The Hidden Cost of Everything

Last week, I ordered a pizza. Normally, I pick it up, but I was feeling especially tired last week so I had it delivered. The post-COVID world has done one significant thing for me and that’s made me super aware of how poorly everyone doing service work is generally paid. As a result, I’ve been extremely liberal about how much I tip.

I don’t think I was particularly bad at tipping before, but now where I’d maybe tip a $1 at the ice cream shop, I’ll just double the price of the ice cream as a tip. Partially because I can afford to do this, but also because of all of the money I save by not playing anymore skeeball. (This is mostly a joke.)

Anyway, as my pizza arrived and I tipped the driver in cash she seemed surprised and said thanks. Then she texted me again and I got an alert that she was working for DoorDash before her text to again say thanks you and wished me a good day. Here’s the thing, I ordered from a local independent pizza shop. Part of why I didn’t tip the driver through their website is because I wanted to pay the driver cash, since I wasn’t sure how their pay arrangement worked and whether they’d be cashed out from my credit card payment at the end of their shift.

The fact that the vendor was using a third-party company known for less-than-transparent ways of paying its non-employees, really did not sit well with me. It’d be one thing if I knew this was happening because I ordered it through DoorDash, but I didn’t order from them. Technology adds a layer onto relationships that used to be a lot easier to navigate, and I’m not sure who benefits. In theory, the pizza shop pays DoorDash for the benefit of not having to employ their own delivery drivers, meaning they take a cut from the purchase price of every pizza. The driver isn’t employed by anyone in this scenario, but gets paid mostly from whatever the ordering person decides to tip them, along with perhaps some nominal payout from either Doordash or the delivery company.

I don’t really care what the surreptitious arrangement is, I just know that if a person felt moved enough to CONTACT ME after getting a cash tip, their pay situation must be pretty sub-standard. What does this have to do with consequence design? Everything.

There’s a sanctioned layer of substrate technology operating across customer-vendor relationships that used to be easier to make sense of. All of this sleight of hand that happens now under the guise of frictionless’ just asks us to ignore the fact that someone is wasting their own gas, insurance and taking all of the risk to bring pizzas in the hopes they’ll end the day making more than they started with, and there’s no guarantee from anyone in the arrangement to make them whole.

These kinds of relationships will proliferate, but the technologists on the other end need to ask questions about what fairness looks like in a world where you make six-figures and equity, while the people doing the work are a car accident away from being worse off than before they logged into your app, lured by language that’s aimed at making them believe they’re empowered in the situation.

Just because someone isn’t your neighbor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about their relationship with what you’re building. Too often, we’re not thinking about our neighbors though. When we conduct user interviews, who are we thinking about.

May 15, 2021