By Laura L. Allen and Gavin P. Johnson
Purpose: Our article interrogates mobile ridesharing apps as sites where digital interfaces, cultural practices, and rhetorical discourses intersect. We establish counter-histories of mobile ridesharing apps and conduct a critical interface analysis of select apps to demonstrate how innovative interfaces imagine a universal user while culturally specific apps make space for community-based user experience (CBX).
Method: This article brings together Haas’ digital cultural rhetorics (DCR) framework with Brock’s critical technocultural discourse analysis (CTDA) to zoom in on the cultural ideologies, form, and function of mobile ridesharing apps.
Results: Our analysis highlights how developers of culturally specific apps inscribe and promote an ethos of community for users marginalized by Western ideologies regarding race, gender, and sexuality. We show that, despite working in prescribed programming and coding structures, these app developers take advantage of forms and functions to amplify their cultural significance.
Conclusion: Rhetoric, technical communication, and UX researchers and practitioners should look to culturally specific mobile ridesharing apps as exemplars for designing technologies that center and acknowledge multiply-marginalized communities and their DCR practices. We insist CBX be part of interface design.
Keywords: Mobile Applications, Ridesharing, Digital Cultural Rhetorics, Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis, Community-Based User Experience (CBX)
- A critical investigation of the form, function, and cultural ideologies of mobile ridesharing app interfaces provides a holistic approach for understanding the experiences of individuals and communities rarely centered in UX.
- Practitioners can apply our method and analytical framework on existing interfaces, and use the results to inform future mobile ridesharing app development.
Mobile applications (apps)—whether mobile-first, web-based, or hybrid—shift how people connect, share, interface, and move within cultures. No longer bound to a single wired location, users frequently communicate, gather information, and enjoy entertainment while moving through the world via location-enabled technologies, such as smartphones and wearables. The intersection of mobility, transportation, and technology is particularly interesting for researchers and practitioners working in rhetoric, technical communication, and user experience (UX) (Frith, 2015; de Souza e Silva, 2016; Pflugfelder, 2017), but, to date, frameworks for analyzing mobile ridesharing apps as critical interfaces have been limited. Nonetheless, global engagement with mobile ridesharing apps can inform researchers and practitioners about this critical intersection and its impact on the design of digital interfaces.
Connecting a network of potential riders with nearby drivers, mobile ridesharing interfaces facilitate alternatives to other forms of transportation. The rise of mobile ridesharing apps correlates with the growth of a larger “sharing economy” that seeks efficiency and profits by pairing buyers with sellers through information technologies (Sundararajan, 2016; Hahn & Metcalfe, 2017). The appeal of mobile ridesharing apps, like industry giants Uber and Lyft, depends on ease of access, functionality, and form as well as the cultural capital of rhetorically situated innovative interfaces.
Innovation, here, functions as a Western cultural ideology prioritizing domineering change and capitalistic gain above the needs of cultures and communities in which the technology emerges and exists. Discourses of technological innovation, Liz Hutter and Halcyon M. Lawrence (2021) argued, reinscribe injustice through a design that
promotes an uncritical acceptance that, for the sake of innovation, new technologies could be developed independent of well-articulated problems and well-defined communities of users, leading to a “benign form of cultural dominance.” Embedded in this notion of cultural dominance is inequality in which the innovator sets themselves up as the problem solver “and reduces [the user] to simply the beneficiary of the solution.” (p. 151)
Accordingly, innovative interfaces value universalized design based on the preferences of a relatively small collection of creators and designers. Indeed, many technologies reinscribe injustices through “cultural rhetorical work that privileges certain epistemological frameworks and sponsors certain ideological agendas, thereby benefiting some communities more than others” (Haas, 2018, p. 413). Such work develops innovative interfaces that privilege Western, white, straight, cis-male, able body/minded individuals and discredit, ignore, or even appropriate cultural practices that have evolved from and for communities excluded by systemic barriers (Selfe & Selfe, 1994; Stanfill, 2015; Arola, 2017; Tarsa & Brown, 2018; Jones, 2021). Innovative interfaces on mobile ridesharing apps are, therefore, ill-equipped to handle specific cultural and identity-based needs of mobile rideshare app users.
Critical analysis of mobile ridesharing apps must address both the technical and embodied aspects of an interface. An interrogation of an interface’s technical elements, such as its function and form, seems obvious considering the goals of UX, but embodied experiences also inform and are informed by mobile interfaces by centering social identities, cultural biases, and physical bodies to more fully understand a user’s experience (Farman, 2012; McCorkle, 2012). Wang and Gu (2022) have shown, for example, that mobile photo- and video-editing app interface designs can subvert certain cultural virtues (e.g., Chinese values) with Westernized beliefs (e.g., American beauty standards), which they conclude can have “negative psychological and behavioral impact” (p. 394). With these important points in mind, how do mobile ridesharing app interfaces locate and move us through the world? We ask this question from two perspectives: the technical movement that such interfaces hail and the cultural movement that such interfaces dis/empower.
