David Seungjoo Baek

Listening to Your Voice on the Road

254 Days of Ethnographic Journey
to Explore the Actual Experience of Uber/Lyft Drivers

* Ethnography = a method to uncover the unknown experiences within specific surroundings and contexts.


Researcher    David Baek
Category        Independent Research
Duration        10 month (Mar 2017 - December 2017)

              To explore the experience of Uber / Lyft drivers and design improvement
Method          Ethnographic Qualitative (1st person + 3rd person view)
Keyword       Ride-sharing, Uber/Lyft, Driver, Sharing Economy, Ethnography

Advisor          Dr. Ruth Behar
Location        University of Michigan (Dept. of Cultural Anthropology)

1. Background
2. Introduction
3. Research & Interview Question
4. Research Process & Method
5. Findings : The Voice of You.
6. Limitation
7. My Takeaway & Design Concepts
8. Academic Reference

1. Background

The recent social phenomenon of ride-sharing (e.g., UBER / Lyft) is viewed as an outstanding creative economy practice that changed the previous socioeconomic structure as well as the way of our lives.

However, particularly on driver side, there are two different perspectives, at large:

1) Creative Labour: Many medias highlight their activity with the concepts of playful labour and creative work force that will contribute to advancing the conventional types and notion of occupation with opening a new era regarding human labour and liberation (Howkins, 2002; Florida, 2010).

2) Tactful Exploitation: Meanwhile, it is also argued that the emerging practice is a new type of tactful exploitation of the capitals (Slee, 2016).


But, these are the third party examinations about the ride-sharing phenomenon. Therefore, 

  • I prioritized to dive into "that field" where Ride-sharing social interaction takes place

  • to excavate the experience of ride-sharing drivers with an Ethnographic endeavor,

  • and to discover their experience harnessing both insider and outsider interpretation.

2. Introduction

This Ethnographic exploration aims to discover the real voice of ride-sharing drivers, including Uber and Lyft, on their own ground. For this goal, this study harnesses my auto-ethnographic experience while preparing for driver work, observation, and in-depth interview (Creswell & Poth, 2017).

At large, this journey has two research phases: insider's and outsider's view (Spradley, 2016). 

  • 1st person engagement (my preparation to work as a ride-sharing driver)

  • 3rd person approach (observation + in-depth Interview)

As a result, this exploration reveals 5 fundamental experiences of the ride-sharing drivers:

  • Seeking Profits while Working Liberated

  • Freedom in Thrall

  • Deeply-seated Loneliness in the Dynamic Working Environments

  • Desire to be Acknowledged & Humanized

  • Do Virtue for Future Rides

3. Research & Interview Question

Research Questions

The purpose of this research is to listen to the voices of Uber and Lyft drivers from their own grounds.
To do so, I firstly set research questions, and then interview questions.

       •    How do the drivers perceive themselves in the ride-sharing labour?

       •    What life changes did they encounter since working as driver?

       •    How do they perceive their interaction with passengers?

       •    How do they evaluate and position their identity in relation to the companies?

       •    How they think of UBER’s Human-Computer Interaction design in their working context?

Quantitative Questions

Within the research frame, I asked my participants the below interview question while conducting semi-structured in-depth interviews in rapport-formulated natural settings.

       •    What do you drive for your work?

       •    How long have you worked as a driver? (or How many hours do you work as a driver?)

       •    How many passengers do you meet on daily basis?

       •    Are you willing to recommend this occupation to someone else?


Qualitative Questions

       •    How do your family members think of your work as a ride-sharing driver?

       •    How do you think of the work of ride-sharing driver?

       •    Could you tell me how you got into this field?

       •    How do you feel when you meet diverse passenger while you drive the vehicle?

       •    How do you serve your passenger? Do you have your specific ways?

       •    What do you think the meaning of your company would be?

       •    How is your life changed since you started working as a driver?

       •    If you have any story with a passenger, could you share it with me?

       •    How do fell when you interact with UBER/Lyft application?

4. Process & Method

  • Duration : March to December, 2017

  • Methods : Ethnography, Self-engagement, Interview, Observation, Interpretation, and synthesis.

