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Lyft Poaches Design VP From Airbnb, With Eyes On Autonomous Cabs

Two months ago, Oculus poached Lyft’s vice president of design. Today Lyft is announcing an intriguing replacement: Katie Dill, former head of experience design at Airbnb.

Lyft Poaches Design VP From Airbnb, With Eyes On Autonomous Cabs
[Photo: courtesy of Lyft]

Two months ago, Oculus poached Lyft’s vice president of design. Today Lyft is announcing an intriguing replacement: Katie Dill, former head of experience design at Airbnb.

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The move comes at a pivotal time for Lyft. Just a year ago, the company seemed ready to be flattened by Uber’s deeper cash reserves and merciless business tactics. Things have changed. Uber has lurched from one scandal to another, losing customers along the way. Perhaps the biggest threat to its aspirations is a lawsuit from Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car division, which alleges that Uber stole critical trade secrets. In the meantime, Lyft has gained by comparison. Not only is it partnering with both Waymo and Ford to develop autonomous cabs, it has just received a $1 billion investment from Google. Lyft seems to have every piece in place to launch a self-driving service.

Dill was eager to play a role in the race for the future of ride sharing. “When you look at ride sharing and autonomous vehicles, you can imagine a world in which cities aren’t designed around parking spaces, but rather built around people,” she tells Co.Design. “Helping that come true is pretty exciting.” She believes that her own transition from home sharing to ride sharing will be relatively fluid, because of how similar the companies are in both culture and mission. Airbnb and Lyft are just a few blocks away from each other, and share a reputation for a homey vibe and emphasis on community. They both see themselves as being in the hospitality business. For Lyft, hospitality may prove to be a winning edge in the war for transportation’s next phase.

Can Community-Building Help Define Self-Driving Cabs?

“I think [Lyft and Airbnb] are solving similar problems. It’s about changing behavior,” points out Dill. “Lyft is hoping to disrupt transportation through a hospitality lens.” That came to the company organically: Lyft’s co-founder, John Zimmer, actually studied hotel administration in college. When Uber was playing the heavy, Lyft’s warm-and-fuzzy branding made it seem more approachable and less douche-y. Where Uber emphasized that it was “everyone’s private driver”—an idea that evoked the 1%—Lyft was all about pink mustaches and fist bumps. They even used to ask riders to sit up front with the driver, so that people would talk.

To some including myself, that funkiness seemed forced and even off-putting. But this long-held focus on community building may prove an asset that Uber can’t match. Dill points out that ride shares are still less than 1% of miles driven. “To make ride sharing a norm, you have to bring the personality of the company forward,” she says. “People are loyal to companies that do that. It’s about content and words and look and feel, how we inform and educate and how we build a relationship.”

What seems to have made Dill an attractive hire to Lyft is in her experience scaling Airbnb’s design team from 10 to 100. Currently, Dill says, Lyft’s team is about the size of Airbnb’s two years ago. “As you grow, you need to constantly update how you do things. The challenge is balancing near-term and long-term thinking,” adds Dill. “That means not just looking at everyday product, but looking at autonomous [vehicles].”

It seems likely that Lyft’s design corps won’t merely be adding more screen designers as it grows. Community building and service design may prove pivotal with autonomous cabs. There are still looming questions about how people will behave when no one is driving: Does the experience of sharing a cab then become like sitting around in a waiting room, minding your own business? Or could it become something else? What are the rules of sharing close quarters during a commute? Lyft might see itself as something more like the concierge at a hotel, but will it turn out to be more like a subway operator—invisible and anonymous?

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Waymo and Ford will certainly be able to help Lyft figure out the gnarly issues of human-computer interaction—namely, how the cars themselves will be user-friendly. But Lyft’s role would presumably be to make that experience into one that’s differentiated enough that someone would rather choose Lyft. I asked Dill if Lyft is already prototyping how these interactions might go, and how it might nudge the culture inside of an autonomous vehicle. She demurs. “I agree these are all things that need to be thought about,” she says. “The world hasn’t seen this yet, and anyone working in this space has a lot of work ahead of them for sure.”

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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