This article argues that researchers and practitioners in rhetoric, technical communication, and UX should critically analyze mobile ridesharing apps as digital cultural rhetorical interfaces. We first present counter-histories of ridesharing and examine the relationships between older and newer technologies. This reveals the politics of innovative interfaces that secure dominant cultural norms through an imagined universal user. Next, we introduce our analytical method for studying the culturally specific influences of digital interfaces. Our method pairs Angela M. Haas’ (2018) Digital Cultural Rhetorics (DCR) theory framework with Andre Brock’s (2018) Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis (CTDA) technique. This pairing offers unique opportunities for critically analyzing digital interfaces, especially mobile ridesharing apps. Using this method, researchers and practitioners can account for individual and community identities as carefully as they attend to technical features. By critically analyzing mobile ridesharing apps that exemplify the dominant innovative interfaces of Uber and Lyft alongside apps that exemplify culturally situated interfaces, we find that:
- Community-Based User Experience (CBX) must be integrated as a UX audience analysis strategy, as it more fully accounts for the histories, experiences, and accessibility of marginalized collectives.
- The interrogation of the mobile application, itself, as well as the interfaces of specific applications must remain central to the work of UX/UI testing.
- UX studies would benefit from centering features that marginalized users cite as most significant to how their identities intersect with their use of mobile apps.
We conclude with a targeted list of research and practitioner takeaways for those approaching mobile ridesharing and its digital interfaces. By making space for deeper analysis of mobile ridesharing app interfaces, we challenge designers and users to consider their positionality and entanglements when moving in the world via these technologies.
Counter-Histories of Ridesharing
When using mobile ridesharing apps, we mark ourselves, our embodied needs, and share these needs with others. In other words, we reveal and share the unique parts of our identities and cultures through actions on a mobile device more readily than we might in everyday conversation. Even so, discourses of technological innovation and paternalism encourage mobile ridesharing interfaces to be designed for universalized experiences (Hutter & Lawrence, 2021). This universalization via innovative interfaces makes even more poignant Jennifer Sano-Franchini’s (2018) question: “On what memories, literacies, and histories does the interface rely?” (p. 392). Such an inquiry invites careful and thorough analysis of cultural specificities and experiences from researchers and practitioners interested in UX and interface design.
One way to begin this work is by interrogating counter-histories of technologies. Here, we borrow counter-histories from Gabriel Rockhill (2017) as a way to not simply invert or reverse problematic histories but uncover/unearth the very cultural logics that make certain histories possible (p. 3; see also Hawk, 2007). While we believe this kind of counter-history work can contribute to the current turn toward antenarrative in technical communication (Jones et al., 2016), we do not see these as synonymous concepts. The counter-histories of ridesharing we broadly outlined below demonstrate how considering pre-digital cultural technologies and community practices deepen the interrogations of ideologies that support the form and function of current mobile app interfaces. This enables analysis that can influence design choices and prevent the reinscription of problematic universalized experiences in digital interfaces.
While ridesharing has been popularized in contemporary North American media and digital landscapes, a long history of ridesharing as a cultural technology is evident in other historical and geographical locations. For example, in several South African countries, issues with rail and bus systems led people to find transportation that more adequately fits their everyday needs (Mitchell, 2014). Used in South Africa and Zimbabwe, the Kombi—a Volkswagen Type 2 produced between 1979 and 1991—was larger than a car but not as large as a bus. The vehicle accommodated six passengers, allowing those traveling in the same direction to ride together and split the fare. Here, the system was the transportation technology, and it has been active in South Africa since the 1970’s and 1980’s. Similarly, Kombis became the “diaspora fleet” in cities like Harare, Zimbabwe, as citizens found ways to navigate the constantly fluctuating and unpredictable government transportation systems (Mazarire & Swart, 2014). This ridesharing system was mapped onto mobile applications and presented as a new form of transport while barely acknowledging and properly crediting the Black diasporic communities from which it derives.
In a 2017 podcast episode of NPR’s How I Built This, connections between ridesharing in African countries and ridesharing logistics in contemporary mobile apps were made very clear. Host Guy Raz interviewed John Zimmer, the co-founder of Lyft. In the interview, Zimmer tells a story of how co-founder Logan Green traveled to Zimbabwe and observed the citizens who, Zimmer claims, shared rides out of “necessity” (Raz, 2017). He took note of Zimbabwean entrepreneurs in Kombi vans who charged market rates for transit routes they formed and made money from travelers needing to go in the same direction. Green then took what he observed back to the United States and launched a similar ridesharing system in 2007 for college students traveling across California. This mobile app carpooling system was originally named Zimride because it was built on Zimbabwean transportation norms. In 2013, the founders wanted to shift to the on-demand ride model that currently characterizes ridesharing. They sold Zimride assets to Enterprise Holdings and shifted all resources and employees to a new company—Lyft. Uber, which launched in 2008, and Lyft currently dominate North American ridesharing markets.