  • My Position : 1st Person Interpretation (Insider) + 3rd person Interpretation (Outsider) 
                          => 1.5th Hybrid Viewpoint



4.1. Repair the Vehicle and Ready for Uber Driver!

To work as a Uber/Lyft driver, I bought a used car with $5000 budget.

The purpose of this engagement is to acquire 1st person viewpoint in this research. By putting myself into wide range of diverse situations as if I were a ride-sharing driver, I lessened the gap between me and the actual driver (free variation).

With the best effort to haggle the price, I got a well-aged and cared Saab 9-3 and I repaired the vehicle together with my mechanic friends (Jarvis and Eguardo) while conducting this research. The whole process took around 2 months.

  • Engine & Transmission Flushing + Oil Change

  • Engine Ignition Plug and Wire Replacement

  • Turbo Charger Replacement

  • Timing Belt & Belt Tensioner Replacement

  • Drive Belt Replacement

  • Engine & Transmission Mount Replacement

  • Wheel Alignment

  • Final Detailing


The final process : Car Polish (Thanks to my friend Eguardo to allow me to use his tools and garage!)


5. Findings : The Voice of You.

Themes were generated as a result of the analysis of participants narratives, observation, field notes, and my in-vehicle conversation history with random drivers. This section will reveal the structure of qualitative data analysis, however, in a limited and brief way for three main reason.

1) As qualitative research method deeply explores participants' thought and emotion, the generated data must be thoroughly protected.  

2) The nature of Ethnographic writing contains a multi-layered information in a flow of researcher's interpretation, which causes reader in-depth attention and engagement in reading, in a lengthy time frame. 

3) Furthermore, the nature inherently and allusively contains sociopolitical ideologies in the narrative.

Therefore, this section shows the summary of the original Ethnographic report.


5.1. Brief Summary

In the beginning, my participants were strongly attracted to the metaphor of ride-sharing drive work as represented by the media: making extra money or making a living through work through as a liberated partner agent of ride-sharing companies. It is true that they perceive their freedom while doing the new type of creative labour.

But at the same time, they realize that it takes more efforts than they expected to survive in the fierce competition with other service providers (other drivers) and to make a sustainable profit. At this point, drivers question themselves if they made a right decision for their involvement in this field. 

While these ambivalent emotions to be made, they realise deeply-seated loneliness in the dynamic working environment and in their interaction with their passengers. However, they tend to accept their emotional status and nonchalantly ignore their exhausted inner voice. They do their best virtue for the passengers, because it is the only way to maintain the sustainable growth as a ride-sharing driver.


5.2. Qualitative Data Structure

1) Seeking Profits while Working Liberated

  • Firstly attracted to the ride-sharing work concept: work at anytime upon willingness. Particularly when it comes to making a secondary economic resource, it's a deal!

“I need to make extra money for my living, … I thought of many other part-time jobs such as in a restaurant or the like. But you know, anyhow such works need regular times investment. But UBER seemed different…”
  • What a great metaphor of ride-sharing driver on media!

"In the beginning, I was quite questionable for this kind of job. But after all, I could read some articles how ride-sharing driver makes money on media. And I asked some of my drivers and most of them seemed okay with the work ... I mean in terms of making money".


2) Freedom in Thrall

  • Yes I am free, but only when I spend so much time to monitor the market situation. 

“I think getting a job in a company seems much better sometimes. I actually thought about it sometimes. You have a regular income, and that makes a huge difference. You see that you are free (as a driver). Literally, it is true. But you have to put a lot of attention to other things to secure that freedom. As I said, we also spend lots of time for monitoring the market. Well, I don’t know, it is hard to say…”
"... for example, when the best time frame to get more ride call, where I should go in which time, what events take place out there... yeah, such a stuff. I have to check them again and again.


  • I am confused if I am really free in this work. I don't feel relieved many times.

“I am a graphic designer. I went to college to learn art back then, because I wanted to be free. However, I realized that working as an independent freelance designer did not guarantee enough money for living at all. And that’s why I started UBER as a part-time job. But I think this work requires me as much time investment as my original job (laugh)”.
"I normally turn off the radio, otherwise I miss a ride call. I even bring an extra phone for this job only, ... you know... what if someone call me when a customer ask for a ride request".
" ... what do I do while I am driving? (laughing) Well... keep my eyes on the application screen? (laughing) ..."


