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Centered but invisible – On the contradictions of service design at Urban Company

[By Sai Amulya Komarraju]

Ting! A beauty worker checks her mobile. A ‘lead’ appears on her mobile screen from the platform service aggregator she has registered with. She accepts it, calls the customer through the platform that has helped her become a microentrepreneur, confirms the request and location of the customer and rides off to the location. She rings the bell. Once the customer greets her, the worker does what has become a routine since the onset of COVID-19: She sanitises her hands, dons a fresh pair of gloves, face mask, and face shield before entering the house. She sets her products neatly and gets to work. Once finished, she sprays everything she has touched with sanitiser, from the doorbell she rang to the tap she used in the customer’s washroom to fill water for a pedicure session. She packs all her belongings and collects soiled products (used waxed strips and such) to dispose of them on her way to another gig.

Meanwhile, the now relaxed customer is asked by the app to rank the beauty worker on her hygiene: Did she wear a mask? What about gloves? Did she leave any used products behind? In short, how successful was the worker in her attempts to disappear without leaving any proof of her physical presence?

Behind all this is a Standard Operating Procedure that regulates the worker’s behaviour, which is then monitored by the app with the help of the data provided by the customer. Based on this feedback, the worker receives a hygiene rating. Moreover, Machine Learning (ML) is utilized to recognize if the worker was wearing masks and gloves through pictures that the worker has to provide before the gig.

The above describes a day in the life of service partners (who provide services and are variously refereed to as service partners, providers or professionals) and customers (who avail services through the platform) associated with the app-based, on-demand platform aggregators. On-demand platforms (like Urban Company and Housejoy) match service partners or ‘pros’ with customers in need of home-based services such as cleaning or salon treatments, through leads. To do this, they charge a commission. Any hitch or issue within the service partner app or the customer app leads to the breakdown of the entire ecosystem. This is where the Software Development Engineers step in. They ensure that the entire experience from booking a service to feedback remains seamless. These engineers must at all times remain alert to whatever complaints arise, either from service partners or customers, even while working to eliminate manual intervention in other aspects. I spoke with a couple of Software Development Engineers (on the condition of anonymity) working for Urban Company to gather insights about their role within the organization, the importance of service partners and customers in process of designing technologies.

Image credit: ivabalk / Pixabay

Role of Software Development Engineers (SDEs)

On-demand platforms are veered towards maximising customers’ experience (which has long been established as a brand on its own). This is also reflected in the kind of words one uses in industrial design and innovation—such as experience economy or service economy. In order to keep up with such a fundamental organizational change, companies turn towards the concept of ‘service design’.

Speaking about what companies expect Software Development Engineers to do, SDE 2 explains:

“we translate all the business fundamentals, business logics into tech solutions. Essentially, automate the entire process. So, this is what the expectation is from you when you are working as a software developer.”

But this is not the only requirement. The idea, another SDE from Urban Company says, is to make sure that the service partners and customers (who book services on the app) are comfortable with the environment provided for them within their separate apps:

“[…] for instance, we need to create a solution to the problem of auto-suggestion of products. If a service partner working in the beauty segment is ordering products, we have to work with the team that predicts market trends and make sure that their suggestions appear at the top of the page. Then we must take into account if pros are comfortable with that placing. Should it appear right at the very top of the page, or when they go to the particular product’s page, is that where the prompt should go?” (SDE 3)

The SDEs I spoke with agree that creating smooth environments for service partners or pros is more complicated than the flows involved with customers. Therefore, more engineers work on the service partner app. SDE 4 notes that the design of the interface is such that one must take into account what the service partners are making of any new feature launched (whether in terms of understanding what it does or ease of use). SDEs must also co-ordinate with other teams that are most likely to be affected by changes they make. They must also adhere to the company’s business goals in order to create something that works, fixes, and reduces the burden of manual intervention. Although, the SDE says, “you cannot always predict how something might turn out to be, but that is what makes it exciting as well”. This mostly invisible work of making sure that features do all these things–enhance customer experience, reduce manual intervention, help service partners make decisions, but above all improve the business logic of profit-making for the company is done by the SDEs.

