June 21, 2018

It’s hard to embrace uncertainty in startup product development ... but it pays off.

The word uncertainty makes us feel a bit uneasy, doesn’t it? We know at a high level that many things come with uncertainty. For technology startups, uncertainties arise all the time. Should we build this or that? Do users need this feature or that one? Ok, they need both ... but which one do they need more? Are we solving their most important problems, and capitalizing on the most promising opportunities? Are we missing anything? Product development inevitably comes with myriad questions and uncertainty.

For startups, the common theme is to stay lean. Deploy engineering to build quickly and deal with mistakes later. Iteration just comes with the territory, so why wait? This approach gets product out the door quickly, no question about it. But, it doesn’t always get the right product out the door, or even the right product foundation. Importantly, it doesn’t embrace uncertainty head-on.

The real problem with the approach of not admitting and embracing uncertainty is that we’re relying on our own confidence -- whether real or fabricated -- to make decisions about the things that we create. But will it truly address users’ needs? Will they adopt it? Will they stick with it in the long run, rather than abandon it after a week or two? How do we know? Power lies in the most truthful answer: we don’t know.

I firmly believe that we’d be out of touch with reality if we took on the perspective that we will undoubtedly succeed with a product launch, even though we haven’t yet sold the product and retained paying and engaged customers. Any one of a number of factors can lead to a variety of outcomes. Looking at lagging indicators, or proof points that come afterwe’ve learned that something has happened, is the only true way for us to squash uncertainty. Lagging indicators do address uncertainty ... but they usually come too late.

I advocate for startups to get in touch with the reality of their uncertainty. It requires that we temporarily put aside (but definitely not ignore altogether) our confidence from past experience, industry expertise, or gut instinct. When we’re vulnerable in this way, first with ourselves and then with our teammates and customers, we have the courage to embrace the risks that we inevitably face. It takes courage to admit we don’t know something (or lots of things), but it pays off. This courage leads to improved relationships with teammates, stronger partnerships with customers, and more innovative and impactful products, services, and experiences.

Admitting uncertainty is scary, but also liberating. An all-knowing mindset closes doors to learning, to iterating, and to manifesting new processes, designs, and revenue opportunities. And admitting uncertainty, but not facing it until later, increases the risk of failure. So how do we actually deal with that uncertainty? We engage in user research, include our users in the design process, and still stay nimble and ready for iteration. And we ship products too. Admitting and embracing uncertainty frees us up to proceed with courage and practice continuous learning. It enables us to build products that serve our customers better than anything we could conceive of with in-house knowledge alone.


What do you and your team find helpful in managing uncertainty in product development?

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January 25, 2018

How to juggle risks when preparing for a new product launch

It can be tough for startups to know when they’re ready to launch a new product or service. There’s a fine line between launching too early and launching too late, and both come with risks. Mistiming the launch can be a tough mistake to recover from. Moving fast with patience is a delicate balance.

The reality is that startups need to move fast. They need to be nimble, and prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. Everything from a fast-moving competitor to a new legal regulation to a strategic partner’s shift in priorities may land on a startup’s desk on any given day. Unexpected changes like these are hard to prepare for, but can certainly shift a team’s readiness for a new launch.

Reid Hoffman has a quote that I often share with startup teams:

“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

He makes an important point -- to let go of perfectionism, to ship early despite known gaps and limitations, and to get real feedback from real users. Delaying this real-world feedback can be incredibly taxing on a startup’s budget, competitive advantage, and team morale. Shipping too slowly can reverse team momentum, slow traction, and squash user excitement. Startups may spin their wheels trying to get their product “just right,” but only end up spending more time, money, and energy than they can afford. While gathering feedback on ideas and prototypes provides tremendous value, and I’d be remiss to say anything to the contrary, nothing matches the quality of feedback startups get with real-world usage.

In a nutshell, if startups wait too long, they waste precious time building something that will quite certainly need some refinement (if not more than that) anyways. At the same time, startups also run the risk of users growing inpatient, watching fast-moving competitors cruise past, and taking a hit to team morale. Clearly, this is less than ideal!

But, launching too early comes with its own risks as well. And these risks are challenging to overcome. Consider the following circumstances that can happen when startups launch their products too soon.

Perhaps the target market doesn’t get excited about the product because it doesn’t suitably capture the value that was promised. Startups can say all they want to their users about additional functionality that’s right around the corner, but if interest and engagement is insufficient early on, it can be hard to earn it later.

