Uber is a remarkably well-designed app that’s only gotten better through iteration. Originally it was a clever app that would send an expensive black car your way on demand. Then it became more transparent and conscious of budgets. Today, it’s the closest thing to magic we have on our smartphones, capable of juggling every type of ride, from cabs to cabriolets.
But its website? It sat on the back burner while Uber expanded into 40 cities via the ever more clever mobile app. Time passed quickly, and the site didn’t see a makeover for three years (an Internet millennium).
Today, Uber is finally relaunching its website. But as we would learn talking to the company’s lead designer, Shalin Amin, its hip agile model (quick prototyping, quick failing, and quick-fixing iteration) didn’t work this time. After locking all of their designers and developers in a room for two weeks for a build sprint, the team realized they needed a new strategy—or any strategy—to figure out what the new website needed to be. They’d need to dig all the way back the best ideas of the 1990s, the Seinfeld era.*
"Part of being agile, there has to be a strategy in place. Agile works really well for software development," Amin says. "[But] we’re looking at this site as more of a marketing site than an app. We wanted to explore the concept of working in a more agile way to develop a website ASAP, but we just couldn’t do it. We asked, 'Are we putting too much emphasis on the process rather than the content?'"
So the engineers were sent away to explore some technical angles, while designers and product managers shifted from the agile model to the waterfall model.
"Waterfall is typically what we used to do back in the '90s," Amin explains. "It starts at the top, you develop wireframes, UI, and experience. Once the wirefames are done, the user interface designer would hand it to a visual designer, who’d skin it. And then, they’d review it as a team, talk to stakeholders, make sure everything is right, and then they’d hand it to developers to build."
For Uber, the waterfall approach allowed the team to figure out their narrative before developers and designers broke ground on builds. They could take their time to figure out what the site should say and do.
"We started moving away from the idea Uber’s 'Everyone’s Private Driver’ to ‘Uber Moves People,'" Amin explains. Then, that updated, core viewpoint informed the rest of the messaging and design, from more the aspirational on-the-go photography and tight, action-oriented diction, to the highlighted features and explanation of services. And with the developers free to explore during this time, rather than be chained to aimless designers drafting new builds, they were able to invest in their own core competencies and figure out how to build the new Uber.com as a responsive site that would work on PCs and tablets equally well.
"I think our big lesson was that as much as we want to move quickly, iterate and test, it’s more important to approach marketing in a more traditional way," Amin says, "so you can look at all the moving pieces and make it all cohesive."
*In all reality, the Waterfall model debuted in the 1950s, resurged in the 1980s, and no doubt, became even more popularized by the rise of the web in the 1990s.