Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Numeric Ratings

Caroline O’Donovan wrote for Buzzfeed about how star-based ratings for Uber and Lyft drivers affects their livelihood:

In a San Francisco Lyft car, there’s a chart taped to the back of the front passenger seat: “The Rating System Explained.” It details — in exaggerated terms — what Lyft’s one- to five-star rating scale really means to drivers.


Though tongue-in-cheek, this rating system explainer touches on an essential truth of the gig economy: When companies like Lyft, Uber, and Postmates penalize workers who have low ratings, anything less than five stars feels like a rebuke.

“The rating system works like this: You start off as a five-star driver,” Don, a San Francisco Lyft driver told BuzzFeed News. “If you drop below a 4.6, then your career becomes a question. Uber or Lyft will reach out to you and let you know that you are on review probation. And if you continue to drop, then you’re going to lose your job. They’ll deactivate you.”

I stand by what I wrote four years ago:

Make no mistake: there is a need to have reviews of the new products, new music, and new whatever that competes for our attention and money. But the idea that they need to be judged on a numerical scale is completely ridiculous. A much simpler and more honest approach would be to either “recommend” a product, or to “not recommend” it.

I maintain that star ratings are a poor way to rate pretty much anything. As a method of grading an opinion or experience, it’s inherently dishonest: its equivalence to a numerical ranking system makes it feel like it should be somehow impartial or objective, when a rating is anything but.

I think that impression has given “gig-economy” companies the false confidence that they can rely upon these ratings, with real consequences for their emplo— I’m sorry, independent contractors. O’Donovan:

This sort of rating anxiety extends well beyond Uber and Lyft. “The rating system is terrible,” said Ken Davis, a former Postmates courier, who noted that under the company’s five-star rating system couriers who fall below 4.7 for more than 30 days are suspended. Said Joshua, another Postmates courier, “I really don’t think customers understand the impact their ratings have on us.”

I get that Postmates might just want their couriers to provide exceptional service every time, but that’s unreasonable due to users’ wildly differing standards.

Furthermore, this shows just how dishonest these rankings are. If you’re aware of the preposterously high standards Postmates, Uber, and Lyft set, you’re much less likely to give a three- or four-star rating if your experience is imperfect — you don’t want to be the user who causes the contractor to lose their job.

In general, it’s far clearer to present a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating. Apple Music’s “love” and “dislike” options are exactly what I need to tell it, and nothing more: it’s either “play more like this” or “play less like this”. Likewise, everyone I’ve ever spoken to has assumed that Netflix’s old star ranking system were the ratings from either users or critics, but that wasn’t the case: it was a guess as to how likely Netflix thought you — the user — might like that TV show or movie.

Some people might argue that reducing quality ratings to binary options — like or dislike — lacks context, but I don’t think star ratings provide greater context in the real world. I can easily understand whether a product or service was acceptable to me, but I’m certain I’m not the only person who freezes when they need to figure out just how acceptable it was.

Besides, there’s an appropriate way to build context around a rating: a simple, optional, and private comment box. It might be filled with unfair criticism or utter nonsense, but at least words aren’t usually interpreted as a constant metric in the same way that numbers are. Even if a comment box is filled with complete lies, there isn’t the impression that it’s a calculated and inarguable score.

Our crime, as users, is not knowing whether we can be honest with our ratings. But tech firms have created this problem by assuming that users will be honest after implying that anything less than five-star service is unworthy, and then tying contractors’ livelihoods to users’ ratings. That’s unfair to everyone.