How user-centered design can produce a winner in the bike & scooter wars (Bird, Lime, Ofo, etc.)

As Published on Medium


Today’s multimodal fleet companies (e-Scooters, e-Bikes and pedal bikes)are expanding at an astonishing rate. Hundreds of millions of venture dollars have flowed into the market, driven by some investors hoping for a repeat of their ride-sharing wins, while others fear missing out on the next multi-billion dollar companies. These fleets can already be found in many cities across the world as we’re seeing the second wave of transportation competition to change the way humanity moves.

However, despite their parallels, it would be a mistake to think of this as a repeat/rematch of the ride sharing wars because the business model is fundamentally different. Putting aside Uber/Lyft attempting to buy out these market leaders to form transportation oligopolies, the inter-company competition between Bird, Lime, Ofo, and others is completely different from ride sharing. This article will explore those differences and demonstrate how user-centered design will drive the winning strategy.


The primary difference of this wave from their ride-sharing predecessors is defining these services’ competition. Uber and other ride-sharing companies disrupted the corrupt and indefensible taxi industry, an easy cause to get behind. Multimodal fleets impact all modes of transportation, but their primary target for disruption is good old-fashioned walking. Walking does not have any established interests, congressional lobbyists, or protective regulations. Although Michelle may have been displeased with further reductions in physical activity, we are unlikely to see much action coming from Melania and the 45th. As such, it’ll be up to the individual city governments to evaluate these services on their own merits, not in context of established regulations that are only partially applicable. San Francisco, for example, issued cease and desist orders to all multimodal fleet companies; they pulled their fleets off their streets and are now applying to get a share of the 1,250 city permits made available between 5 companies.

The second difference is that ride-sharing is a two sided marketplace with drivers as the supply and consumers as the demand. However, there’s an important distinction there — drivers are the supply that make it a two-sided marketplace. Not cars. With multimodal fleets, there are no drivers and therefore no two-sided marketplace. This is the equivalent of all Ubers being self-driving cars that are owned by Uber itself. This is important because setting up an n-sided marketplace is extremely difficult and creates an enduring moat of network effects for the leader. Because of this, being a market leader is not easily defendable — anyone can come along and drop a thousand scooters in a city to quickly become the dominant player (until cities limit the # of scooters).

The third difference is a result of the first and second; features and user experience become a much more significant aspect of user acquisition for multimodal fleets than for ride sharing. Drivers are generally pretty good about picking up and dropping off passengers according to their needs (with price being a primary determinant of servicer selection), but using multimodal fleets creates much more anxiety as things often do not go according to plan. Aside from providing an adequate fleet supply (table stakes), the first app to adequately address these anxieties will quickly become the default choice for users.

In this confluence of factors, consumers stand to benefit the most as platforms must consistently go the extra mile to continue providing superior service or risk being dethroned. Although business leaders and UX designers are rarely the same individuals, the winning strategy will feature user-centric design as the key driver of business decisions. Features alone will not win the long-term battle as they are easily replicable and not inherently defensible, but they can create enough momentum to induce virtuous cycles of increasing demand (revenue) to be re-invested in expanding the service.

Taking an in-depth look, I’ve outlined three anxieties users are having today and features to address them.


Anxiety 1: I feel powerless when I go to a location on a map showing an available scooter, but am unable to locate it. I dread this experience

Feature Solution: You can’t ensure everyone will always be able to find every scooter, but you can give users a feeling of control over their destiny. Apps should enable users to indicate if they are unable to locate the scooter, which would serve as an input to a “punishment” algorithm to identify and chastise people that rode it previously if they put it in bad places or are hiding it (assuming a collection of evidence/indicators). Additionally, apps could provide an inconvenience grant to the individual if this happens to them (assuming they do not then spend that grant on the lost bike they miraculously found).

Anxiety 2: I’m anxious that someone will get the scooter before me so I feel rushed and worried when I’m going to pick one up

Feature Solution: Enable users to reserve a scooter via the app without scanning it so they have a certain amount of time in which to get to it. This can be a free or paid option (simple as starting the meter) as most would be happy to pay a little bit extra to not feel anxious. Another potential configuration is to have the first 2 minutes be free and start the meter after unless the user relinquishes their reservation.

Anxiety 3: I have friends with me and am anxious that I won’t be able to find enough scooters in close proximity to travel together

Feature Solution: There needs to be a friends list feature that enables several users to form a temporary travel band. Once the band is formed, the leading member clicks a button and the app selects appropriate scooters for each members, reserves them, map’s each individual’s path, and set a meetup point for everyone to get back together. The point can be determined using a destination or a simple triangulation between their different positions.

his is a new game that requires bold strategies and prioritizing user-centered design will be crucial to win in this market. The great thing is that this can be done in parallel to aggressive hardware and manufacturing plays and would further drive adoption, not slow down progress.


Big thanks to Lisa Cuesta and Ben Rodri for their thoughtful feedback and edits to this piece. I am constantly humbled by their insights.