The man who heads Design at Uber drives one too - Didier Hilhorst, Director of Product Design, Uber

14th Feb 2018
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In an interaction with YourStory, Didier Hilhorst, Director of Product Design, Uber, talks about going from economics to design, designing for Uber, and understanding that design is about finding the balance between the digital and physical worlds. 

“I have done over 32 trips in a year and I think I have a five-star rating,” says Didier Hilhorst, Director of Product Design at Uber. Sitting at a bustling Starbucks cafe in Bengaluru, Didier talks about everything to YourStory – from driving design at Uber to driving an Uber.

Didier, who’s currently in India to understand the market and for a design community meet-up, is more than upfront about the challenges and issues Uber faces in India. “We all know pickup can be frustrating, especially here,” Didier says.

He goes on to elaborate with a personal experience of cancellations and location mixups. But Didier believes that is the beauty of Uber, to get past the hiccups and grow.

“You can’t be a global company without understanding the dynamics of every market and every city,” Didier says.

Small steps, giant shifts

It was through the data the team collected that Uber realised that most cancellations happen because of wrong pickup points.

“By adding a small thing like asking people if they want to change or confirm their pickup location you reduce the percentage of cancellations and the impact it has on the overall economics,” he says.

At Uber’s scale, small pushes can possibly save millions. While not everything is quantifiable, most design changes bring in a lot of data and transaction benefits. An accidental interactive designer and the son of linguists, Didier says, “I have a French first name and a Dutch last name.”

Didier, 37 years old now, was born in The Netherlands and raised in Luxembourg.

“As a teenager, I drew a lot. Cartoons and cars, especially cars, because I was obsessed with them,” he says. It was this obsession and love for cars that got Didier his brand new high-end luxury car, which he has also been using as an Uber cab for a year now.

Within a year of riding a cab, Didier has written documents – about the different kinds of passengers, rider behaviour, and driver psychology and needs. “It is easy to understand what the rider wants. All we need to do is a book a ride, but then designing for a driver and rider is different,” Didier says.

Didier Hilhorst, Director Product Design, Uber

Driving for Uber 

While a driver spends anywhere between 7-12 hours on the app, the rider on an average uses the app only between 30 seconds to 2 minutes. So one fine day, Didier took his brand new car to be inspected and on-boarded as an Uber driver.

“When they said the car needed to be inspected, I was like ‘the car is brand new’. I went through the whole process and I got nervous. The first riders were Swedish tourists in San Francisco,” Didier says.

From couples, passengers, and bad riders to tourists and travellers, Didier has seen them all across his 32 rides. He believes this has given him deeper insight into consumer behaviour - both the rider and driver. Didier emphatically states that there have been times he wanted to cancel a ride!

He speaks about how the industry is “shifting really quickly” and has a “significant impact on society, infrastructure and even government”. “The speed is exciting. It is like jumping on a moving train and helping people get on every time. But it is important that when you are moving at a certain speed, you also deliver a quality product,” Didier says.

Citing an example, he says if the Facebook page doesn't load fast, the user just comes back again. On the other hand, if an Uber takes longer or cancels a ride when you are getting home late at night, it’s a problem.

Piloting a different career path 

Through our entire conversation, the bespectacled man displays the enthusiasm and energy of someone who believes everything new in the world is “super-exciting”. The excitement is on unabashed display when he explains how he once aspired to be a pilot.

“When you're a 17-year-old boy, you want to do something exciting and the idea of being a pilot seemed lucrative. But I was completely unsuited to be a pilot. I couldn't really follow instructions,” says Didier with his ready smile.

In hindsight, it seemed that Didier was best suited to work in a startup, where rules aren’t set but made and broken every few months. It after getting an economics degree and working in a bank that Didier looked closely at design as a career option.

It was in 1998, during the first dotcom boom, that Didier built his first website. Didier was first introduced to the computer in 1996, during the old modem dial-up days. “For me it was a way to channel and express my drawing ability,” he says.

While the dotcom boom wasn't as big as it was in the US, Europe wasn't far behind. Learning everything about design, HTML, Flash, CSS, and every bit of software needed to build a website - on his own, Didier built his first website for 1,000 guilders, which today roughly translates to 454 euros.

“I burnt the midnight oil learning everything. It was fun, but I never thought of it as a serious job,” explains the man, who led the design at Flipboard, the digital magazine for close to five years.

Banking on design

However, since his family background was academia, it wasn't a surprise that Didier chose economics as a career. Also, Luxembourg being a banking centre helped. But after three months at ABN-AMRO, Didier knew banking wasn’t for him.

The economics graduate from Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Didier defines his very short stint in banking as uninspiring. “ I had the image of screaming at the floors of Wall Street, and a jet-set lifestyle. But I was sitting in a room staring at two monitors. It completely busted my dream,” Didier explains with a sheepish grin.

Still unsure of what he needed to do next, Didier went back to grad school, and did a course in business management. It was here that he got the much-needed nudge to seriously consider design as a career opportunity.

During a conversation with people studying psychology and game negotiations, a friend told Didier: “If you don't do what you love, you’ll be mediocre at best. Maybe you will be good but on the tail-end you will always end up being mediocre because you aren't passionate about what you are doing.”

This got Didier thinking. It is then that he began to seriously look at design as a career opportunity.

“I had learnt most of the skills myself and I was insecure about my skill level in general,” Didier says. He began researching different design schools and closed in on a design school in Italy. While his parents were supportive, they were adamant he finish his course.

“In hindsight, a course in economics and later in business helped me understand things better, especially here at Uber,” Didier says.

In Italy, Didier met people of different skillsets and backgrounds.

The pivotal moment 

It was while here that Didier got a call from design consultancy firm IDEO, which worked with top valley startups like Apple. Didier says it was the firm that built the Apple mouse.

“I was super-excited and signed on the spot. And in 2006, I got my H1B visa to come to the US. Since then, there has been no looking back,” he says.

Things started moving the year Didier came to the US with the launch of the iPhone and then the app store.

“That’s when my career shifted. Going from websites, we soon had to shift to a mobile device. Everything was on that tiny screen and world. And to think of it, with GPS, audio recording, and internet, it all enabled the ability for several new-age companies to be born, including Uber,” Didier says.

Didier went on to work with different startups, and finally joined Flipboard. “It’s one of the first digital magazines with design at the forefront. People loved and still love it because of its design. By now the iPhones and app stores were out, and it was about making design more interactive and understanding how design behaves,” Didier says.

He explains that connectivity and location are extremely important in terms of how one chooses to design for products. And it is this learning that Uber uses. It was this dynamism and speed at which things change at Uber that excited Didier about the company.

Today, according to Didier, the biggest challenge is to find the balance between digital and physical world communications. Whether it is booking a cab or shopping online, there is an interplay between the digital world and the real world. Not everything is 100 percent digital.

“As designers, we need to find the middle ground. There’s always an engineering solution for everything, but is that the right solution? Designers have the ability to bring in the empathy needed to the product through engineers and product managers,” Didier says.

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