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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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Savari: Sharing more than a ride

[By Sai Amulya Komarraju]

Picture this: 9 women cramped into an auto (three-wheeler vehicle in India), taking a savari (‘ride’ in Hindi) to their workplace. Two women in saris on either side of the autowallah (driver), three on the seat at the rear actually meant for people to occupy, three on the little wooden slab facing it, fitted to accommodate more people, and one on the iron railing bordering the right side of the auto. The crisis of public transportation in India forces the working poor to travel in overcrowded buses, trucks, seven seaters, and autorickshaws. Perhaps the image is somewhat overwhelming in the present context of the pandemic and the mantra of SMS (sanitizing, masks, social distancing), but this is how domestic workers travelled in the BC (Before Corona) era or so I discovered when I interviewed domestic workers as part of a summer course in 2018.

Image credit: Pikist

Brinda (names changed for purposes of anonymity), a domestic worker in my neighbourhood, told me how this ‘auto’ arrangement came to fruition. Her husband did not approve of her travelling for work every day. She had however never given it any thought, but after being stalked by a young man at the bus stop for two days, she was scared. Incidents like these, she said, which were not isolated, brought the community of domestic workers in her area to team up to find a solution. They identified a few autowallahs and struck a deal with them. Six autowallahs would ferry 6 groups of 8 to 9 domestic workers to and from work and each would have to contribute Rs. 8 to 10 per ride (14 cents). Brinda also introduced me to her other ‘automates’ who corroborated her story with experiences of their own.

These shared auto rides provide opportunities for the group to discuss a variety of issues related to work, to trade stories, and brainstorm solutions as a mini-collective. En route to the workplace (a 15 to 30-minute ride depending on the traffic), they would discuss how much each of them earned to fix the “going on rate” for their labour in a particular area. It is only reasonable, they argued, that people living in “posh” areas (perceived to be a mix of commercial and residential) pay more than those living in purely residential areas, often categorized as low-income neighbourhoods. They would also discuss the added benefits of working for a particular family, what infrastructure they expected to already be there in a particular home (washing machine or a mop) and how they could negotiate issues of leave, including getting one of their travel companions to substitute for them. It is also during these auto rides, Maniamma says, that the unspoken rule of not “snatching” work from a fellow worker became a common understanding. As a group they also decided that a 3-day paid leave per month was not only reasonable, but if these days off were not utilized, they could ask to be paid a bonus.

The Indian Ministry of Labour and Employment estimates that there are approximately four million domestic workers in India. The unofficial figures are much more staggering, with the International Labour Organization suggesting that there are about 20 to 80 million domestic workers in the country (75 % of whom are women). Given that domestic work (such as cleaning, sweeping, mopping, cooking, babysitting) often takes place inside the ‘private’ settings of people’s homes (historically, the home has never been considered to be a workplace), and is classified as informal, unskilled and unproductive, it was not governed by any law as such until the United Progressive Alliance government mandated that it be recognized as part of the unorganized sector and be regulated by Unorganized workers’ Social Security Act, 2008. This act is primarily geared towards defining who a ‘worker’ is and social security benefits such as life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, provident fund. However, this act does not include any directive about ensuring fair work and minimum wages and was never implemented because of a few “design flaws”, such as not differentiating between agricultural and unorganized non agricultural workers. Further, it was left to the State governments to establish State Social Security Boards to recommend suitable schemes and ensure social security to unorganized workers. Telangana is one of the States that is yet to institute this board, despite the fact that Hyderabad is one of the major cities where domestic workers migrate for work.

Subsequently, there were several attempts to formulate separate legislations for domestic workers. A national policy that was drafted in 2011, a private member bill introduced by Shashi Tharoor (Member of Parliament) in 2016, and another by domestic workers’ unions in 2017, but ultimately, they were shelved. The latest effort made by the Modi-led government, the National Policy on domestic workers, 2019 (still under consideration) has its heart in the right place, and addresses some of the key issues articulated by the workers who spoke with me. Concretely, it seeks to:

  1. grant domestic workers the legal status of a ‘worker’ and register as “unorganized workers”
  2. address issues of minimum wages, paid leaves, social security
  3. clearly define full time, part-time, live-in workers, employers, private placement agencies
  4. form their own associations or unions
  5. enhance their skills by providing training
  6. provide protection from abuse and exploitation and a grievance redressal system.

The draft policy also assumes that domestic workers are now covered under the Unorganized Workers Act, despite proof to the contrary. The steady rise of on-demand domestic work platforms such as Bookmybai and Bookmynanny, also needs to be taken into consideration by the state. Currently, there are no laws that protect gig workers, with the Code on Social Security, 2019 yet to be approved by the parliament. 

The abuse and exploitation (both physical and sexual) of domestic workers is reported in the media, but few lodge a formal complaint. Most domestic workers are either not aware of the legal provision (Sexual Harassment of Women at workplace Act, 2013) or on account of belonging to non-dominant castes and communities (such as tribal minorities),  feel a fight with “bigger people” is a losing battle. Some of the workers who spoke with me also mention abuse but not always as having themselves suffered it. Older and more experienced workers, they said, would warn those new to the trade against working in a particular home (those who are known to abuse their ‘servant,’ or bachelors’ homes are a strict no-no) during these auto savaris.

The metaphor of the ‘savari’ is quite interesting for many reasons: It represents both the literal travel involved, and the travel from an individualised experience requiring personalized mechanisms (such as negotiating wages) to that of shared experiences and a collective redressal of issues (however small or informal the effort of collectivisation). These interviews compel me to wonder if it is possible to identify, and/or energize and enhance informal collectivisations (like the auto savari groups) that might already be happening across sectors via digital technologies. For instance, domestic workers organizations and unions in Indonesia, Thailand, and Hong Kong have used mobile phones and internet to create virtual solidarities, mobilize themselves to protest against discriminatory laws (such as the proposed minimum two year contract at a placement agency), and document abuse. The mobile phone, specifically, could potentially be a device that connects isolated domestic workers with organizations that are already working towards their rights and protection (such as the Hyderabad Bastee people’s federation and National Domestic Workers’ Movement), and foster a sense of community and solidarity.

Recent media reports also suggest that, in the absence of the safety net of labour laws that specifically apply to domestic workers, the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have only exacerbated issues outlined above: losing jobs, not being paid for the months they were unable to report to work. Those that tried to continue working through the lockdown were branded as “virus carriers” or “super spreaders”, and found themselves at the mercy of their employer’s “benevolence”. Even though India seemingly recognises the rights of workers, and is a signatory to the ILO’s Convention on Domestic workers, without ratification, this agreement is limited to word and not spirit, and the rules are not binding. The fact that there has been a 120 % increase in the number of domestic workers post-liberalization only underscores the need for a comprehensive national policy that can empower these community of workers, instead of “carewashing” –deliberately confusing actual legal provisions and monetary assistance with expressions of gratitude through words.