An Interview with Michael Gough, VP of Product Design at Uber.

Updated: Sep 13, 2020

Michael Gough, VP of Product Design at Uber, talked to us about trends in the technology industry, current challenges, and the future of design.

Building a Design Culture

Michael worked at a design focused company, which was eventually bought by Adobe. This was a big shift from a more entrepreneurial energy to a corporate culture where the managers ordered assets and products, which were then built by the team. However, over a few years, they built a culture in which the company started appreciating its core audience. Understanding this audience’s needs ultimately led to the creation of Creative Cloud, which Michael considers one of his biggest successes. Building such a culture took a lot of time, but was very rewarding.

Uber’s Vision

Uber has had a long term plan of creating a transportation platform that would transform cities and increase mobility. Michael suggests that there are only a few factors that determine the layout of a city and transportation is one of them.

For instance, in the Paris Metro Rail map, there are a few black spots where the metro doesn’t go. A correlation has been observed between these spots and low income. Therefore, we can infer that lack of transport somehow leads to lack of opportunity. Uber now reaches these low-mobility areas and has thereby given this area more access. Additionally, a lot of first rides of drivers also comes from these low-mobility areas, suggesting that Uber has led to increased opportunity there in terms of jobs as well. Another example is San Francisco city. There are a lot of Ubers and Lyfts that run in Mission District, so restaurants now know that they can put their business there and customers will have access to it. Therefore, the economic distribution of the city is changing slowly.

Michael claims that in the short term, Uber has made the traffic worse by increasing the number of cars on the road but has also increased mobility. However, through design practice, they are now creating solutions that are optimized for social, environmental, and economic good.

“We simulate everything.”

Uber runs several simulations and a marketplace engine, which consists of developing more sophisticated marketplace analytics and structures to run simulations on.

However, Michael warns that there are situations where data and simulations don’t help. There are complex social dynamics in the world and people are connecting across all kinds of divides. For example, we get into a stranger’s car and have conversations. This can lead to unintended consequences that simulations cannot help with, such as death. Currently, mitigation is the course of action for such consequences, but Michael is more interested in a proactive approach, that is, creating systems that are focused towards building trust.

Another example where simulations failed is of driver powerups. If you’re an Uber driver, you get a power up, which is basically a token to go wherever you want. This token was created to get drivers more involved in the design process as a part of larger programs and incentives to improve relationships of the company with the drivers. This program resulted in several more drivers going to the airport to get rides. Michael’s team had simulated this program based on the amount of drivers who would want to use the token to go home, but they all used it to get better rides instead, which was a result the team had not expected.

Personas in Design

Uber deals with several different kinds of personas because personalities and needs of individuals vary radically between different countries. For this reason, Uber has to design for generic cases and engage more in general problem solving but also try to understand what makes different people tick at the same time.

“You can do as much damage by over-indexing on a personality type or demographic as you can do good.”

Personally, Michael is not fond of personas and has seen that connecting with customers and being the customer has proved to be more valuable. However, when he was at Nike, personas were very useful because they tried to amplify personality types on purpose and design for each of them. Uber is prone on doing the opposite - create something more generalized. Therefore, the usefulness of personas depends on the team’s specific target audience.

Design and Instincts

Michael used to tell people to trust their instincts because most people don’t. He believes that we can sometimes get so paralyzed by rigorous, organized, and data driven decisions that we lose common sense in the process of trying to be more logical.

“Our brains are so good at absorbing huge amounts of info from sources we don’t even know about, synthesizing them, and then coming back with insights.”

Where do consultancies stand?

Consultancies started as the only ones who knew the craft of design. These jobs were easy to get because companies did not have internal design teams. Over time, design got divided between strategic or tactical design and several consultancies filled these niches by specializing in either of these areas of design. Michael believes that consultancies right now are trying to figure out exactly what they stand for. For now, it may be helping internal design teams at companies with business strategy in the design process, or focusing on teams that want to incorporate a design culture in their day-to-day.

The Future of Design

Michael believes that the future of design is to have a greater and greater impact in terms of usability as well as desirability. In the future, everything will be designed and we need to focus on not just functional needs, but also emotional needs. In terms of techniques, Michael suggests that we’re in an awkward place right now where tools are becoming less flexible and teams are becoming larger. To help this situation, we need to find better ways to collaborate.

“Design is not the sole responsibility of designers.”

Designers can facilitate best practices but design has to become the ethos of companies and interdisciplinary practices need to be promoted. One breakdown we have right now is that sometimes design and engineering teams are too disconnected. While a lot of this depends on the organization, Michael believes that bridging this gap is definitely possible and each team needs to be mindful of how their work is affecting the creative process and the end user’s experience.

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