It’s 6:30 in the evening in Bangalore. It’s been a long week already. Amidst the steam emanating from a freshly brewed ginger chai sit four individuals - a designer, a product manager, an engineer, and a data scientist - vigorously engaged in a whiteboarding session on how to improve the Uber booking experience for Maria (50). Maria happens to be a real Uber rider in Sao Paulo Brazil, 14,000 kms away. Behind this team’s workspace is a brick wall with the words “Build Globally, Live Locally” emblazoned in a large cursive white script. When Dara, Uber’s CEO, helped recast Uber’s cultural norms almost 10 months ago, “We Build Globally. We Live Locally” was one of them. He couldn’t have imagined a finer embodiment.

The reward. Welcome to a day in the life of our team at Uber’s Bangalore Tech center. Thanks to our mantra of Everyone, Everywhere, Everyway, Maria recently booked her first trip on Uber Lite, a new, light, fast and simple ride booking application purpose-built for conditions in emerging markets, designed and built ground up by our team in Bangalore. Thanks to Uber Lite, Maria does not have to depend on her daughter to book a ride to her church anymore. Uber Lite has helped ignite her confidence by simplifying her access to mobility. In just over 4 months since launch Uber Lite has passed more than 2.5 million installs, 1.6 million trips and growing and helping millions of riders like Maria feel the positive impact of mobility on their everyday lives. Maria’s freedom and the opportunity to impact the next billion Uber riders like her is our reward.

The journey. Maria’s trip on Uber Lite was the culmination of a nine-month journey that began with data insights from our more than 10 billion trips to date. The data told us that a bulk of those trips came from outside our core markets of the U.S. and Canada; from our emerging mega-regions of Latam, India, the Middle East, and Africa. This part of the world is dominated by typical Android devices with limited screens, processing power, and memory capacity. While our presence in 600+ cities across 78 countries is an amazing testament to the product market fit of our existing rider application, the data also showed us that we had an opportunity to further improve the experience for these riders. First, their phones simply did not have the capacity to download very bulky apps and they would often delete our app to make room for photos and social media. Second, close to 35% of them operated in spotty network conditions and using a data-heavy app was time-consuming and frustrating.

While our data gave us these two insights towards building a lighter, more network resilient application, it was not until we conducted first-hand research in Brazil that we garnered our third insight. Our small research contingent visiting Brazil (including a few engineers) found that most of these riders were also very new to the world of smartphones and did not easily understand constructs like visual maps which we took for granted. They really needed a booking experience that was simpler and more guided.

The mantra. Armed with these data insights and first-hand research, we realised that we not only needed to build an experience that was light and instant, but it also had to be simple. Our initiative was not just limited to tweaking our current application but was about fundamentally re-imagining the rider experience for these markets and building from the ground up. Light, Instant, and Simple became the guiding principles for a big bold bet we made in designing and developing an entirely new application expressly focused on our riders in these markets.

These principles were powerful yet so simple and precise that they allowed everyone across our team interpret them with consistency. To our product management team, it meant prioritising “everything these riders needed and nothing they didn’t”, by harnessing the power of data and first-hand insights. To our design team, it meant freeing themselves up to re-imagine simplicity from a Brazil and India vantage point vs. a San Francisco vantage point. To our engineers, it meant a lighter payload and smarter use of the network data to enable a booking even in the most challenging network conditions. The result was an application that was under 5MB download size (an 85% reduction over our flagship app), fast as the blink of an eye at under 300 ms between key transitions, thrifty on the network (using 1/5th the data) and rock solid, with a crash free rate over 99.93% even on typical Android devices.

The bold bets. One of our other cultural norms is making big bold bets, and Uber Lite certainly has its share of them. One of these was around the use of Maps. While most ride booking applications are map centric by default, our target users had indicated to us that maps were also not the easiest to understand visual construct for them. We took the bold step of eliminating maps as the visual centerpiece of Uber Lite. Instead, we decided to rely on the most common way our users in emerging markets communicated location - through nearby landmarks e.g. “I am near the Bank of India on the main road”. Picking Bank of India allowed both rider and driver to coordinate using local knowledge. Of course, we also learnt that the same riders liked the relief of seeing their Uber moving towards them during a pickup, so we added a feature called “maps on demand” which allows them to invoke a map view when needed.

The nuances. In addition to the bold bets, we also added a series of nuances in Uber Lite which we learnt from deeply listening to our riders. One example of this is the very prominent car number on the arriving screen. One of our senior riders in Brazil mentioned how they almost got into the wrong car because they could not view their Uber vehicle number easily on their app. In Lite, the car number is displayed in large font and high contrast so it’s always visible during a pickup, and in all kinds of light conditions. We also added the nuance of letting riders share their trip with their near and dear ones at the tap of a button which was always visible throughout the trip. There was no compromise on any of our safety features. Uber Lite is full of such thoughtful nuances which we hope our riders will discover and delight over.

The future. Even with 10 billion trips behind us it still feels like day one at Uber. The reason is that his volume of trips still represents a minuscule fraction of the total transportation miles traversed around the world. There is so much more opportunity for our team to impact the world of transportation and make it better. When we talk to our riders they typically mention access to transportation as a key challenge given the limited capabilities of their devices, poor network conditions, and complexity of booking challenges. Others tell us that they simply cannot make Uber a habit as they need a more affordable mode of convenient and safe transportation. Public transport had made a commendable effort at this but it often comes at the cost of convenience and safety. With Uber Lite now making ride booking a fast and easy experience in the most demanding of conditions we believe we have solved a key part of the access challenge. Next, we move to the challenge of affordability and I can’t wait to see what our amazing tech team in Bangalore comes up with next!

The author is the head of product for Uber India. Views are personal.

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