Asked if engineers undergo any training since they design technologies for those who are marginalized due to multiple factors (gender, class, type of work they are engaged in), I received no definite answer.

The Urban Company ecosystem. Image credit: Sai Amulya Komarraju

Service design: From productivization to servitization

The concept rather the philosophy of service design is broadly understood as the activity of planning and organizing the resources of a business, i.e., people (in the case of the platform ecosystem: service partners, employees, customers), props (AI and ML based algorithms), and various other processes (workflows, Standard Operating Procedures and other dimensions involved in order to ensure smooth services) to directly improve the employees’ experience (in this case it is would include both SDEs and service partners). This ensures that every component is laid out and thought through in detail to ensure a smooth ecosystem. Ecosystems are best understood as collaborative environments where various resources of the company work together to co-create values.

The philosophy of service design shines through in what my interviewees explain: UC assumes that SDEs take into account the views of service partners during all stages of development of a feature. SDE 1 and 2 report that UC focuses on a ‘win-for-all’ approach. In fact, a recent study by Fairwork India has found that UC tops the list of companies that provide “fairwork” based on 5 principles: 1) Fair pay 2) Fair conditions 3) Fair contracts 4) Fair management 5) Fair representation. Confirming this, SDE 3 states that engineers regularly call partners (personal information is encrypted and not shared with anyone) to check if a particular feature seems okay to them. “It is common sense, you know, I mean you are making something for someone, whom to call, if not the recipient?” SDE 2 says that it is easier to guess what a customer wants “because you are one yourself… we have all availed services… but understanding the POV of the pros is difficult… we all call and talk with pros as and when required”. In fact, SDE 2 also admits that when she joined the platform, she was uncomfortable with “round the clock tracking” of service partners. However, when the service providers themselves expressed that this was an acceptable trade-off, she made her peace with it.

“I think the idea is you want them [service partners] to succeed as well. They do really work hard. So, again, no one tells you to do it, but you think about it, how do we give them the best chance to succeed and then create a feature” says SDE 4. For instance, SDEs collaborated closely with the business team to anticipate “sprees” (such as the sudden demand for roll-on waxing), so that service partners could stock up on products needed for such services. However, this view must be balanced by the fact that the business logic of profit-making is supreme, in the face of which even long-term, scalable tech solutions must take a backseat accruing what SDE 2 refers to as a “tech debt”.

This logic inevitably organizes the relationships within the ecosystem in a hierarchical fashion. Customers and their experience and satisfaction are placed at the apex since they bring business, and software engineers enable “extra-legal” mechanisms (rating, tracking etc.) to monitor the service partners through the app in order to ensure quality of services. Even though service partners are considered as a crucial resource (SDE 3), the oversupply of workers compared to the demand, and control mechanisms in the form of rating and reviews serve to maintain power asymmetries between the platform, customer, and the service partner.

The inadequacy of service design

In some sense, when SDEs speak of developing Standard Operating Procedures in order to provide a holistic experience for the customer, they move beyond thinking about mere productivity of service partners. But this does not take away from the fact that workers are still expected to display skill and dexterity at work. They are expected to take a minimum number of leads (which can be read as productivity of a particular partner) and their ratings and continued association with the platform depends on customer satisfaction.

The aim of service design is to move beyond thinking in narrow terms of providing “goods” to the broader concept of offering services. In short, not productivization but servitiziation is the goal. However, this necessarily requires productizing the worker’s skills. We need to problematize this move from good-dominant to service-dominant logic. The burden of delivering the actual experience ultimately falls squarely on the shoulders of service partners. This is especially so in the case of home-based services such as beauty and wellness, where a worker’s physical labor involved in the performance of beauty-work contributes the most in creating a feeling of wellbeing for customers. This burden is reinforced by the fact that their work is constantly supervised by both the app and the customers. The multitude of problems and the high degree of precarity gig workers in the home-based sector face is well documented. Therefore, despite of the human-centric focus of service design, the burden of delivering customer satisfaction with the goal to generate profit is felt more keenly by the service partner first and foremost.

My interviews reveal that SDEs do think about the service partners and that there is a modicum of care they feel towards them. Still, there is much left to be desired in terms of ensuring that all resources are equally empowered within the ecosystem. For human-centric design to live up to its name, it is imperative that businesses adopt an ethics of care within design that could help balance logics of business, technology and the needs of workers.

