How Uber’s India tech centres have become a breeding ground for innovation

How Uber’s India tech centres have become a breeding ground for innovation
Shirish Andhare, Uber’s head of product and growth for India
21 May, 2019

US-headquartered Uber will soon make its cab-hailing app available in Indian languages amid efforts to rack up another billion rides, a senior executive told TechCircle.

As part of an initiative dubbed “In my language and at my pace”, the company is working on Indic languages to boost overall user experience and will roll out the experiment soon.

“In India, we want to think through the experience and the translations,” said Shirish Andhare, Uber’s head of product and growth for India. “Localisation is also something very much in our purview.”

This is the latest innovation that will be powered by Uber’s Indian technology centres, which have played a huge role in the company’s quest to conquer emerging markets.

For instance, Uber Lite, a ‘diet’ version of the app, was built in India and launched in the country a year ago. It has since been taken to Brazil (Portuguese) and Mexico (Spanish) respectively.

"The way we pared down the network interactions has been used as inputs for the main app now," Andhare said.

Hyderabad and Bengaluru host Uber’s two research and development offices in India. The two facilities employ a combined 500-odd engineers, the second-largest headcount after the US. Their mandate is to develop product, research, design and data science competencies and take Uber's products to market.

The local technology team was built primarily to focus on specific business- and product-related problems that existed in India, but it has developed a global outlook over time.

“Since we live and work here, we understand and experience the India market. The adoption of technology is so diverse across the country, it has become the testbed for us. We end up solving the problems of other markets as well," said Andhare.

Ten-year-old Uber started operations in India in 2014 and the country has since emerged as a key market. India accounted for 11% of all the company's trips across the globe as of December 2018. Chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said last year that the company would double down on its India operations despite bleeding heavily in the face of fierce competition from homegrown rival Ola.

Uber’s lacklustre stock market debut earlier this month was an indication that the company will struggle to retain its hefty valuation of around $75 billion unless its user base keeps growing at a steady clip. Innovation will be key to achieving this and India has been the litmus test for a number of Uber’s experiments in emerging markets.

Apart from Uber Lite, other India-first innovations include payments via cash and digital wallets, emergency services such as SOS, low-cost UberGo and WiFi-enabled cars.

"Cash payments set the tone for the company that insights can come from anywhere. There was pent-up demand because of the introduction of cash and emerging markets continue to be dominated by cash," said Andhare.

Apurva Dalal, Uber’s head of engineering for India, had told TechCircle last year that the two technology centres had begun exploring voice-enabled booking features.

UberDost was another programme initiated by the Indian product and engineering team. The company realised that unlike in the West, not all drivers in emerging economies cannot visit a website and upload their documents on their own. The programme has since grown into a third-party driver acquisition tool for independent partners and to guide new drivers and has now spread to other markets.

“We see ourselves as the ‘next billion rider’ platform. We continue to evaluate user growth and requirements on such interesting models," said Andhare.