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How Uber Uses Dark Patterns To Game Its Drivers

According to a New York Times report, Uber uses manipulative UX to keep its drivers working longer.

How Uber Uses Dark Patterns To Game Its Drivers
[Photo: Nisian Hughes/Getty Images]

As a rider, you’ve heard that chime. You’re a few blocks from home, and your trip isn’t quite over yet. But your driver is being pinged because their next rider is already waiting.

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This is one of many manipulative ingredients in Uber’s cocktail of dark, driver-focused UX, deployed to keep independent contractors on the road longer. As reported by the New York Times on Sunday, it’s a side of the business that Uber (along with Lyft) has been experimenting with for years. Rather than incentivizing work by raising wages, or bringing drivers on as staff with predictable hours and benefits, Uber instead uses psychological tricks. These range from presenting unworked time or areas as financial losses rather than potential gains, to placing drivers into a Netflix binge-style loop in which the next ride is queued up before the last one ends.

Explore the full, interactive report here [Image: The New York Times]
Truth be told, some of the interventions may seem innocent enough (is giving a driver a badge, after several riders compliment him for his superb conversation, a completely evil tactic? Or is that just an extension of the feedback you might get from any job and employer?). And frankly, Uber isn’t the first sector to abuse the human psyche. You’ll recognize several tricks borrowed from the addiction-driven video game industry, which increasingly relies on the player spending more and more money to unlock uncertain rewards, like pulling the lever of a slot machine and hoping for the best.

But this approach matters particularly for Uber, because it is the figurehead of the entire gig economy, in which employees are part-time, on-demand labor and the “boss” is just an app. And in this space, the subtle sounds, graphics, and messages of that software aren’t just virtual filigree. They’re real labor practices that need to be scrutinized, as they would be with any other employer.

Read the full report here.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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