Perhaps a startup shows their cards to competitors in a way that reveals key insights, but it skimped out on the product itself. Competitors with bigger teams and more resources at their disposal can now leverage those insights. Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that teams want to get a ton of feedback on their ideas as early as possible. But, that’s different from a team showing their hand of key insights to the world when they don’t yet have a core offering.

Perhaps a team gets an influx of feedback from very frustrated and dissatisfied users. Keeping pace with necessary development while trying to manage new customer relationships and prevent churn is a very tall order.

One of the biggest risks of launching too soon, though, is something I learned in grad school and relearned in my work at Workiva about solution optimization. The idea is to differentiate product refinement and optimization towards a “local maximum” from optimization towards a broader “global maximum.”

This is jargony, so I’ll put it another way. Once a product is released, all user feedback, product strategy decisions, and design iterations tend to reside on top of the foundation teams have laid with their initial product. This can lead to refinements that will likely improve the product, but those improvements inevitably live within the confines of how strong the foundation is in the first place. This is unless, however, the team is open to overhauling the initial product offering and nearly starting fresh - which is usually undesirable and expensive. Optimization towards this “local maximum” makes it extremely difficult to step back and realize that the underlying foundation may not be solid. The truly optimal solution, also known as the “global maximum,” can only be reached with the right product foundation in place. And this foundation doesn’t just come from feedback on prototypes. It comes from up-front, high-quality, continuous, and lean user experience research.

By digging into each of these risk scenarios, we’re able to find the right balance between launching too early and launching too late. The best approach, then, is when each of these risks has been considered.


Do these risks resonate with you?

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January 8, 2018

In design, aim for confidence rather than over-relying on validation

The word “validate” gets tossed around a lot in design. There’s a notion that once something is validated, it’s done. Validation is the North Star that gives us a warm fuzzy feeling of comfort and completion. It gives us a sense of accomplishment, no matter the size or impact of what’s been validated. We have “hard data,” “solid evidence,” and “real proof.” I mean, come on - what could be better than that?!

In order for us to reach that point of validation, we need to take a scientific approach. Once we have something to validate -- be it an assumption, a design, a projection -- we form hypotheses to test. These hypotheses are what we expect to find out. And once we test these hypotheses, we’ll have a clear determination of the accuracy or inaccuracy of those hypotheses. When we reach the point at which they’re truly accurate, that’s when we’ve reached validation.

Bringing this kind of rigor to the design process makes sense. It creates a repeatable and methodical system to an otherwise complex and unpredictable process. And it encourages us to include various sources, such as users, to check our work. The challenge with the word validation, however, is that it’s easy to get carried away with “validation reliance.”

Validation reliance is when we resort to the concept of validation anytime we have uncertainty. Tons of questions arise naturally in the design process - how does a person do xyz today, do they enjoy it or struggle with it, how would they like to do it in the future, and so on. It’s all too easy to say “let’s go validate that” when we think we have a sense for the answer. This becomes a problem because we end up training ourselves to expect clear, unequivocal answers that resolve our uncertainty. The reality is that this is simply not true.

The other issue with validation is that it often keeps us in fantasy land that precedes real world usage. When we gather feedback on prototypes, conduct usability testing and role-playing exercises, and perform other evaluative activities, we think we’re getting validation. These techniques are certainly valuable, but only after we’ve actually put a design into the hands of our users can we get true validation. Then we can measure usage, user satisfaction, customer retention, and more -- we can inspect more robust indicators of validation.

If there were clear yes/no answers to every question, the design process would likely be repetitive and uncreative. Many untrained people would excel at design. It’s hard to imagine a world in which designs would “delight” users.

Design is complicated. It includes individuality in the real world, with people who think and act in unique ways and articulate their experiences differently. What this means is that when we try to validate our questions, we don’t always get yes or no answers. Sure, there are yes/no type questions, often starting with when, is, who, and where. But even these questions can have answers at various levels of yes/no specificity, consistency, and certainty.

I don’t at all mean to discount the value of validation. But, I want to shift the weight of reliance towards confidence. Confidence is a feeling we get that changes on a spectrum, rather than on an on/off switch as with validation. We can feel various levels of confidence, which suits design-related hypotheses quite well. I’ve noticed that many teams lack confidence in what they’re building, despite their efforts in the pursuit of validation. This is a problem that needs solving!

There are two primary ways with which we can increase our confidence in a design without dismissing the pursuit of validation. The first is by identifying, defining, and mitigating risks. By being diligent with our assumptions and hypotheses, and translating them into potential risks, we can check ourselves proactively rather than waiting to react based on a result or outcome. The second is by striking a balance between gathering feedback (and iterating!) and waiting too long to release. We need to incorporate user feedback, but not at the expense of convincing ourselves that we’ll get things just right if we spend enough time on them before launch. The balance between waiting too long and not waiting long enough is one that teams can find and excel at with experience and guidance. I’ll write more on this balance in an upcoming post.

