Uber: Blind and Visually Impaired Riders
At the beginning, I thought I was conducting research into the transportation experiences of blind people. I soon realized, though, that I was actually investigating how blind people try to live independent lives, and what obstacles stand in their way.
- Uber had almost no understanding of the transportation needs of blind people, including how many blind riders were already using their platform
- Uber’s services work poorly for blind riders, due to factors like inconsistent accessibility coding, difficulty finding their rides, and discrimination from drivers
- But ridesharing can be life-changing for blind people, and with an estimated 217 million people worldwide with visual disabilities, Uber was motivated to improve their service
- Semi-structured interviews with 15 blind or visually-impaired riders and 5 drivers
- Ride-alongs with BVI participants, including Uber, Lyft, fixed-route transit (city bus), and paratransit
- Heuristic evaluation of the Uber app usability with VoiceOver
- Statistical scoping of the context (how many blind riders use Uber, and how frequently?)
- Participant phonography: collaborative recording sessions to understand how BVI participants use sound to wayfind
Analysis and Key Findings
The Uber App Experience
Uber’s app, as it existed when I began my work, had numerous oversights and errors in screen reader coding, and its overall design made it challenging for blind riders to use.
For example, the pick-up screen was very carefully designed to help sighted users find the information they need: estimated time of arrival, route of the car, real time updates on a map, identifying information of the driver and car. However, only the ETA was available to blind riders.
I argued that an inclusive design solution to this problem would not require any changes to the existing visual design. All that needs to be done is to include the information that would most help blind users (based on my research): distance of the car from the pick-up point and the direction that it will arrive from. For example, the VoiceOver for the screen to the left would say, “ETA is 3 minutes. Car is point two five miles away and will arrive from the left.”
The Real-World Uber Experience
Blind riders experience unique problems in the real world portion of the Uber experience, such as heightened difficulty locating their car and discrimination from drivers. I heard numerous stories about being denied service because of a driver refusing to take a service dog in their car, and one interviewee even told me that her decision to not get a dog was primarily because of her fear that she would be denied rides because of the dog.
Service dog denials were a known problem before I began my research. Uber had been sued by the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 because drivers were refusing to take service dogs in their cars—a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Uber and the NFB settled the suit and instituted stricter regulations, but solving this problem has been very challenging. My research revealed that even blind people without dogs had personal stories about service dog denials, and I did not meet a single person with a dog who had not experienced repeated denials of service.
I recommended further research to understand the problem, since there is very little actual evidence about why drivers refuse to take dogs in their car, even knowing that they can be booted from Uber as a result. In addition, I proposed that Uber improve their customer service to help riders find a new ride immediately. After all, they may get a refund and compensation after a few days, but that doesn’t help when they are standing on the street corner needing to get somewhere now.
The Blind Rider’s Journey
My research indicated that blind riders have the same main phases to their journey as sighted riders, but that the pain points are often different or heightened. For instance, the pick-up is hard for everyone, but it is acutely so for blind riders who are given information that requires sight. Also, the drop-off is a point of relaxation or relief for most riders, but for blind riders, it is the start of another phase of the trip where they must wayfind from the place where the car let them off to the place they are actually trying to go.
- Usability is only the beginning. As a result of my research, a large number of flaws in the VoiceOver interface were fixed, and a more rigorous testing protocol implemented.
- Accessibility is everyone’s problem. Uber now has an accessibility working group and a more structured training program to ensure accessibility is a regular part of design and development procedures.
- Collaboration is essential. Uber is beta testing and piloting features to address the unique needs of disabled users, such as the wayfinding challenges of blind riders that extend beyond the journey of the sighted user.