Designing a rideshare app that empowers older adults (Act I)
Case study of the UX research process
Read more about this project:
Springboard’s UX Career Track program capstone project (individual effort)
Adobe InDesign+Illustrator, pen and paper, a blank wall and sticky notes, sound recorder
Today, many older adults who are living in automobile-centric cities in the US suffer from depression due to the loss of mobility and increasing social isolation, especially when they have to give up their driver’s licenses.
I undertook in-depth research and investigation on this problem space, and resulted in a specific, tangible product/service idea that could effectively address the issue. This entire process involved:
- Defining the problem space
- Conducting secondary desk research
- Conducting heuristic analysis of competitors
- Undertaking primary user research using surveys and interviews
- Synthesizing the findings and circling the insights
- Formulating How Might We questions
- Brainstorming solutions
- Creating user stories for the MVP
Formulated the user stories and defined the MVP for a rideshare app that helps otherwise-homebound older adults connect with younger, retired individuals who can offer them concierge driving services.
The problem space
Addressing mental health issues of homebound older adults
“Isn’t there a number that I could just dial to call an Uber?”
— my 90-year-old grandmother, Korean immigrant to the US in the 60s
When our family deemed my 90-year-old Korean grandmother living in San Francisco no longer fit for driving, this was the first question that she asked. Devastated by her loss of independence, she was desperate for a phone number to call that would let her access an affordable Uber and Lyft ride. Without the ability to engage with the outside world, she begins to suffer loneliness and isolation, typical amongst her peers.
I don’t own a car, so I also can’t rely on driving to get around, but somehow Lyft and Uber (especially ‘pool’) have been able to fill need gaps unmet by public transport at handsomely affordable rates. Unfortunately, for my gran who is suffering from dementia, it has been difficult for her to learn how to use an app as intricate as Uber.
Today, the market is filled with digital products and services like Uber, designed for the younger generation that have enormous potential to empower older adults. Yet few existing products and services (as I shall explain in my heuristic analysis) go far enough to consider the accessibility of their product design and content for the broader demographic. As also huge missed opportunity for businesses, given that the senior population is the fastest growing demographic stratum in the US.
“Oddly enough, the greatest potential for improving the lives of the elderly lies in technology built for the young.” — The Economist (2017)
So I set out with this project with one overarching, higher level question in mind:
How do we bridge this technological generation gap so that our older users could also benefit from current innovations to improve their wellbeing?
How could we help older users maintain an active and independent lifestyle for as long as their physical conditions allow?
This project is an experiment to define one example.
While UX design curriculums are much more about practicing primary modes of research, my initial desk research turned out to be critical to the development of the project. For one, the older adult user base is more challenging to empathize with given their entirely different physical and cognitive states, and designing for their accessibility can get quite technical. Given these challenges, the secondary research groundwork is useful for us to know what has already been said and done, and is best not to be skipped over.
I ran a quick search on the internet (and kept to digital sources to avoid information overload) to gain a broader understanding of this problem which would form the basis of the primary research. Main inquiries:
- What exactly do we mean by older adults as a user group?
- What are the pain points and opportunities presented in this problem space?
- How can UX/UI designers address those obstacles and design more accessible products?
I. “Older adult” is an umbrella term consisting smaller age subgroups that are inherently very different from each other.
For one, those who are in their 60s and those who are in their 90s are a whole generation apart, even though we might call either of them ‘seniors.’ These two groups have very different cognitive capabilities, thinking/learning patterns, behaviors, and attitudes. The sudden drop in smartphone ownership amongst user group 80–84 years old in the chart below shows a case in point.
II. Designers (and businesses) should thoughtfully address the psychological nuances of ageism when designing for older adults.
Scientific studies that have shown that subscribing to negative stereotypes of aging, with its association to dependency, not only causes depression but could even lead to higher morbidity and mortality rates. UX researcher and sociologist, Marie Mika, cautions us against propagating ageism through our products. She, as well as interaction designer Kaye Mao, instead advocate the reframing of age as “value in/for society,” and the ethinking of technology as something that could add value to the older users’ real lives.
III. As designers, by learning from and observing the behaviors and mental models of older adults, we can dive deeply into a few exciting human-centered design challenges.
Designing for older users doesn’t mean that your product has to look less-than-appealing.