3) Deeply-seated Loneliness in the Dynamic Working Environments

  • A serial of loneliness while in practice, which is doubled when they find themselves situated in dynamic working conditions.

“Well, yeah … you pretty much spend all the time alone in your vehicle… that’s true. Even though we sometimes have some talk with passengers, the talk is very limit. It’s like, when you meet someone, you ask “how are you today?” I mean, the empty talk. Like that.…. The work of driving UBER is kind of war. You know what I am saying?”


  • To ride-sharing drivers, the field is a battlefield. Their nerves are split between two things: driving and smartphone notification: “being situated alone.”

"I think this is kind of war... well... invisible politics? (laugh) You work in an office and then you have politics there, but this one is different. I can not see the power dynamics at all. I am sitting in my car and watching the screen alone..."


  • Once get a ride request, just go and get them. Anyhow, by any means.

“You should move as fast as you can to get them. Otherwise you lose them. So, well… sometimes we do violate traffic signals or make a U-turn over the yellow line.”


  • Frequent ride cancelation, and surrounded by complicated feelings of disappointment, rejection, and reflective questions on their selves.

“I was on the way, I almost got there, but I couldn’t find her. So, I made a call to try to catch her, but in the meantime, I found that she canceled my ride... oh Gosh... what the... it happens quite a lot actually."


  • Blame themselves for passengers' cancelation, not the passenger : Voice of victimization.

“Some guys, once I press the button to accept the ride request, and then they suddenly cancel my ride. That also happened to some of my friends, and we talked about it before. There might be some reasons… but we guessed like… maybe our old vehicle, how we look (laugh), and the stars we got…?”
“I assume the reason in that way, because back then, when that happened to me, I found the passenger was sending one more ride request with the same destination, and I pressed the acceptance button, but she canceled it right away again. Our yes and no communication happened a couple of times then as I remember.”


  • Sitting in the quite and static vehicle, but passenger is in hurry to somewhere. And they look back on their life 

“These days people are so much in a rush in general. Some of them keep checking the Google Map on the rear seat while I am driving and asked me why I drive along the different route that the system recommends me to. They trust more on the computational system than my experience.”

4) Desire to be Acknowledged & Humanized

  • I help my passenger, it felt so good. But will I be remembered?

“… One day I got a ride request to U of M hospital emergency. I got to the spot and he was like … almost could not stand straight due to the cramping pain on his belly. I took him to the emergency unit. It felt so... good that I did help someone in needs. Well, but I am not so sure if he remembers me though".


  • Many passengers in my vehicle, and I remember them. 

 “I don’t know ... I do not remember if I got a good feedback from him or not. You know, the stars and feedback section on the application.”


  • Good talks make my day. I like it...

"Some talks were really good. One day I had a long distance ride, like an hour or so? ... Em ... well to Troy area up there you know. He was a professor at U of M, you know what? He was from my major department back then in 90s. We had really great talks over what was going on back then in the campus (laugh). Good old days man (laugh). No iPhone like these things though (laugh)".


  • Don't wanna be disconnected.

 “We normally do not see them again. Well maybe that can happen? It will be great?"
"I met one of my previous customer again, and he remembered me man! (laugh) And I did as well. It was quite weird but so fun (laugh)"


5) Do Virtue for Future Rides

Ride-sharing drivers, however, do not tend to reveal their mood to their customers, as they perceive ride-sharing drive work to be service-oriented. And one of the things they care about was the number of quantified stars that they receive from the passengers as a feedback. For this reason, they try to serve the customers with their own best manners. For example, some of them bring bottles of water, goodies, and smartphone chargers in their vehicles to provide them for their passengers. In P(1)'s case, P(1) used to offer such things before, but P(1) stopped the practice once he realized that those giving could arise some suspicions.

  • My being is made by numbers. And that's how they perceive me, and how they make me. 

“Stars rating is quite important to us. You know, it is all about showing your reputation made by my passenger, and it affects my future rides as well.”


  • My favor turned down. But, that's ok, it was just to get some more stars.

“I asked her if she needs some drinks and I handed a bottle of water. She looked at the bottle carefully first, but at the end, she got off with the bottle left in my vehicle … Some people were like that ...”


