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Exclusive: Meet The Designer Who Could Reshape Uber

The company’s new VP of design, Michael Gough, is a former architect who wants to make the maligned company more empathetic.

Exclusive: Meet The Designer Who Could Reshape Uber
[Photo: courtesy Uber]

2017 has been a terrible year for Uber. Any warm feelings toward the world-changing ride-sharing service took a sharp turn, as reports aired of a dog-eat-dog work culture steeped in sexual harassment and a platform that manipulated not just its own riders and drivers, but regulators and authorities through some of the most sophisticated dark patterns ever designedIn the months since, Uber fired its CEO, introduced tipping, and launched an initiative designed to bolster accessibility for some of its drivers. The company is also recruiting new talent to keep it moving forward–including Michael Gough, the company’s new VP of design. But can design fix what is ultimately a PR problem of global scale? 

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“The core of design is empathy. That’s the starting point no matter what,” says Gough when I ask him that question. “That will always be how you address any product challenge. The classic way products were developed was you solved functional needs, and then maybe business needs, and then you lean heavily into human needs over time. This arc, all of the [PR] challenges aside, is a natural arc. The next big step is to become a company that’s really, really good at connecting with people and people’s needs.”

[Photo: Uber]
Four years ago, Gough was leading the most experimental arm of Adobe. With 100 people working under him, ranging from UX designers to sculptors, he was forecasting the creative interfaces of the future. In 2015, he moved to Microsoft to work on a far more concrete problem: fixing Microsoft’s flailing Office platform and ensuring it wouldn’t go extinct in the age of Google Docs. Today is his first day on the job at Uber, where he’ll work under VP and head of product Daniel Graf on every bit of design Uber touches. That ranges from the rider app, to the physical spaces Uber drivers gather in cities, to even, perhaps, the autonomous vehicles being developed by the company.

Gough credits his background as an architect for attracting him to the challenges Uber is facing today. “When I was an architect, I mostly focused on urban design, and there are half a dozen key things that shape cities. One of them is transportation, and another is economy,” says Gough. “Uber is making radical changes to [both]. So over time, they’re going to reshape cities. Cities are going to become more efficient. And I think that it’s actually going to be more comfortable and beautiful. That’s a really abstract notion and we could talk about it for hours, but just this idea that there’s a physical world, and it’s being manipulated by tech in positive ways, is just super, super enticing to me.”

[Image: Uber]
The urban legacy of ride sharing is still being written. These services have increased traffic and spurred a freelance economy where workers have fewer rights; they’ve also become so vital to city transportation that some public services see them as partners. Some planners are already imagining how streets themselves will be reshaped to support ride sharing, and some of their visions really are, as Gough puts it, “beautiful.”

One thing is certain: The future of Uber itself is far from determined, and Gough and Graf will face countless design decisions that will determine it. For instance, how will its app rebuild rider trust that was lost after revelations about its privacy and security practices? How will it change the driver’s-side UX that keeps them working longer and for less money than they’d like? How will Uber proactively participate in the shaping of streets across the world? How will it solve serious accessibility issues like wheelchair access?

To make matters more complex, Uber must address these issues at scale–playing out in 10 million rides a day in cities across the globe. “On the PR side, it hasn’t always been easy this year. The funny thing is, some of our best new talent joined over in the last few months,” says Graf. “Clearly, what we’re working on is just . . . it’s so defining for our generation. And Michael is the latest, absolute phenomenal addition to the team.” Indeed. And like everyone else at Uber, Gough certainly has his work cut out for himself.

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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