The Indian techie behind some of Uber’s best innovations

Back to the roots.
Back to the roots.
Image: Vatsala Goel for Studio Bonsai
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Behind the phenomenal rise of one of the world’s most valued tech startups is Indian brains.

India’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru, is home to cab-hailing firm Uber’s Global Access design team, which is responsible for shaping its rider experience in Latin America, west Asia, Africa, and India. Among the many key ideas created by this team are Uber’s decision to start accepting cash in India and Uber Lite, the pared-down version of the main app for emerging markets.

Design lead Srikanth Jalasutram, a mechanical engineering graduate from Chennai’s Anna University who also holds a master’s degree from Georgia Tech, heads the Global Access design team. He joined Uber in December 2015 after four years at companies like American wearable products firm, Jawbone, and technology and financial services giant, General Electric.

“Along the way, I’ve experienced how design works at different scales and led design teams to innovate on new products,” the 33-year-old said.

In a conversation with Quartz, Jalasutram spoke about drawing inspiration from everyday life and Indian idiosyncrasies. Edited excerpts:

How did you get to Uber?

One of my designer friends connected me to the international growth team tasked with launching Uber in China and India. When I heard some of the challenges they were tackling from an infrastructural and social perspective in both countries, it really piqued my interest because they are deep design problems. And I loved that challenge. Also, I am a transportation-transit nerd, so I jumped at the opportunity to work in this category.

How has your role evolved?

When I joined, my role was to help Uber launch in these markets [China and India] by adapting our products to local needs as quickly as possible. It was a very tactical role within a small team of pioneers. Over time, as Uber has grown and established itself across the world, I help my team define a longer-term vision. It’s less about designing for a particular region and more about serving a global community of riders and drivers.

As the design lead, my job is threefold: First, to define the key goals of the product we’re building. I spend significant time learning about our users either by visiting them in their homes and offices or meeting them at malls, railway stations, airports, and other places they use Uber. Back at the studio, we work with engineers to create features and products to solve their issues. Second is to be a champion for design excellence. Third, and arguably the most important, is to provide mentorship to young designers so they can do their best work.

Could you share some India-specific innovations led by you and your team? 

In the past, my team led the development of features like cash payments, and requesting rides for family and friends—these were born and built in India, inspired by the behaviour of our rider and driver community, and have now been exported across the world.

The latest example is Lite. You might have observed how typical ride-sharing apps are centered around a map. You are asked to drop a pin or search to communicate your location. Our research uncovered that most riders in India actually found the map to be cumbersome to use, especially on a slow network. Instead, they were relying on scanning their surroundings for nearby landmarks to communicate to drivers. Similarly, typing and searching for long addresses is really impractical.

Looking at both of these issues, we decided very early on to make two significant changes.

First, we put landmarks at the centre of our app instead of a map. Second, we designed the entire app to prioritise tapping over typing. We surface smart suggestions even before you start searching and also remember your choices for the next time.

How do your Indian roots help you?

When I was growing up, I had very little exposure to design. But at home, I constantly saw my father, a mechanical engineer, draw, sketch, and build things. He loved to tinker with electronics and take things apart. And I was his helper, handing him tools and fetching parts and watching him at every step. In a way, he was the first designer I ever saw in my life without realising it.

Also, my family and I have moved around a lot. That allowed me to experience different cultures, languages, try different foods, and literally see how different people could be. There really is nothing like travel to open your mind.

Now when I am designing for emerging markets, I try to bring this broader view of the world to the table. For example, when we were building Lite, our goal was to make using Uber comfortable for someone who wasn’t a native English speaker. Because we saw that sometimes language was a barrier to using the app. One of our core design principles is in fact “In my language, at my pace.”

What is the most challenging part of your job?

As a creative person, I am excited by new ideas and interesting ways to solve a particular problem. But as I mature as a designer, I’ve realised that actually there are no truly new ideas, just new interpretations in a constantly evolving world. But to interpret something in a new way, you need to have a keen sense of observation and the sensitivity and openness to alternative viewpoints—and that’s my challenge. It is in keeping that sensitivity alive because that’s what lets me be creative.

Who is your role model?

As a designer, my role model is actually the late Italian designer, Massimo Vignelli, best known for his work on New York City Subway signage. His life really exemplified his own quote, “If you can design one thing, you can design everything.” His work had an extraordinary level of intellectual depth and timelessness.

What is your next career goal?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a diverse design career so far and I am open to new challenges. At this moment I am super excited by the challenge at hand which is to make Uber work better for everyone. Our team’s goal is “Anyone Can Uber” and I am happy to play a small part in getting mobility to the masses.