When Frank Yoo assembled his small team in a boardroom to come up with a new product, he had no idea that he would transform not only a company, but also an entire industry.
Yoo is a Director of Design at Lyft, the popular ridesharing app that, along with Uber, has become synonymous with ride sharing. Under his direction, the design team has grown from one and a half to 50. Looking back, his career path is one of success after success, a fact that he’s humbled about to this day.
After cutting his teeth at Yahoo and a stint with a Pre-IPO LinkedIn, Yoo yearned for something smaller and scrappier. He wanted to join a team huddled in a sweaty little room, building something from the ground up — the true startup experience. Luckily, through an acquaintance, Yoo was offered a role with a small scrappy startup called Zimride to help form their mobile solution. He got exactly what he asked for — at least for a while.
“We had no idea that it was going to take off”, Yoo says with a laugh as he chats with MUX (Mobile UX Awards) founder Alan Nowogrodski over Skype from his San Francisco office.
Around 2012, Zimride was a web-based dashboard to book seats for long distance rides. Most customers at that time were universities and other similar institutions that needed to book rides for their constituents. Zimride was only beginning to consider the greater public market and the potential of peer-to-peer.
Although Yoo was hired to create a compelling mobile product, he found it difficult to gain traction.
“When you’re scheduling rides weeks in advance,” Yoo explains, “you don’t really need it to be an ‘at your fingertips’ kind of mobile experience.”
At a crossroads, Yoo’s team took an experimental approach and used hackathons and design sprints to explore new ways to bring their expertise in peer-to-peer and apply it to a new, meaningful line of business.
After considering a few ways to improve long-distance ride sharing — social media and gamification among them — Yoo’s team touched on something intriguing: cross-town commutes & weekend nights.
“So we thought, why not take peer to peer, which is something we were experts in, and apply it to that?”
With this newfound inspiration, Yoo assembled a team made up of a handful of engineers, a designer and the company’s co-founders. The plan was to be as scrappy as possible.
“We locked ourselves into the conference room and kind of cranked this thing out,” recalls Yoo.
The product, then called Zimride Instant, was intended to act as companion offering to their core web-based platform. Yoo’s team had little idea that in the process they would reinvent the company. Rather, the absence of pressure was simply liberating.
“We felt that we had a bit of freedom to experiment,” Yoo says. “It was pretty low risk, we weren’t super huge at the time, and we had a small team invested in it. The idea was to get it out there and see if we get traction.”
When Zimride Instant was unveiled, demand was off the charts.
“It was nuts.” Yoo laughs.
The outcome was almost too good, and “anti-growth hacks” were required to slow the demand to a manageable level.
“We instituted a passenger phasing throttle,” Yoo explains. “We used a wait list to reduce the demand, which seems a bit crazy, but the angle there was ‘what can we do to keep our most loyal users happy and new users wouldn’t yet know what they were missing?’”
Keep it Simple
The experiment was successful, and Zimride Instant — soon to be renamed to Lyft — became the wildly popular ride sharing app that it is today. Part of the success, says Yoo, could be boiled down to the simplicity of the mobile app.
“It was literally one tap to kick off a request,” he recalls.
Yoo’s approach was to keep the user experience uncomplicated, so that users could become accustomed to the core experience of easily hailing a car before being introduced to new functionality.
Beneath the simple exterior, however, was a product of increasing depth and innovation that would open up new opportunities for scaling the company.
“We locked ourselves into the conference room and kind of cranked this thing out.”
Today, Lyft is now a much larger company, but the experimental DNA remains. With a robust set of tools, a massive user-base and access to tons of data, Yoo’s team is able to quickly experiment in order to make small pivots and adjustments that lead to bigger change.
One example of Lyft’s continued experimental mindset can be traced back to 2015, when the Lyft team started seeing a number of requests coming from a random city in New York state. However, the rides were not originating from that city, but somewhere in Manhattan. Not only that, but the requests were coming from only a few accounts, generating a lot of rides a good distance away from where the actual requests were originating from. Yoo’s team was determined to find out why.
Upon investigation, the team found out the rides were being ordered from a third party dispatch company for medical transportation. They were hailing rides for their constituents, typically elderly people without smartphones that had to get to and from their doctor appointments. But why not use their own fleet? Why Lyft?
Talking with the company led to an interesting insight. When the company’s own fleet was unavailable, Lyft was the prefered option to the typically unreliable taxis. For example, in the event an elderly customer needed to get to an appointment, and no car was available, the dispatcher would hail a Lyft on their customer’s behalf, using their own mobile device from miles away.
This was a huge revelation for Yoo’s team.
“We’re like ‘oh my gosh, we can build something so much better for you that would very much align with this sort of third party dispatch’”
And so was born a brand new line of business, Lyft Concierge.
Design at Lyft
From the humble beginnings in a boardroom, the design team’s approach has become an integral component of Lyft’s sustained success.
“We have a user centered approach where we go out, talk to our users and observe them,” Yoo says. “This helps us really understand what their pain points are, which greatly influences our road map.”
By understanding not only what their customers need, but also the unique characteristics of the cities that Lyft operates within, there is enormous potential in the future for Lyft. They’re only just getting started. And Frank Yoo, wandering into that sweaty startup, had little notion that the experimental ethos he would bring would form the DNA of one of the biggest of startup success stories.
But more than anything, Yoo is happy to be working at a company that he loves, and for a mission he believes in.
“It’s been the opportunity of a lifetime. In terms of my career, I couldn’t have asked for something more fulfilling and challenging and with working on amazing product, with incredible people and customers. It’s been kind of a dream.”
His one quibble?
Yoo pauses. “I hated the name Zimride,” he replies, laughing.