How do you incorporate confidence into your design decisions?

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January 2, 2018

5 tips for checking your assumptions in design

You’re almost ready to move forward with a newly designed feature for your product. But wait! You realize that you made some assumptions that justify why you designed the feature the way that you did. Here are 5 tips that will help you check your assumptions before signing off on the feature.

1. Consider your past -- Our assumptions are based on past experiencesWhen you acknowledge your assumptions and put them them into words, you need to trace back to where they came from. Do other products offer something similar? Does the design seem simple? Did a trusted team member say the design looks good? Regardless of where your assumptions came from, you need to reflect on their source. You’re then equipped with a better understanding of how to check those assumptions.

2. Think about risks as the inverse of assumptions -- When you make assumptions, you’re taking risks. What’s the risk if your assumptions are inaccurate? What if your assumptions are in a gray area between accurate and inaccurate? Might your users make a small mistake with your design? Or a serious error? How easy is it for them to recover from a misstep? Might they lose information, or have to start something again? Converting assumptions into risks helps you determine the best ways to check them. As an example, let’s say you assume that your users will understand how to use your newly designed feature, and the only point at which they might get a little bit confused is just after they’ve already finished using it. Sounds fairly innocuous since they’ve finished using the feature, right? By converting that assumption into a risk, you might ask yourself: what risks do users face if they use your new feature, but then afterwards they feel unsure if they’ve in fact been successful using it? What are the consequences if they think they weren’t successful? What if they use the feature again, but this time with hesitance? What misguided decision(s) might they make going forward?

3. Plan to gather some data -- The key word is plan; create a plan that informs your data gathering strategy. What do you need to learn to check your assumptions? Do you know what evidence to gather that will help you determine if your assumptions are accurate? No matter your level of confidence, you need to be willing to learn that your assumptions may in fact be wrong.

4. Do an assumption dump exercise -- Doing an assumption dump exercise is an opportunity for you to get everything out on the table. What are you expecting to hear? What do you predict the data is going to say or do? How do you expect this data to compare to data from another source? What would take you by surprise? Discuss these questions and put ideas out there.

5. Meditate before checking your assumptions -- After an assumption dump exercise, meditation is the last step before gathering data to check your assumptions. It may sound a bit hippy, but here’s why: meditation isn’t about clearing your mind; it’s about increasing your awareness of what your mind is up to, and helping you zoom in your attention on the present. Even a 3 minute meditation goes a long way in tuning you into the present moment. This enables you to be curious and open, and look through a lens that doesn’t push you to the end while skipping over important learning opportunities. By being fully present when gathering data on your assumptions, you think of clarifying or probing questions that you might otherwise overlook.

To summarize, 5 tips for checking assumptions are: reflect on where they came from, convert them into risks, plan to gather data with an open mind, do an assumption dump exercise, and increase your presence with a brief meditation. Now you’re ready.

What assumptions has your team made recently that you could’ve done a better job of checking?

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December 15, 2017

Doris inspired me to step into my purpose

While in my senior year of college in upstate New York, I was steadfast in my decision to move to Colorado when I finished my degree. I hit the road and arrived in the Colorado mountains a month after graduation. I didn't have a home or job waiting for me, and I stayed on a friend of my brother’s couch for a few nights while I looked for a place to live. A close college friend of mine would join me a few months later, but until then I was on my own.

While searching for a place to stay for those few months, I went to the local grocery store and saw a note about a condo rental on a wallboard of ads. It was posted by a woman in her 70’s -- let’s call her Doris -- renting a room in her modest two-bedroom condo. The price was in my budget, and I inquired. Doris and I got along well, and a short stay was no problem with her. She hand-wrote a one-page lease in neat script, I signed it, and that was that. We were roomies.

It turned out that Doris and I had a lot in common. She had spent many years as a ski instructor, and I had moved to Colorado to ski (and work!). She was learning Spanish, and I had just finished college as a Spanish minor and wanted to improve my fluency. We were both early to bed and early to rise, enjoyed home-cooked meals, and listened to music. Together we watched Spanish television -- soap operas, even -- and tried to make sense of the storyline. We cooked, listened to music, and she shared her excitement with me about her newest activity: windsurfing. While our time as roommates didn’t last long, I have fond memories of those few months.