Despite popularity and success, both Uber and Lyft have been harmful and discriminatory for communities that are marginalized by race, gender, and sexuality. Specifically, Ge et al. (2016) found that the Black riders on Uber were three times more likely to have rides canceled, particularly if they had “Black-sounding” names. Similarly, drivers were more likely to take women on longer, more expensive rides even if more efficient routes were available (Ge et al., 2016). When confronted with this data, Uber executive Rachel Holt released a statement reading, in part: “Ridesharing apps are changing a transportation status quo that has been unequal for generations, making it easier and more affordable for people to get around” (White, 2016, emphasis added). Similarly, Lyft spokesperson Adrian Dubrin said, “Because of Lyft, people living in underserved areas—which taxis have historically neglected—are now able to access convenient, affordable rides” (White, 2016). These appeals to innovation, in spite of evidence of prevalent discrimination, shield companies and their interfaces from critical reflection and culturally informed interface (re)design.
Uber and Lyft have since adjusted their operating processes, but researchers have still found evidence of discrimination based on race, gender, and perceived sexuality (Mejia & Parker, 2018), as well as rider-to-rider discrimination when shared services (such as uberPool or Lyft Line) are considered (Moody et al., 2019). Additionally, these ridesharing apps continue to be conduits for perpetrators of sexual assault, with some women even filing lawsuits against Uber and Lyft directly (Goldfine, 2019; Cramer, 2019). The issues of gender-based and race-based assault and discrimination are particularly egregious with a fuller understanding of rideshare app histories. When we understand that Green’s idea for Lyft was lifted (literally) from seeing Zimbabwean ridesharing that was not yet mapped onto a mobile digital interface, the discrimination issues in North American ridesharing are quite paradoxical. When we consider Ge et al.’s (2016) work, it’s ironic that Black people are hindered from fully participating in a technology that would likely not exist if it were not for Black people.
In light of these issues of bias, discrimination, and assault, North American entrepreneurs launched rideshare and transportation companies and platforms designed to be more accessible to the communities left behind by the initial designs of Uber and Lyft (Table 1). In 2014, Godwin Gabriel launched Moovn, a ridesharing app originally presented and marketed as a safer option for Black riders. Though Moovn has shifted focus in recent years to create digital production opportunities for Tanzanians, their early focus on Black-friendly ridesharing in the United States positioned them as one of the first companies offering an alternative to Lyft and Uber. In 2016, Safr launched as a Boston-area ridesharing app solely for women. Like the early days of Moovn, Safr worked to present community ethos through rhetorical interface design that explicitly lent itself to the safety and perceived interests of women. The rideshare launches continued as the founders that followed focused on regional support in addition to race, gender, and sexual identities. Aisha Addo launched the Toronto-based app, DriveHER, in 2018 with a particular emphasis on the safety of women. HERide is another women-only ridesharing app with Jillian Anderson, Devynne Starks, and Kiersten Harris all being cited as founders. HERide, which launched in 2020, invests in a ridesharing model attentive to social justice issues in Atlanta communities while providing opportunities and safe rides for those who identify as LGBTQ or women. Finally, Go Girl Ride, a developing Portland-based ridesharing company founded by Trenelle Doyle, is clearly committed to marginalized communities. Other than Safr, all of these are Black-owned apps. Their respective missions clearly center those neglected and unserviced by dominant rideshare platforms and models. Their intentions are made clear in both discourse and design. While many of these apps are in early stages of development, have regional functionality, or have shifted in their business models since their founding, we analyze the exigencies of their launch and highlight user experience design features integrated with the intent of inclusivity for select communities.
By considering the global emergence of mobile ridesharing apps within larger rhetorical and geographical histories of ridesharing, we are able to understand, in part, the relationship between new and old technologies, the relationships between communities and technologies, and interrogate the politics of innovative interfaces. This knowledge is essential in understanding the DCR of mobile ridesharing app interfaces and sets the stage for deeper investigation into the technocultural discourses surrounding innovative interfaces as well as culturally specific interfaces.
