Lyft and its ride-hailing competitors offer more or less the same service, at about the same price, provided by, in many cases, the very same drivers. They compete instead on brand and experience, which means that Henrique Penha, Lyft’s new vice president of product design, has a lot riding on his work.
Penha most recently worked on industrial design at Apple. Before that, he was the product design lead at Google’s Android, and he has also spent time designing communication and messaging products at Skype. "I could not have dreamed of a better intersection of all of my experience, to be honest," he says of his new job at Lyft.
Having worked at both Google and Apple—which make what a typical consumer would consider similar mobile operating systems—Penha is familiar with Lyft's challenge of differentiating a product through design. He has also worked on products at risk of being overwhelmed by their many functions, a problem that has grown with the ride-hailing company. Lyft now offers three types of rides: the original Lyft ride, a six-passenger Lyft Plus ride, and a carpooling option called Lyft Line. On top of that it has made partnerships with Starbucks (drivers get access to Starbucks perks, customers can gift drivers Starbucks credit), GM (with whom it plans to create a network of on-demand autonomous cars), and Hertz (which rents cars to Lyft drivers on a weekly basis). "You have to remember, maybe for a lot of us, living in a place like San Francisco, we’ve grown up with these apps from day one, in a way, and we understand how they’ve gotten more complex," Penha says. "But the truth is that most people are just picking it up today for the first time. So I think having the mindset of keeping it simple, is something that the Lyft app has tried to do and will try to maintain, not to overwhelm drivers and passengers with all of these offers all the time in their face."
Lyft has also formed an alliance with foreign-based ride-sharing apps, which will allow customers to order rides through each other’s apps. When a Lyft customer is traveling internationally and calls an Ola, Didi Kuaidi, or GrabTaxi through the Lyft app, Penha says that "everything should work the same way."
Penha joins Lyft at the same time as its new vice president of growth, Snaptu founder Ran Makavy, who is hiring a team of people to make Lyft’s driver and rider on-boarding more efficient—which will also fall partially on Penhas’s plate, though he declined to discuss specific plans.
Lyft's larger competitor, Uber, suffered a recent rough patch in the design department. In February, the app underwent a widely ridiculed rebranding, and around the same time, the company's head of design, Andrew Crow, stepped down. But recently, Uber hired a talented new product design chief: Marcos Weskamp, former head of design at Flipboard. Lyft, in other words, is not the only ride-sharing company that wants to show it's serious about design.
"Product design is one tool that we have," Penha said about differentiating Lyft from Uber. "But I think there’s a lot of depth to the ethos of Lyft and how things got started and what the ultimate trajectory is. They never set out to build a better taxi. To them, the mission has always been to change transportation."