June 16, 2017 8:50 pm JST

The 28-year-old Japanese who ensures Uber's usability

His drawing board? The streets of San Francisco ... and the world

JOSHUA OGAWA, Nikkei staff writer

Yuki Yamashita leads a team of some 50 engineers and designers at Uber's headquarters in San Francisco.

Palo Alto, U.S. -- Uber Technologies of the U.S. pioneered the market for smartphone-based ride-hailing services. Among those behind the popular app, which is used by over 40 million people in more than 70 countries every month, is Yuki Yamashita.

After studying computer science at Harvard University in the U.S., the 28-year-old Japanese engineer in 2011 joined Microsoft, the big U.S. software maker. He took part in the development of the Windows 8 operating system, among other projects. After about two years, he moved down the West Coast to Google, where he developed a YouTube app.

In January 2015, Yamashita joined Uber. As the sole Japanese engineer at the company's San Francisco headquarters, he leads a team of about 50 engineers and designers in the rider experience division.

Since its inception in 2009, Uber's service has diversified. Its ride-hailing app has been given two major makeovers, and new apps have been added, such as uberX, UberPOOL and UberEats. Yamashita's job is to make it easy for users to navigate the increasing multifunctionality.

Challenging but fun

As a service, Uber is a combination of digital and physical experiences, Yamashita said. When working on the YouTube app, he only thought about the screen design and user experience. But at Uber, he has to take numerous variables into account, from the weather to the differences in internet accessibility between San Francisco and Bangalore. Sometimes, issues only show themselves when Yamashita leaves the office to take Uber's apps out for test drives. Having cities like San Francisco as a drawing board, well, that's the fun part, he said.

The most difficult part is dismantling the barriers between the digital and physical worlds. For instance, finding an Uber driver at an airport used to be a challenge. Arriving passengers often open the Uber app as soon as their plane lands and request a driver. But the drivers' would-be fares were showing up as still on the tarmac. Phone calls would have to be made before riders and drivers could properly pair up.

To solve this problem, Yamashita's team came up with a function that allows users to select a pickup point, say a specific entrance on a specific floor of an airport terminal. This has reduced the "contact rate" (i.e., the use of calls) to below 50%, significantly improving customer satisfaction, Yamashita said.

Yamashita travels around the world to test the app and do marketing research. He has been to Delhi, Bangalore and Shanghai to check GPS connections, to see if the right addresses show up on the app and inspect how safe the streets are where users and drivers meet, among many other details. After the field work, adjustments can be made to local versions of the app. It is difficult to tailor the app to countries with different cultures and practices, Yamashita said, but that makes it all the more rewarding.

Since the beginning of the year, Uber has come under a cloud. There have been accusations of sexism and sexual harassment. Its CEO was caught on video berating an Uber driver. And there have been charges that the company used software designed to skirt regulations. Though still a private company, the world is becoming increasingly critical of the nearly $70 billion venture. Yamashita said the media somewhat exaggerates the scope of the problems but he believes the company should address the issues more willingly, fulfilling its responsibilities as a major business.

Still, Uber's culture of ambition and optimism has not lost its appeal, Yamashita said. Yamashita likes to be involved in work that shapes the future -- and he feels he is doing exactly that. No matter what city he's in.

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