Business and politics tend to make uneasy bedfellows, but in these divisive times, even businesses that have historically stayed out of hot-button issues are coming off the sidelines. In this episode: An online florist tells racists to shop elsewhere; Basecamp stops reimbursing employees for Uber rides; and a Chicago couple creates a lighthearted product with a serious message about the treatment of female bodies.
It’s hard to predict exactly how much pressure is needed to affect change, but it’s clear to see when there is enough. And there was finally enough to flush out Uber’s CEO.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Kalanick didn’t get the boot because Uber’s board had some ethical epiphany. They presided over his misdeeds for years. Fat, golden years steered by toxic leadership and fueled by depraved acts.
Now greed has taken a backseat to fear. Fear that the pressure that once seemed so easy to ignore will suddenly drown them all. Flushing out the CEO goes from “impossible to even consider” to “impossible to avoid” in what seems no time at all.
On the board, it probably did look like “life comes at you fast”, but that’s only because they’ve been ignoring a dashboard full of warning lights for years. Blinded by those seventy billion dollar headlights.
When the gravity of the situation finally comes into focus, it’s all FOR GOD’S SAKE, DO SOMETHING! ANYTHING. ALL THE THINGS! RIGHT NOW, NO YESTERDAY! I ACTUALLY WANTED TO DO SOMETHING EARLIER, BUT, BUT, BUT…
No, it isn’t pretty, and it isn’t sincere, but it’s change. That’s what it looks like when the status quo gets a sucker punch from pent-up reality. It wasn’t going to happen any other way.
It’s easy to become jaded in this age of constant, social media outrage. To start thinking that none of it will ever matter. Because it doesn’t, as long as the levies hold. And then the final drop lands, and all of the sudden everything is different.
This is the social equivalent of an overnight success. The one that actually takes ten years to materialize. Uber’s fall didn’t just happen in 2017, it’s been years in the making. Susan Fowler’s expose was just the tipping point.
The important thing to note here is that we don’t actually need Uber’s board to have an ethical epiphany for things to get better. Do you think that United’s CEO suddenly came to realize the prudence of treating his passengers with a modicum of respect because he saw the light? Come on. United, like Uber hopefully will, changed its policies because they felt no choice.
This is how we improve matters. Once the survival of a company, or at least its reputation, hangs in the balance, all sorts of impossible things suddenly become possible.
Seems like there’s good reason to be outraged at outrageous corporate behavior every other week these days. From United’s brutal extraction of a passenger to Uber’s continued morass of unethical, illegal behavior. To be honest, it’s exhausting!
In large parts, this exhaustion stems from what the barrage of misdeeds is forcing us to consider all the time: Well, what are you going to do about it?
If you just do nothing, continue to buy the services and products of those who do wrong, you’re at least partially complicit, right? And if you take every opportunity to ban a company from your wallet because of every transgression, life quickly becomes complicated.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be so black and white. Maybe there’s room on the spectrum of judgment between “do nothing” and “ban them forever”. A place that’ll make it easier for us to just get on with our lives, while still sending a message that any manager accountable to the quarterly results will respect.
Let’s take the example of United. Absolutely vile behavior followed by an initial tone-deaf response by the CEO. High pressure and intensity well justified. But at least the company finally found an apologetic pitch that didn’t include egregious euphemisms for their concussion-inducing violence against a paying passenger. That’s a welcome progression, but some momentary embarrassment is probably not enough of a deterrent to encourage permanent, structural changes to their policies.
Then again, following the consolidation in American aviation, dumping United entirely and permanently is likely to be overly inconvenient for a lot of people. And perhaps it’s also a bit harsh, if they do come around to making proper amends with the poor doctor. So what if instead of condemning them to permanent exile from your travel plans, you just commit to taking the next three flights with another carrier.
You’ll suffer some temporary inconvenience, maybe some slightly higher prices, maybe a bit worse timing for travel, but you’ll know it won’t be forever. You’re teaching United an economic lesson that you can feel proud about, but you don’t need to permanently rearrange your life to do so.