Instead, let’s look to more inspiring ideas and opportunities, such as:
- Creatively reframing the meaning of old age through our designs: Mika’s article, for example, mentions how we might design hardware and wearables for older adults that are customizable or hidden. Above all: steer clear of ageist bias.
- Exploring the relationship and synergies between digital and analog mediums: Jakob Nielsen from NNG Group observes that in day-to-day life, many seniors themselves keep handwritten notes on the side to keep track of digital navigations on software and websites. How could we design in ways that accommodate these types of shared habits and behaviors?
IV. Learning to design with the older adult users’ need in mind is not only important and necessary, but businesses can also benefit greatly from this practice.
We are all aging, and aging fast.
“By 2030, around 19% of people in the US will be over 65. Doesn’t sound like a lot? Well it happens to be about the same number of people in the US who own an iPhone today.” — Ollie Campbell, Co-founder and CEO of Milanote
But more importantly, as the population ages, we are facing a world where more young people have to support a disproportionate number of retired older adults. “By 2020, 45 million Americans will be caring for 117 million seniors[,]” writes Matthew Boyle, a journalist at Bloomberg. Helping older adults live more independently and autonomously creates a positive ripple effect on caregivers and family members as well.
Competitive heuristic analysis
When earlier I mentioned there should be a phone number my grandma could call, there is. I found two third-party apps that do exactly that — help older adults arrange Uber rides without requiring them to actually use a smartphone (post-onboarding)—GoGoGrandparent and Smart Ride. Having tried them out as a consumer, I concluded that neither was able to address our needs.
I observed and analyzed the two services based on NNG’s usability heuristic principles and zeroed in on three critical principles that I felt were most pertinent to the older adult user base. In addition to these, I looked at how each addressed the ageist bias.
Comparing GoGoGrandparent (left) with SmartRide (right)
GoGoGrandparent, though set out with good intentions, focuses a disproportionate amount of much of its effort on marketing and the onboarding experience but neglected the actual service experience, and from a customer’s point of view (i.e. helping my grandma find a service that works), I found it kind of off-putting.
Then, I turned to a second service, which I happened to like a lot of more-SmartRide. It was elegant, streamlined, simplified. In many ways, I believed that Smart Ride had achieved this. Sadly, when I tried to dial the number, but the line was dead.
There is a shortage of quality digital products and services that are thoughtfully designed for older adults. It would be worthwhile to create a service that is not only easy for older adults and their caregivers to use but also approaches the issue of aging and caregiving with emotional intelligence.
Primary user research
I then set out to dig for insights at a more personal, intimate level—those that cannot be harnessed through the ‘distant’ approach of secondary research.
My questions were:
- What typically brightens the day of the older adult?
- What are some moments when the older adult feels the most empowered?
- What could potentially relieve the daily stresses of their caregivers?
I set out to recruit user research participants that belong to the following two ideal user groups:
- older adults who are prone to boredom/loneliness/depression due to the lack of social engagement opportunities, and
- caregivers who often feel strained from the demands of caregiving amongst other responsibilities.
Methodology and process
Recruiting interview/usability test participants presented the greatest challenge throughout the project—since this is an academic project, anybody’s willingness to respond to my invitation is an act of goodwill.
While caregivers were easier to scout through my direct contacts with friends and family, my grandmother’s peers by nature are not active on the internet so I couldn’t reach them through this method. At first, I wanted to interview pairs of caregivers and their elderly to learn about the differences in their frustrations and motivations, but realistically that was almost impossible to organize.
The constant discrepancy between the ideal and realistic research conditions meant that I had to work more fluidly, more “guerrilla,” and when need be—compromise.
Here is how my research unfolded.
- Screener surveys for caregivers
I sent out screener surveys to friends, families, and colleagues who live closely with and/or take care of an elderly. The survey mainly asked participants close-ended, quantitative questions to screen for suitable interview participants, but their answers also painted a vague picture of the reality of the problem space, which was useful as research data.
2. Interviewing caregivers
Through my survey responses, I identified potential interviewees, which I proceeded to conduct in-person or phone interviews with. The conversations were documented through recording and note-taking.
3. Interviewing older adults
I intercepted older adults in a local senior center and spoke with my own elderly relatives when I got the chance to. These conversations were documented through voice recording and note-taking.