Critical Methods for Analyzing Mobile Ridesharing App Interfaces
Framework for Analysis
The interfaces of Westernized apps such as Uber and Lyft operate on a universalizing design that privileges the cultural ideologies and embodied practices of white, straight, cis-male, able body/minded, middle class people. This critique was grounded in what Angela M. Haas (2018) termed “digital cultural rhetorics” (DCR). DCR inextricably links bodies, identities, rhetoric, and technology, and these links are characterized by power dynamics in culture (p. 412). DCR methodologically uses a “rhetorical repertoire” that includes:
- interrogating the politics of digital interfaces;
- studying digital rhetorics in relation to/with specific communities and cultures of practices;
- examining the relationships between older and newer technologies;
- valuing diverse bodies; and
- reassessing access. (Haas, 2018, p. 413)
This repertoire facilitated our understanding of innovative interfaces of mobile ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft while also interrogating interfaces that privilege cultural practices beyond the Western, white, cis-male experience.
DCR, as Haas explained it, acts as a unifying framework of various theories from technofeminism, critical race theory, cultural rhetorics, and digital rhetorics. As such, it does not, necessarily, dictate a specific method or technique for analyzing interfaces critically. To operationalize DCR, we paired it with André Brock’s Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis (CTDA). According to Brock (2018), CTDA
is a multimodal analytic technique for the investigation of Internet and digital phenomena, artifacts, and culture. It integrates an analysis of the technological artifact and user discourse, framed by cultural theory, to unpack semiotic and material connections between form, function, belief, and meaning of information and communication technologies (ICTs). (p. 1012)
This technique aims to accurately capture the digital lives of multiply-marginalized communities. Using the application of critical theories as a lens to focus the analysis, CTDA extracts the technological artifact, the practices occurring within that technology, and the underlying cultural ideologies of that technology to develop assertions about technology and the technological practices of communities.
CTDA is a methodological “technique” that should be applied twice: once to the technological object of analysis and once to the cultural practices happening within that object (Brock, 2018, p. 1013). CTDA pairs with a range of critical theories as long as the same theory/ies are used on both analytical applications. For our purposes, we applied a DCR framework, as described by Haas (2018), to study the cultural and power relations between bodies, identities, rhetoric, and technology. While CTDA and DCR have not previously been paired, taken together, Haas’ methodological framework and Brock’s technique offered unique opportunities for critically analyzing digital interfaces, especially mobile ridesharing apps.
With our DCR-infused CTDA method, researchers and practitioners can attend to individual and collective (or community) identity with the same attentiveness afforded to technical features. This pairing encourages noticing (and centering) important cultural and community histories and practices overshadowed by talk of technological innovation. CTDA provides a systematic approach for analyzing the foci important to DCR.
In what follows, we deployed this method for a critical analysis of Uber and Lyft, which exemplify the politics of innovative interfaces, and a breadth of recently launched mobile ridesharing apps that exemplifies intentionally culturally specific politics. We were invested in understanding how the form, function, and cultural ideologies (key analytics in CTDA) differ when the rideshare app user is not understood as a universalized user. We organized the results using these three analytic elements applied twice, as instructed by CTDA. A notable limitation of our use of CTDA was our inability to fully capture function, as a few of these rideshare applications are defunct, have not yet launched, or operate within a region not frequently accessible to the authors.
In our first application of our DCR-infused CTDA, we focused on Uber and Lyft as applications that dominate the current rideshare market in the United States and Canada. In our second application, we focused primarily on HERide as an exemplar of culturally specific ride sharing apps that centers inclusive user experiences and engages in the hard labor of technology design that directly amplifies and addresses social justice issues. We contextualized this analysis through the mention of narratives and design features within Safr, Moovn, Go Girl Ride, and DriveHER. Our analysis explored the features and contexts of a variety of apps. However, it’s important to reiterate the current development stage of each app and highlight where we paused to analyze. HERide, Uber, and Lyft are all apps that are currently operating and available to download on mobile devices. Thus, we offered fuller analysis and insight of viewers and users. Moovn and Safr are also available to download but have shifted to different business models as companies often do. Moovn is now focused on travel and entrepreneurship in the founder’s home country of Tanzania, while Safr has shifted to medical transportation services. Thus, our analysis focused on the launch of Moovn and Safr as a Black-friendly app and a woman-only app, respectively. Finally, DriveHER and Go Girl Ride are not available for download. DriveHER is no longer operating, and Go Girl Ride is still raising funds and preparing for the launch of their app. In Table 2, we summarized our methods and findings while detailing the significance of our work in the discussion that follows.