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Beauty gig work in the time of Covid-19

[By Sai Amulya Komarraju]

In late March 2020, India declared a nation-wide lockdown, restricting the movement of people and services considered as non-essential in an effort to restrict the spread of Covid-19. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call of “Jaan hai tho jahan hai” (loosely translated as health is wealth) was an effort to justify the sudden announcement of a complete lockdown, leaving millions of migrant workers to fend for themselves. Both the central and the state governments have announced several relief packages to those involved in the informal and unorganized sectors, and to BPL (below the poverty line) families. They have also requested employers everywhere to consider giving their employees paid leave. This effort overlooks those involved in the gig economy who are not employees but partners, and whose incomes are not fixed but directly proportional to the number of customers they are able to garner, even under ordinary conditions.

Beauty worker in India. Image Credit: innacoz

The effect of this lockdown on gig workers is not lost on companies such as Urban Company (UC, formerly Urban Clap), India’s largest at-home beauty service provider, based in Gurgaon, Haryana. A phased response was adopted by UC beginning with awareness programs aimed at “training service partners on how to maintain hygiene, the right technique of washing their hands”, providing personal protective equipment, leading up to the launch of a relief fund for its 30000+ (of the 50000+) partners. It offers income protection, health insurance, and even extend business advances in the form of soft loans to service providers to help them through this difficult time. As the lockdown measures were eased to allow the functioning of essential services, UC started taking bookings for some services (plumbing, cleaning, pest services were allowed but not grooming).

While all earning from gig work depends on the number of services offered, the beauty gig workers are particularly affected and the reasons are two-fold. Firstly, the target group UC has tried to bring into gig work almost entirely comprises of women (referred to as beauty and parlour didis—older sisters in Hindi) in low paying jobs (earning Rs. 15,000 or less than USD 200 per month) at beauty salons. UC states in their press release that salon chains and independent salons are exploitative enterprises that trap “beauticians in low paying jobs and prevents them from becoming micro-entrepreneurs because they can’t afford to buy their own kit” while “salon owners own fancy cars and live in expensive homes.” UC, on the other hand, trains beauticians, and also provides portable beauty kits costing Rs. 35,000 -40,000 on an instalment basis. Although there is no break up of workforce in terms of gender or geography (in the case of migrants), it is worth asking how these women (arguably from lower socio-economic strata) who perhaps do not have ration cards that entitle them to government subsidies, and who have undertaken the risk of engaging in gig work will cope financially. How will didis who may have availed loans extended by UC to equip themselves with the tools and materials manage, now that they find themselves out of work saddled with products that may have a short shelf life?

Sign advertising beauty services. Image credit: Michael Kohli

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the level of precarity women gig workers experience is also affected by how/what the government and the platform define as ‘essential’. For the government, essential services include those directly involved in disease prevention, mitigation or care measures. When lockdown regulations were eased, UC defined ‘essential’ to mean plumbing, electric, and pest control services. After further easing of  lockdown regulations (announced on May 4 2020),  UC has finally started accepting bookings for grooming services in zones that are designated by the government as “safe”, provided it is not in violation of the restrictions imposed by residents’ welfare associations and housing societies. However, it remains to be seen how many beauty gig workers can actually go back to work, and if their stories of unemployment will ever make it to mainstream media or social media.

It is also noteworthy that despite so many stories about migrant workers, there is a notable absence of the woman migrant worker, including and not limited to those employed in traditional parlours or work as domestic help. It is also problematic that the common pictures of migrant women are those of pregnant women and those with children, essentialising women as mothers, and effectively making invisible single women who come to the city for their livelihood. If these stories do not make headlines, then what chance do urban women workers in gig work have of their voices being heard?

Arundhathi Roy writes, “historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. Perhaps, this pandemic is an entry point for us to start thinking about the very many groups of people who are differently disadvantaged. We now recognize that the lockdown has affected the informal sector in unprecedented ways. But what needs to be acknowledged is the many layers of that sector, and the nuances of the different kinds of labour that make up the whole.