Sometimes the unexpected arise, and it is important to adapt to the situation than fight it. One such example is my encounter with a group of seniors from Hong Kong in a local senior center. When I asked whether they might be interested in participating in my interview, they refused to talk to me individually and instead opted to have a group conversation. So as a bonus I got:
4. Conducting a focus group with older adults
As the discussions progressed, participants bounced ideas around and built on each other’s thoughts, which also led to interesting findings.
Here is one important lessons learned— I sent out screener surveys asking about habits and behaviors, when in hindsight, I should have included more questions about emotional states to gauge the real needs of caregivers and their elderly. For instance, only by knowing if the elderly suffer from boredom and depression, would we be able to tell if for the older adult “hardly ever leaving the house to engage in activities” is indeed a matter of frustration.
- Lack of compensation
While the function screener survey is to screen for interviewees, the screening function wasn’t all that successful. Those who successfully passed the screening did not leave their contacts. As a result, I had to recruit survey participants who were kind enough to leave their email addresses for the interview stage, even if their circumstances were not the best match for this research purpose.
- Lack of access
Other home-bound seniors that are like my grandmother are considered vulnerable and therefore out of reach from strangers like me; yet those who are within my reach, such as the retirees I met in the senior center, are naturally active and lively and did not require intervention. Ultimately, I went with the flow and worked the latter group into this design project which was fine—but I do recognize that if I was unencumbered by this constraint, I might have ended up with a very different project.
In sum, I’ve learned that while practical constraints can definitely affect your findings, and as researchers, we must learn to acknowledge the limitations and work flexibly within them. You can always make the most of whatever amount of research you manage to do.
To gain clarity after conducting the series of interviews, I synthesized my findings using an affinity map based on the notes from my transcripts. When identical labels are generated as a product of different conversations, I deliberately kept them to emphasize common patterns. In doing so, timeless insights about elderly lifestyle, behaviors, and attitudes revealed themselves in a new light.
#1: Having a wide range of activities is not crucial
The most active seniors are the young-old, who tend to engage their time in one or two regular activities, such as voluntary work, art classes, or physical exercise (dance/sport). They are resourceful for themselves, sufficiently adept in technology, and do not often feel the need to find more activities. On the other hand, those who are less active, the older-old, usually have real obstacles for leaving home and are not compelled to find regular activities outside. In other words, seniors from both ends of the age spectrum do not feel like they need to fill their lives with (more) activities.
#2: Greatest need = Companionship
As we age, our desire for companionship becomes increasingly pronounced. Companionship may materialize in the form of family, relatives, friends, grandchildren, pets, neighbors, the stranger in the supermarket. It can be in-person, through the telephone, handwritten letters, or on video calls. Companionship is also instrumental in helping older adults ease into new environments (the buddy system).
#3: Empowerment = Feeling useful
All older interviewees have acknowledged that they feel the most empowered when they can offer their services in some form and contribute to others’ lives meaningfully.
#4: Greatest delight = Food
All older interviewees and their caregivers agree that food brings excitement and joy to the elders’ lives. Cooking and serving food is an activity that kills three birds with one stone: being able to prepare and serve food is one way older adults like to contribute; food brings together people and provides companionship to the older adult; and lastly, delicious cuisines give older adults something to look forward to.
#5: Needs of ethnic minorities most neglected
My interviewees, coincidentally, were mostly Chinese or Asian American. My transcripts expose a common refrain that cultural barriers and language barrier undermine the older adult’s ability to navigate his/her everyday life or access public resources and facilities. Two caregivers from my interview pointed out that it is language, rather than technological, barriers that prevent their elders from using Uber.
#6: Financial concerns are real
Several interviewees, including older interviewees and their caregivers, pointed to budgets and costs as an obstacle to improving their lives. They cite the costs of hiring helpers, professional caretakers or nurses, costs of hiring a taxi, costs of rising rents vis-à-vis limited retirement funds, etc.
#7: Mental models are influenced by experience with analog media
For many older adults who did not grow up with the internet or smart technology, many base their mental models on (mostly analog) systems.
Example 1: Believing that e-mail is a tool for exchanging electronic letters between friends and family, rather than a requirement for connecting the individual and various internet services.
Example 2: Failing to understand the pricing strategy for rideshare pool services operated by Uber and Lyft, and expecting fees to be correlated to travel distances even when rides are shared between multiple riders.
Defining the user(s): Empathy maps and personas
And so, we’ve got the caregiver and the homebound older adult. As my secondary research illuminates, we should not generalize the older adult category. 90-year-olds are very different from 65, or even 70-year-olds. And so, a third group emerged.