Cultural Ideologies: Rhetorical Exigence and Significance
In the introduction, we highlighted discourses of technological innovation (Hutter & Lawrence, 2021) as a key cultural ideology underpinning mainstream apps like Lyft and Uber. This point is even more evident in news articles and other popular media that refer to ridesharing as “future of transit” or the “new hitchhiking” (Grush, 2017; Rossiter, 2008). We’ve highlighted the harmful drawbacks of these ideologies and, below, analyzed the discourses framing the cultural ideologies of apps like HERide and its peers. Most of these companies operate with just a sliver of the economic resources and support of their more mainstream counterparts, but the focal point is cultural significance as rhetorical exigence. When we conducted this analysis, the cultural ideologies underlying apps like HERide, Safr, Moovn, and Go Girl Ride centered the significance of being designed for specific cultural communities. Several of these ridesharing apps went viral online as their respective launches were amplified by news and media outlets on social media platforms. When one of HERide’s co-founders announced the launch of their app on social media, users responded expressing excitement for what they deemed a necessary model of ridesharing (Anderson, 2020). TravelNoire, a popular website for the Black travel community, featured both HERide and Go Girl Ride in articles showcasing their value and importance as Black-owned companies in the rideshare industry (Peay, 2021; Taylor, 2020). Thus, the combination of news articles, rideshare app websites, and online commentary all provide insight into the ideologies underpinning these culturally specific apps.
Emphasizing safety, especially for women and LGBTQ riders, emerged as a common foundational ideology. For example, the homepage of HERide’s website foregrounds a company “focused on the safety and empowerment of women” and “built with the needs of women in mind.” The web copy details the rigorous background check process for drivers and highlights the security features. HERide’s tagline, “Choose to be Unbothered,” utilizes Black English, signaling how their safety efforts ensured desired experiences of their app’s users: to be able to ride in peace and uninterrupted by being a woman or queer. HERide used this tagline in several of their promotional Instagram posts as well as website merchandise, signaling more materialized ways to support ideologies of safety. Go Girl Ride highlights a similar ideology through the vision shared on their company website:
Go Girl Ride is working towards safety, access, innovation, and providing trauma-informed care. We seek to create spaces to meet the transportation needs of our community– women*, femmes, non-binary folks, and allies, all while ensuring that we’re working from a lens that promotes a healthy society (Go Girl Ride).
Like HERide, Go Girl Ride rejects rhetorics of neutrality by explicitly positioning themselves as a culturally situated, safety-focused, and community-based ridesharing app company. With the exception of Moovn, these culturally specific apps launched with community-specific identities and initiatives in mind. For example, HERide’s founders are committed to educating their drivers on identifying the signs of sex trafficking because of Atlanta’s role as a hub for sex trafficking activity (Song, 2020; Taylor, 2020). HERide clearly sees drivers as a part of the community and states, “Our safety is on both ends” (Song, 2020). HERide invests in driver education and safety by providing mandatory training on assault and sex trafficking that would aim to keep drivers safe as well.
These objects of analysis clearly show cultural ideologies underpinning culturally specific ridesharing apps shaped by rhetorics of community. The developers of these apps were acutely aware of the experiences of marginalized identities in their cities, and developed technologies that seek to mitigate harm while offering a communal experience. For UX researchers and practitioners, this highlights two distinct considerations. First, evident was the importance of Community-Based User Experience (CBX) as a UX framework. Rose et al. (2017) coined and contextualized CBX through their work with a nonprofit aimed at helping U.S. immigrants navigate health insurance literature. We understand CBX as a partnership between UX researchers and community partners. Inspired by Rose et al. (2017), we posit an expansive view of CBX that understands communities as both locally situated and identity-based.
Rose et al.’s (2017) participants, Cantonese or Vietnamese-speaking immigrants in and around the Seattle, Washington area, benefited from the redesign of a health insurance guidebook originally designed to suit a more general group of immigrants who visit the health center for assistance. Similarly, apps like HERide highlight (and seeks to remedy) the shortcomings of UX’s general focus on singular users instead of a collective of users. The work we’ve done here advocates for both UX and CBX. Capturing the experiences of individual users is not enough; we need better ways to identify community experiences so that we build and revise technologies that are equitable and just for all communities. Organizations like CMX Hub and companies like Bevy have tapped into the growth potential of the community industry from an economic perspective. However, our work highlights how culturally specific apps are ripe areas for developing CBX methods.
This work also highlights the importance of technologies built from the practices and knowledge of local transportation literacies. Like ridesharing in Zimbabwe, culturally specific technologies should prioritize the needs of local communities just as HERide’s social justice-based model disrupts patterns of Atlanta-based human trafficking and Go Girl Ride’s social-justice-based model incorporates trauma-informed training as a requirement for servicing Portland citizens who have been marginalized by race, gender, and sexuality. These developers are designing not just for how society currently exists, but they are designing for how it ought to be. These ideologies are critical in understanding the ingenuity in both the form and function of these apps.
