Ms. Berman disclosed in an interview, Lyft eventually decided against using the loss-aversion approach, suggesting that the company has drawn brighter lines when it comes to potential manipulation.

To be continued

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