Grab’s acquisition of Uber’s Southeast Asian operations makes it the clear ride-hailing leader in many Southeast Asian countries.
Whether this is good for users and riders is still an open question. A scan of Grab’s Facebook page, however, reveals a myriad of complaints about its services. Is this inevitable given Grab’s size? Or is this abnormal?
As a designer myself, I’ll analyze Grab’s app from a product perspective to shed light on the issue.
By looking at the good and bad design decisions in Grab’s product, we can also get a glimpse of what it’s like for Grab to be the dominant player. The downsides of Grab’s app design (some of which are deliberate) can have serious implications in the absence of strong competitors.
The good: Context-aware design
Let’s start with one bright spot. Grab has a great context-aware design, which means it displays the right kind of information at the right time.
For instance, when your driver is arriving, the app enlarges your driver’s license plate number and renders it in a font that resembles a car’s number plate:
This neat design makes it easier for riders to spot their drivers.
The bad: Unpolished aesthetics
From an aesthetics standpoint, Grab’s app experience may be inferior to Uber. Uber’s focus on sleek animations and eye-catching graphics have created a smooth ride-hailing experience.
Just look at Uber’s polished loading animation, which is distilled directly from the dreams of designers:
Now compare it with Grab’s:
Uber’s exceptional level of detail means that small things, such as its “rider compliments” icon set, are also well illustrated:
But does aesthetics really matter that much? After all, Uber did lose to Grab.
The short answer is yes. You see, aesthetics has a subtle effect on users’ tolerance of other shortfalls in the user experience. Named the aesthetic-usability effect, it refers to how users are more tolerant of minor usability issues in visually appealing interfaces. This means that when Grab’s frustrated users deal with other in-app design problems, the subpar aesthetics can have a multiplier effect.
Nonetheless, Grab’s aesthetics is an improvement from before. The latest app revamp appears to be focused on the basics of making the interface cleaner and simpler without adding clutter. This could allow it to make room for services that it will introduce in the future.
The bad: Difficulty in getting a ride
If you’re a Grab user, this screen can be frustratingly familiar:
Finding a Grab ride can be challenging. The reason: Grab shows its drivers your destination even before they accept your ride. This means that drivers get to pick their rides. Uber, on the other hand, only shows its drivers your destination after they’ve accepted your request. This is why you may be more likely to get a ride on the latter rather than on the former.
Naturally, Grab drivers will choose convenient and central pickup points over far-flung places and longer journeys over short trips. This creates a supply imbalance, which was one of the many problems with the taxi industry before it was disrupted by ride-sharing apps. This design decision- to allow drivers to see a rider’s destination- risks reverting the industry to its pre-Uber days.
This could be bad for everyone. Because drivers can pick their rides, they’re more likely to select centrally located riders who want to go somewhere far in order to maximize convenience and profits. So, riders in distant locations suffer from a poor supply of drivers. And if riders cannot consistently get rides from the app, its reliability drops – this will eventually affect the demand and revenue of Grab and its drivers.
A number of solutions have been implemented, though. Grab Philippines has rolled out a feature that disallows some drivers from seeing the riders’ destinations before accepting a ride. However, there’s no word yet on whether this will be implemented to other markets.
The company has been using performance-based rewards for drivers, who are given incentives for maintaining a high acceptance rate and a low cancellation rate. Drivers are penalized with higher commissions for a week for falling below minimum standards. Top-performing ones are prioritized in bookings.
While these measures are a good start, we’ll have to see if they can satisfy the bulk of users out there.
The bad: Lack of transparency about surge pricing
Grab implements surge pricing when demand is high, just like Uber did. Riders who are willing to pay the higher fares will get a ride, while others can wait till the demand cools off.
The problem? Grab’s design isn’t entirely transparent about its surge pricing.
When demand is high, the app highlights it with a red chevron (in an earlier design, there’s an even more prominent pink bar which has since been removed). This is good, but if you want to learn more about the increase in fares, you’re out of luck. Grab doesn’t share how much prices have surged, which complicates riders’ decision-making. After all, a 1.5x surge is drastically different from a 3x surge and will elicit a different decision.
This is drastically different from Uber’s (old) design, which clearly shows you the amount of surge in fares, and also requires you to acknowledge the multiplier effect before you book your ride.
Of course, Uber has since dropped this design and now displays even less information than Grab does when prices surge. But the point remains that riders need to know how much prices have risen in order to make informed choices about their rides. Grab’s design lacks transparency, which could be detrimental to its users.
Putting it all together
The examples of bad design in Grab’s app might seem trivial. You’re still able to book a ride, right? But here’s the thing: context changes everything. Grab’s dominance could multiply the negative effects of its bad design choices.
Picture this: It’s 2019 and Grab is officially a monopoly in Singapore, despite the entry of Go-Jek and Comfort’s attempted resurgence. You’re in a relatively un-centralized location in Singapore, and you desperately need a ride. You open the app and key in your destination. The app loads and it tells you that “fares are higher due to high demand.”
The fare is a whopping S$36. It sounds like a steep price, but you can’t be sure. You try to find out more, but the app denies you any additional information. Since you’re short on time, you decide to take the ride. You tap the green “book” button, and you wait… and wait. Five minutes later, there’s an error message: you’re unable to get a ride.
You close the app to try Uber instead. Halfway through swiping your screen, you realize that Uber is no more. You’ve just spent 10 minutes booking a ride, and there’s no decent alternative.
I want to point out that Uber is no saint. In fact, when it comes to unethical design, Uber reigns supreme. But up until a few months ago, it had always been a major player in Southeast Asian ride-hailing. Any app’s shortfalls are tolerable when you can easily switch to a competitor.
This is why it’s important to highlight the faults that serve to shift power away from users and toward Grab or its drivers.
Cheryl Goh, Grab’s group vice president of marketing, recently spoke at the Tech in Asia Singapore 2018 conference. In the session, Goh remarked that a post-merger Grab would entail greater responsibility and that the company was committed to doing right by the people its serves. Pointing to its micro financing initiatives, she spoke passionately about Grab’s mission to bring about positive social change.
In line with this mission, the company can perhaps focus its efforts on removing some user-hostile elements of its app’s design. More transparency and more user control could be ways to achieve better and happier rides.
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