Form: The APPlification of Transportation
As Brock (2018) argued, the screen, the app, and the material form, which is the mobile device in our case, can all be studied as an interface because they are mediating factors that shape user experience (p. 9). Later, Brock (2020) explained racialized applications and platforms are understudied. We follow and argue that because apps are the primary mode of accessing services through mobile technologies researchers and practitioners must consider how the mobile app itself is racialized and gendered in ways that we may not yet fully understand. With mobile services being the primary way that Black Americans access the Internet (Smith, 2010; 2015) and Black American and Hispanic usage of mobile technologies differing from white usage of these same technologies (Anderson, 2015), then we can easily draw correlation between mobile apps themselves and varied experiences that may hinge on race, gender, and other social identities.
Yet, favored mobile applications—like most technologies—were likely not developed by people who come from the communities that use these technologies the most. Apple’s earliest reports of diversity data, which began in 2014, show that over half of the employees in tech roles were white. Asians made up 23% of tech roles, and Black and Hispanic/Latinx employees in tech roles were in the single digits at 6% and 7%, respectively (Apple, “Inclusion and Diversity”). Finally, 80% of employees in tech roles in 2014 were male. While the company is now trending upward in these areas, these data highlight how mobile apps, as we know them, were coded with majority white, male, and Western epistemologies, which value normality—from the linearity on which apps are forcibly arranged on iOS devices to the templated requirements of Xcode. Therefore, the developers of apps like HERide or Moovn are already doing social justice work by insisting on centering multiply-marginalized communities even while required to build with programming and coding structures that were never designed with these communities in mind.
The mobile ridesharing app screen as interface
If the developers of culturally specific apps must work within prescribed codes and templates of whiteness, then it is the interface that allows us to understand how these developers inscribe cultural knowledge and practices. As displayed in Figure 1, one of the most obvious and clear ways that these apps highlight this difference is through their names and the visual representation of their names within the interface. Safr is clearly representative of the “safer” model of transportation the app hoped to provide for women in the Boston area, while Moovn resembles Movin, a Black English spelling of “Moving,” and symbolizes what the app initially hoped to do for users whose journeys were interrupted by racial discrimination in dominant ridesharing apps. HERide’s pronoun-based name is accompanied by a logo that includes a gender symbol for “female” in place of the letter “i.” This logo appears on the app’s loading screen and is the user’s first mediating experience with the app. From the onset, the culturally specific apps offer a visual invitation to their user communities with symbols and text on the app icon. They highlight how UX researchers and practitioners can work to evade neutrality and build community ethos through first-touch interfaces, like app loading screens and icons. It is important to note that this name and design challenges what is suggested in Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines. The Inclusion area of the guidelines state, “Throughout history, cultures around the world have recognized a spectrum of self-identity and expression that expands beyond the binary variants of woman and man. You can help everyone feel welcome in your app by avoiding unnecessary references to specific genders” (Apple Developer, “Inclusion”). Not only does HERide’s icon design challenge this guideline, but they highlight how Apple may need to update their interface guidelines with tips for developers who want to design interfaces specifically for communities marginalized by race or gender.
As shown in Figure 2, Safr’s initial interface icons highlight another example of inscribing community values and practices, this time within the app’s operation interface. Early versions of Safr offered a rhetorical design that explicitly lent itself to perceived representations and interests of women. For example, to select the number of riders requesting a ride, the user must tap an icon that is perceivably a woman as represented by longer hair and bangs (Figure 2). Additionally, the icons include a car seat for riders to select the number of children accompanying them for the ride. The gendered icon in Safr is another element that challenges Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, as they suggest “When it’s necessary to depict a generic person or people, use a nongendered human image to reinforce the message that generic person means human, not man or woman” (Apple Developer, “Inclusion”). Apple’s suggestions for neutrality here dismissed those developers who answer the exigences to develop culturally specific technologies safe for all bodies.
As these apps show, the symbolic nature of the mobile app icon is an interesting point of negotiation between mainstream app developers who align closely with operating system interface guidelines and culturally specific app developers who seek to prioritize community ethos in design. Selfe and Selfe (1994) predicted such tensions when they argued that computer interfaces are political environments that can oppress just as much as they liberate. They specifically referenced personal computers, but their point is also applicable to mobile application interfaces. For example, Selfe and Selfe interrogated the design metaphor of a computer “desktop” instead of a “countertop” or “workers bench.” They argue that the “desktop” and related items (like manila folders) are all indicative of a middle to upper class white-collar job (Selfe & Selfe, 1994, pp. 486–487). Thus, those who come from communities where these jobs are not normalized due to institutional oppression, are often positioned as outsiders by the design of the technology. Selfe and Selfe’s disruption made room for scholars, like Brock (2020) with “navigation metaphors” (p. 43), to continue negotiating the politics of the mobile interface through elements like mobile icons.
