Uber surge pricing: no, some users still don’t get it

Last month, before the holiday break, I wrote about how sometimes what a PM believes is a common UI convention really isn’t understood by everyone. The lesson I learned was that as a PM is that if some users don’t understand how that feature works, don’t blame them. Rather, adjust the design.

Interestingly enough, a tweet this morning by Christopher Mims on users’ understanding of Uber’s surge pricing seems to point to a similar issue.

Responses were cynical. Some released Uber from the obligation to have users understand that their product is expensive…

… and others belaboring the fact that users can’t do “simple math.”

Uber's surge agreement process. Source: Uber

Uber’s surge agreement process.
Source: Uber

Uber seems to think that its surge pricing is clear and agrees that “Surge Pricing shouldn’t be a surprise.” Yet every New Year’s Eve in the last few years brings similar surge complaints. Is Uber doing enough to make users aware of the surge amount? In its New Year’s Eve post from two years ago Uber explains the process:

  • You’ll always be notified in BIG, BOLD print if surge pricing is in effect
  • The surge confirmation screen requires you to type in the surge multiplier to make sure you know what to expect.

Uber’s process reveals the problem: users are not given the exact fare they will pay before they agree to a ride. They are not making a decision of whether to take a $30 cab ride vs a $500 Uber, they are making a choice to agree to a certain surge multiplier, which is a much vaguer decision. Confirming the multiplier is far from agreeing to a final fare in the hundreds of dollars. Granted, Uber’s interests might lie in obfuscating the real price but, perhaps naively, I am not entirely sure that is the case. After all, Uber is reaching the point of widespread adoption and is trying to massively expand its user base. These stories about $1000+ fares cannot be helping.

Finally, going back to Mr Mims comment: Uber does need to realize that users are making a choice that they would not otherwise make. The surge pricing confirmation process is not working the way it needs to for these users to make the choice that is right for them. Instead of confirming the surge multiplier, perhaps offer a price range for the user’s desired route and make that range part of the agreement. Perhaps require users to agree to an actual dollar amount as a fare limit. Something like “this ride to Brooklyn can cost up to $400. Enter your expected fare to continue.” Either way, or with another implementation, the first step is admitting that the current surge agreement process isn’t working for a subset of users and to change it to one that will.

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