The third group are the happy, and often, slightly younger seniors who have retired within the last decade or two. They are not only leading active and vibrant lives but are also eager to help others by volunteering. “If you are looking for those depressed, dejected older adults, you got the wrong person,” they told me. They called themselves the “success stories.” I felt like they had a place in this project, even though at this point I wasn’t so sure how yet.
Based on my research and analysis, I created empathy maps for the three user groups: the caregiver, the homebody (introverted senior), and additionally—the explorer (extroverted retiree).
Based on these empathy maps, I generated the three personas.
How Might We Decide What To Design
Taking a step back and reviewing these personas, I proceeded to consider what might exactly be the product idea.
To do so, I wrote down the following “How Might We” statements.
How might we create a strong support network for older adults?
How might we create opportunities for companionship for seniors?
How might we create a product/service that could give caregivers a break?
How might we create opportunities for contribution by seniors?
How might we design a system that could address the above and that is frictionless to seniors even if they are not amenable to technology?
Based on the distilled research insights, the rationale is that the best service idea would probably fall in the intersection between these four objectives:
I brainstormed various ideas that potentially involved connecting younger individuals/retirees with older seniors, wrote them on sticky notes and placed them on a matrix that introduced two more variables—Financial incentives, represented by the y-axis, and whether the elderly would need to leave home, represented by the x-axis.
Ultimately, I chose a direction that enables older adults to get out of the house, experience the world, meet with real people, rather than one that confined older adults to homebound activities such as watching shows or browsing the internet.
And on that note, though my research reveals that most homebound older adults are not motivated to leave home, I had found that many of them are actually more unwilling to entertain absolute strangers at home, which means that it is better to provide an opportunity of interaction that is functional and practical.
And so, after entertaining several different ideas, I returned to the concept of a rideshare app—but with a twist.
Value proposition: rideshare with a twist
What would this service look like?
I. Recallable drivers who speak the same language
First of all, my interviewees mentioned that being able to connect with a trusted driver — rather than a one-time, random driver — is desirable. But more importantly, the driver has to share a common native language, since many interviewees pointed to language as a barrier to accessing Uber/Lyft.
II. Enlisting younger retirees as the drivers
I realized that the Explorers, the 60-and 70-year-old extroverts, the third user group would be great as drivers. Since many are already active in volunteering, they are well positioned to contribute their time to serve older adults and perhaps even for an honorarium. The goal is not only for them to drive older adults around, but also build rapport with them over time through repetitive service.
III. A friendly app that mimics and supports real-life interactions
The service would involve a rider’s app and a driver’s app, both optimized for older adult accessibility. It should allow the rider to book a ride directly with the driver by landline, but the app should also enable caregivers to help with appointment bookings and monitoring trips.
IV. Supports a long-term objective: build network and rapport
Ridesharing is only a means to an end. The hope is that in the long run, drivers and riders could slowly grow the community and support network essential to helping seniors (both younger and older) live active, empowered, and socially connected lives.
MVP and user stories
During the ideation phase, I thought of many things the app could eventually do. It could, for one, prioritize events searching before summoning a ride (a bit like AirBnB now). Or it could have a function where drivers can help pick up and deliver groceries or prescriptions. But these come later.
For now, the overarching MVP statements for each user groups look like this:
I then broke these down into smaller user stories to identify the essential features that are to be included in the first prototype.
Here are a few things I’ve learned.
First of all, don’t ignore secondary research. Designers and researchers can learn a lot from existing knowledge, and more importantly, it stops us from sounding like a total idiot and saves us work.
Next, it is crucial to ask the right questions during the screener survey to get the most out of it, and to do so, the researcher must have a crystal-clear understanding of what the highest level inquiry is. It took me a while to progress from asking “what older adults (vaguely) need,” to “what makes them tick, what empowers them, and why.” This change of mindset made a big difference to the research outcome.
Lastly, acknowledge the reality that offering compensation to user research participants can make a real difference (although I was unable to do so this time.)But even when facing tight constraints, work smartly and flexibly within them—it could lead to surprises.
I would like to thank James, Sera, Sunny, Edith, Victoria, Peter, Sinny, anonymous individuals from Doelgers Senior Center, Marianne, and my grandmother, Lola, for sharing their stories with me through the user interviews. I would also like to thank my mentor John Maier for his thoughtful guidance and encouragement.