Our analysis of mobile screen interface as form also led us to question the race and class ideologies embedded in mobile app metaphors and icons. For example, Uber, like many apps, displays an icon of a house to represent a “home” screen. Like Selfe and Selfe (1994), we questioned the metaphor of “home,” but we were particularly critical of home always being represented by a stand-alone/detached house instead of other structures that people understand as home like an apartment building, townhouse, or a mobile home. Notably, the selected culturally specific apps do not include a home icon. The point here is that a focus on common, seemingly mundane, UX features help to identify, interrogate, and replace exclusionary design. Finally, the mobile ridesharing app screen is a mediating interface that goes with users to a variety of geographic locations. While the identity of the users and the features of the screen may be fixed for the moment, the screen is still mediating the user’s experience with a location that might be familiar or foreign. Thus, the culturally specific apps are designed to build a bridge for users to travel, knowing that they will be met with a familiar community en route.
Function: People-first Mobile Technologies
Most of the popular ridesharing apps function as “mobile only” technologies with various economic prioritizations. Uber functions primarily as a delivery app. While Uber’s initial focus was solely ridesharing, the current iteration of the app’s design equally highlights icons for rides, food, groceries, or packages. The grayscale rounded squares are linear with generic icons for their delivery services (i.e., a cardboard box for a package and a basic car for a ride). Selecting the food or grocery options takes users to UberEats, which functions as a completely different app for food delivery. Here, Uber’s focus is the services they provide to customers. Moreover, the lack of cultural symbolism further highlights their push for a universal user design. Uber even embraces popular design features common in social digital spaces. Uber is not a social networking site, but the “activity” section adopts social media interfaces by displaying a “feed” that highlights upcoming rides, past rides, and deliveries across all categories. The rise of social media platforms has popularized the “feed,” but this is typically a feature for apps like social media with more dynamic interactions. Uber’s decision to incorporate a “feed” can be read as a way to encourage more engagement and interaction with the application as users might be interested in reviewing the data in the way one might go back and read social media posts.
While Uber works to be all things to all people, Lyft focuses more on driving, riding, and transportation. The app’s bottom menu landing page focuses on four categories: rides with Lyft drivers, public transportation, rental cars, and user’s personal car information. Lyft’s side menu icons offer options to refer a friend, purchase gift cards, and connect rewards from corporate partners. Essentially, this additional menu functions as a tool for user and driver recruitment and rider retention. Aside from the “donate” page, which offers riders an opportunity to round up the cost of their rides to a local charity, Lyft’s design is focused on keeping riders within the ecosystem of Lyft’s transportation services, whether it’s with Lyft riders directly or connecting to third party transportation services and public transportation through the app.
The functions of neutrality are glaring within these apps. Outside of the option for users to upload profile images (likely so that users can identify each other), there are no discernable features that are reflective of cultural specificity, cultural competence, or cultural sustainability. Though one could (and probably will) argue that this is not necessary, our aforementioned discussion on the issues Uber and Lyft have had with racism and sexual assault suggest otherwise. Furthermore, Haas (2018) stated, “Thus, common questions asked by digital cultural rhetoricians ask: Whose bodies are visible in digital spaces? For whom are visible digital bodies a risk? Which technologies are empowering for whom? Democratizing for which communities, cultures, and languages?” (p. 416). It is the race to neutrality that further problematizes and strains Lyft and Uber’s relationship with marginalized and multiply marginalized users and their bodies. On the other hand, it is this race to neutrality driving the exigence for apps like HERide, Safr, Moovn, and Go Girl Ride.
Scholars have highlighted how marginalized groups continuously press against, into, and beyond digital form to ensure that applications function for their purposes and allow fuller expressions of identity (Kynard 2007; Arola, 2017; Rose et al, 2018). The developers of culturally specific apps follow suit in their app functions and development. For example, we saw HERide’s cultural ideology as a community-centered app through the user’s first interactions upon download. The launch screens highlight app logistics but also highlights a feature that allows users to share their ride details with family and friends. HERide also emphasizes two ways to use the app for transportation, which includes booking immediately or pre-booking a ride. Finally, the app’s side menu offers unique options like selecting favorite drivers. This is in direct contrast to Lyft and Uber’s randomized match system between drivers and those requesting rides. HERide also includes a section for emergency contacts, which further highlights the developers’ understanding of the ridesharing experiences of individuals marginalized by race and gender. Within Uber and Lyft, these reporting features take a few too many taps to access versus the two required in HERide.
Haas (2018) explained, “Indeed, theorizing complex relationships between old(er) and new(er) technologies in rhetorically and culturally situated ways can afford unique disciplinary insights and revise previously held assumptions about technology toward more culturally inclusive understandings of digital rhetorics that are also responsive to community needs” (p. 415). Although Uber and Lyft may not be viewed as “older” technologies, there is a 13-year difference between the launch of their platforms and HERide. Technology has shifted drastically within this time and HERide is a representation of technologies that are responsive to the needs of users. HERide shows how culturally specific apps function first as safety technologies, and second as ridesharing apps. They center user identities and build technologies around the user and community experience.