  • I also get tired because I am also a human.

“Sometimes, I feel like I don’t wanna say anything to my passenger, especially when I am physically tired. I just drive the passenger to the destination, and that’s all. And some passengers mind talking with drivers for some reason. I don’t know the reason though”.
“…Speaking the same thing every time I meet a new passenger is kind of teasing now. In the beginning, it was ok. I liked this job, and meeting around new people was fun. But, at some point, I found it a repetitive routine that I did to them without any thought”.


  • Hide your fatigue, that's not good for the passenger. 

"But even though I am tired, I should not show that to my customers. They are watching me from the rear seat. Well, just some kind talks in the beginning, and that's all. Then I just drive them to the destination in silence".




6. Limitation

This ethnographic study has some limitations.

  • First, the observation is one of the essential practices of ethnographic research method (Spradley, 2016). However, due to ride-sharing company’s one-driver-in-vehicle regulation, my access to the field was limited to some extent, meaning that this report lacks a description of driver-passenger interaction. But instead, I harnessed qualitative interviews to look into the experience of the ride-sharing drivers.
  • Second, the interview narratives generated between the drivers and me was not audio-recorded either transcribed, due to IRB issue. This signifies that the themes and supporting quotes were reproduced by my memory and the field notes made during the conversations.
  • Lastly, the number of interview participants and the research time-frame were limited to some extent to reveal more affluent Ethnographic data.



7. My Takeaway & Design Concepts

Ethnographic exploration "excavates" the unknown issue of human, society, and cultures. My Ethnographic journey revealed many layers of ride-sharing driver experience.

Based on these "discovering research", I can move on to the next step: suggesting new design concepts. This section briefly suggest the design concepts. (currently, under development)

7.1. My Takeaway

  • Ethnographic approach into UX/HCI Research and Design Practice
    Discovering the unknown deep issue => Reveal the structure => Tackle issues with Design => Iteration
    (This process can be used in authentic, lean, and applied method, depending on time frame)
  • Meaning of Mobility in the U.S.
    In this research, I exhaustively and holistically discovered the meaning of mobility in the US context. And I understood why the current ride-sharing model makes sense in the U.S context.

“What it means to move between spots”
“What is means to own a vehicle”
“How the concept of creative economy can be materialized in daily HCI practice”
“Why the current ride-sharing model makes sense in the US”

  • How and Why in Different Cultures
    In reflection to my exploration in 18 different countries and their sociocultural settings, I think of how the current model can be applied in those fields in macro discourse.
  • Creative Economy in US context
    This economic concept emerged in European capitalism model since 1980s, along with post-modernism academic discourse. Now, I can read how the socioeconomic trend is applied in the US context. 


7.2. Design Concept 1 : "My Hero Driver (Good Samaritan Driver)"

  • Inspired by the research theme : <I help my passenger, it felt so good. But will I be remembered?>
  • In my Ethnographic observation at Ann Arbor Hands-on Museum, I realized that there is a certain set of symbolic capital to be handed down from a generation to the next generation in the US culture. For Instance,
  • Serve the community; Fight for human well-bing; Protect those in danger; and Help those making the move.
  • These community-oriented social value can be realized not only by "state authorities" but also by "normal citizen"
  • In fact, it was "normal citizens" that reach out to rescue their neighbors in the chaotic flood disaster in Texas, 2017 Summer.
  • This is our communal values. And, our ride-sharing drivers do this practice in hidden spots.
  • Let us honour them.  

7.2. Design Concept 2 : "Oh You Again!"

  • Inspired by the two research themes :
    <Many passengers in my vehicle, and I remember them.> & <Good talks make my day. I like it...>
  • My research participants feel great when they meet the previous passengers. It was not only their feedback, but also, that of the customer.
  • Then, let us help them keep building up the conversation while in vehicle. 

8. Academic Reference

Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2017). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Sage publications.

Florida, R. (2010). Who's your city?: How the creative economy is making where to live the most important decision of your life. Vintage Canada.

Howkins, J. (2002). The creative economy: How people make money from ideas. Penguin UK.

Slee, T. (2016). What's yours is mine: Against the Sharing Economy. Or Books.

Spradley, J. P. (2016). The ethnographic interview. Waveland Press.