The New York Times has an interesting article about how ride-sharing company Uber plays psychological tricks on its drivers to manipulate them into doing things that are good for Uber, but not necessarily good for the drivers.
It’s a long article, but worth reading. Even if you don’t agree with the New York Times’ slant (that Uber is being evil), there are still enough interesting points in the article.
Here is one example of manipulation: when Uber wants more drivers in a particular area (to avoid surge pricing – so that customers get rides in that area without having to pay more), Uber’s managers send text messages to drivers encouraging them to go to that area. This doesn’t always work, so this is what the managers do:
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.
“‘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.
And there are many more in the article.
Here are some interesting takeaways for me:
- If you aren’t aware of the findings of behavioral economics, how those techniques are used in gamification, how big companies are using these tricks to manipulate their customers (i.e. you), and in Uber’s case their contractors (i.e. the drivers), then you really need to read up.
- This trend is going to increase. Everybody, from your social networks (e.g. Facebook) to your TV (e.g. Netflix) to your shop (e.g. Amazon) are trying hard to manipulate you, and it appears, soon your employer will start doing the same.
- It appears to me that one of the most important things we need to teach our children is the ability to resist such manipulation. We teach them to avoid smoking and to drink in moderation via strong messaging. Maybe we need to do the same with apps.
- Throughout the article, there is a mention of the fact that “Uber experimented with” some or the other (manipulation) feature. This is an extremely important aspect of modern software/app development. It is called A/B testing, and I am surprised that most people – including senior executives in the software industry are not aware of it. In the old days, if a company needed to decide whether to introduce some new feature in the software (e.g. give the driver a pop-up message indicating how close they’re to getting a bonus), and if yes, what should it’s configuration (at what percentage of completion should the driver get the pop-up message), the experienced people in the company would take a judgment call. However, modern software development prefers a more data driven approach: implement the feature, expose it to a subset of users, and compare these users’ behavior to that of others on various metrics. This helps you decide what features to implement in the software.
- Overall, I do feel that the New York Times has taken a rather harsh anti-Uber stand in the article. I mean, the neither are the drivers babies, nor is Uber a monopoly, so it is unclear to me why Uber acting in its self-interest is so evil. However, there is a danger that if Uber continues to succeed and competitors like Lyft don’t, Uber will become a monopoly and that could be very dangerous.
The article is interesting for another reason – instead of generic photos or illustrations, the article actually has interactive simulations of the situations it is talking about (e.g. customer demand, driver availability, waiting times etc.), and you can actually modify the parameters and see their effect. I hope we see more of these kinds of intelligent interactive illustrations.