As shown throughout this article, mobile ridesharing apps are sites where digital interfaces, cultural practices, and rhetorical discourses intersect and are engaged. In order to continue, or start, designing equitable technological experiences for all users—and particularly those who are marginalized—rhetoric, technical communication, and UX researchers and practitioners must be attentive to cultural nuances. We highlight how Haas’s (2018) Digital Cultural Rhetorics (DCR), especially when paired with Brock’s Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis (CTDA), offers methodological frameworks for unpacking culture and user experience while exposing design approaches that assume cultural neutrality and one-dimensional use. Further, these approaches uncover discourses of technological innovation that often render invisible the histories and culturally specific practices mediated through specific mobile ridesharing apps and their respective cultural ideologies, forms, and functions.
Researcher and Practitioner Takeaways
While developing a checklist for remedying the bias inherent in mobile apps and ridesharing interfaces is tempting, we believe solutions lie in mindset shifts that allow user experience (UX) researchers and practitioners engagement with more boutique approaches through community-based user experience (CBX). We understand CBX research as working with community partners, as exemplified by Rose et al. (2017), and note the importance of broadening community to account for how those marginalized by dominant ideologies collectively navigate the world as mediated by technologies. For example, HERide understands their community of users as women living in the Atlanta area, thus vulnerable to the issue of human sex-trafficking prevalent in the city. Both training materials and technical interface features are designed to help all users (riders and drivers) mitigate this problem. HERide’s culturally specific approach to the ridesharing application more directly helps to solve a problem while mainstream apps like Uber and Lyft continue to struggle in this area. To aid UX researchers and practitioners in implementing CBX and culturally specific approaches to designing mobile apps and other digital interfaces, we conclude with some preliminary researcher and practitioner takeaways:
- Interrogate technological origins through counter-histories: Research design must be informed by the global histories of cultural technologies and design approaches in marginalized, non-Western communities. Importantly, the goal is not to invert dominant narratives but rather understand what underpins such ideologies.
- Analyze software and screen as interface: The interrogation of the mobile application, itself, as well as the interfaces of specific applications must remain central to the work of UX/UI texting. Assumed neutrality yields exclusionary design, and the thin glass that bridges user and technology is never neutral.
- Center marginalized community partners: Expand community partners to include collectives marginalized as a form of social justice (Rose et al., 2018). These communities must be defined and integrated as a UX audience analysis strategy to more fully account for histories, experiences, and accessibility.
- Community-Based User Experience (CBX) studies would benefit from centering features that marginalized users cite as most significant to how their identities intersect with their use of mobile apps.
As technological practices continue to rapidly evolve, especially with the growth of artificial intelligence integration, we call for further research into how mobile ridesharing app developers can implement a CBX and avoid the allure of launching the newest innovative interface. This work, as we argued, will not simply be about the way an app hails a ride for a user or how a driver receives a ride request but rather requires developers to learn and honor the histories, practices, places, and embodied needs of the communities they hope to serve. Further, developers, users, researchers, and practitioners should not position this work within the discourses of technological innovation but rather embrace how mobile ridesharing apps designed with culturally specific knowledge are continuations of the long-held cultural practices that move us in and through the world.
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About the Authors
Laura L. Allen, Ph.D. is a committed teacher and scholar whose research explores race at the intersections of professional writing, digital media, family literacy, and community literacy. She currently works as an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetorics of Advocacy at York University in Toronto, Ontario. Laura has presented her work at several national and international conferences, including The American Studies Association, the Conference on College Composition & Communication, and the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory. Laura is a recipient of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) 2023 Nell Ann Picket Award for the best article in Technical Communication Quarterly. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Gavin P. Johnson, Ph.D. is a teacher-scholar specializing in multimodal writing, queer rhetorics, and critical digital pedagogy. His research has been recognized with a 2023 CCCC Emergent Researcher Grant (as part of the Digital Rhetorical Privacy Collective), the 2021 CCCC Lavender Rhetorics Dissertation Award for Excellence in Queer Scholarship, an Honorable Mention for the 2020 Computers and Composition Hugh Burns Best Dissertation Award, and the 2016 CCCC Gloria Anzaldúa Rhetorician Award. His writing is published in journals including Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Computers and Composition, Literacy in Composition Studies, Composition Studies, and various edited collections. Dr. Johnson is a proud first-generation college graduate from southeast Louisiana, and he currently works as an Assistant Professor of English and Director of Writing at Texas A&M University-Commerce. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.