That’s a practical sentence, maybe even a proportionate sentence, and one that, if followed by enough fellow travelers, is still going to send a loud and clear message that should motivate a rethink of booking policies at United.
The good thing about being practical about your corporate sentencing is that the odds of carrying out such a judgment probably look a lot better than the nuclear option of I’LL NEVER FLY UNITED AGAIN! I mean, I fully respect those who’re willing and able to commit to such a sentence, but I actually think something a little less severe is likely to have more takers and ultimately a bigger impact.
The other benefit is that it’ll keep the individual grudge plate from filling up with permanent sentences for transgressions of years past. There’s enough foul play happening every week that we simply can’t afford to have everyone’s corporate shit-list jam-packed with past offenders forever. Need to make room for the new ones!
If you take such a proportionate approach to punishing egregious corporate behavior most of the time, you’ll perhaps also leave room for the harsh, permanent sentence when that’s really called for. Like for a serial, unrepentant offender like Uber.
Here’s an idea to make it easier for the driver to identify who they’re picking up, and for the passenger to feel more confident that they’re being picked up by the right driver.
I’ve used Uber a lot. They’ve nailed so much of the process. Hailing, riding, paying, etc. But there’s one little important moment in the experience that feels neglected. So here’s a straightforward idea I put together that doesn’t require expensive hardware installations, retrofits, steep learning curves, or challenging adoption curves.
Ever call an Uber, wait outside for it to show up, and then you have to do this dance where you raise your hand or point your phone or do some sort of maneuver so the driver can identify you? It’s not a problem if they are picking you up at isolated location where you are clearly the only person standing around, but I live in Chicago and there are people standing around all over. So waiting for a car looks the same as waiting for the bus, waiting for a friend, waiting for the light to change, or just waiting.
The proposed solution
This problem of drivers and passengers being able to identify themselves at a fixed location has been solved long ago. Get off a plane, head to the baggage claim area, and you’ll see drivers holding up signs with people’s names. Like this:
However, in the case of Uber (or Lyft or…), the driver isn’t the one in the fixed position. You are. So rather than the driver holding a sign from within their car (which would obviously be hard to display and see), the passenger should be the one with the sign.
So here’s what I’d like to see happen. As the driver approaches, the Uber app switches from the map of the driver arriving, to a flashing Uber logo, alternating between black and white to attract enough attention. Then Uber tells you to hold your phone up so the driver will see you. Like this:
Now you’ve got your own sign that the driver can clearly see. Connection made! The driver sees you, and pulls right up. No more handwaving dance where the person across the street things you’re waiving at them, but really you’re just trying to flag down the driver who’s approaching.
Another version of the solution
Now, you might say “Well, what if there are a bunch of people waiting for an Uber at the same location?” Ah ha! Good question! This is what makes product design fun!
Here’s an idea. Rather than just flashing black and white, perhaps each passenger gets a color assigned randomly, but no two passengers in the same 500m would be assigned the same color at the same time. So then rather than just flash black and white, it flashes black and the color. Like this:
Then on the driver’s side, on their Uber app, it would show a purple block/dot/something that would let them know to look out for the passenger with the purple flashing logo. And if a driver was color blind, perhaps a big shape flashes as well. Or instead of the Uber logo, you could flash the first 4 letters of the person’s last name. Or… There are all sorts of other solutions that could be applied.
So, hey, please do this! Take it! It’ll make that last moment prior to pickup smoother, and less awkward. No more “You? Me? Wait, are you? Wait, me?” pointing back and forth through car windows. It would help a lot of passengers and drivers alike.
Note: I used Uber as an example, but the same thing applies to Lyft or any other ride hailing service.
Isn’t product design fun? Thinking through the little details like this? Identifying a problem and figuring out how to solve it? If you like this kind of thinking, check out Basecamp 3 — it’s full of great little details just like this.