Now over a decade later, I reflect on the way in which I help companies design software that improves the lives of older people and those who support them. I’m not surprised at my focus in aging - Doris was my first influencer in my post-college life. I hope to reconnect with her, and in the meantime I’ll enjoy reminiscing.

Comment below to share someone who helped inspire your path and purpose.

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December 8, 2017

Accurate assumptions aren’t the same as truths

I looked in the mirror one morning recently, and I saw a gray hair on my chin. My first gray hair. I’m not bummed out or nervous. I’m excited! Focusing my work on aging has given me a different perspective than I once had on getting older.

Widespread are fears of getting old and all that comes with it. And with regards to technology, several generalizations float around the topic of aging in American culture: that older folks aren’t tech-savvy, that they aren’t using technology, and that they’ll think certain things about certain apps because of their age. But generalizations like these dismiss individuality and can lead to (sometimes misleading) assumptions. When we rely on our assumptions, we over-simplify the complex, we discount what we think of as “rare edge cases” (aka ignore people), and we run the risk of making misguided decisions. We all make assumptions based on our past experiences and unconscious biases; it’s a natural part of the human condition. In fact, we need to make assumptions for our safety and survival. But letting assumptions become our truths is a different story. Even accurate assumptions aren’t the same as truths.

Assumptions are the result of unconscious biases, which are feelings and judgments we have about people without deliberately thinking about them. Developing an awareness of our unconscious biases is the first step toward managing them and preventing ourselves from misusing them. I’m not wary of getting old, even though some people might have assumed that I would be as someone in his 30s. For those designing technology products for older adults or those close to them: rather than assume that “they” have something in common because of their age or situation, take the time to truly learn about them - each of them. Grow to understand their unique perspectives and motivations. When you do, you’ll realize how your assumptions may or may not have been accurate. And if they were accurate, they’ll get filled in with detail and nuance. This learning process isn’t a chore; it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about what makes each individual exactly that - individual.

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Alex has had the opportunity to write a series of blog posts as a guest on Esther Greenhouse's blog. Esther is an Environmental Gerontologist and a renowned advisor, author, speaker, educator, and advocate in the fields of Enabling Design and Aging in Place.


Transportation for Seniors - We're Going Places

Part 3 of a 3-part series

While it’s too early to know the full impact of technologies like ride-hailing apps and self-driving cars on transportation for seniors, local transportation programs that aren’t based on emerging technology continue to have a significant impact. There are many non-profit programs providing rides for seniors, often operating on a small scale and enlisting drivers to offer rides in company-owned vehicles. TheCommunity Arranged Resident Transportation (C.A.R.T.) program in New York City provides free transportation for seniors who need meals or rides to medical appointments, senior centers, and family visits. MTA Access-A-Ride offers rides for individuals in NYC who are unable to use the bus and subway systems. In more rural Ithaca, New York, since the early ‘70s Gadabout has hired volunteer drivers to offer rides for individuals 60 and older and those with disabilities. Where I live in Colorado, Via offers a similar service for older adults.

One non-profit organization in particular serves many local communities. ITN America (Independent Transportation Network America) started with a powerful story when its founder, Katherine Freund, learned that her three year old son had been hit by a car being driven by a senior with dementia. Freund was, of course, deeply impacted; but she recognized that the root problem was bigger than this one incident. She was motivated to do something about it, and she responded by creating ITN. And fortunately, her son recovered well.

Larger than other local senior transportation services, ITN is approaching 27 affiliates around the country, primarily in suburban communities. Average ITN rides are short – often less than 10 miles. The company is often compared to Uber and Lyft despite being quite different from these services. While we might expect Freund to be concerned about this comparison, instead she admits, “If anything, they’ve made things easier for us. Before they came along, we had to explain what we did. Now we just say, ‘We’re something like Uber and Lyft.’”1 Rather than hindering business, the comparison may help ITN build brand awareness. The company has also been compared to a hotel conciergebecause drivers help seniors carry items and escort them from door to door.

While seniors can schedule rides through a smartphone app, ITN differs from other ride-sharing services in several ways. Riders pay a yearly subscription fee, usually $50 to $100, in addition to fees for individual rides that are typically lower than those of a taxi. Seniors can accumulate ride credits when they stop driving by donating their vehicles through ITN’s CarTrade program. And ITN driver incentives are notably different from that of other ride services. In lieu of pay, ITN offers a way to accrue value over time. Drivers, often working adults and retirees who live in the same neighborhoods as their passengers, are volunteers and can’t accept tips. A driver in an ITN community accumulates 30 cents per mile of credit towards his own Personal Transportation Account, or towards his aunt’s account in another ITN community. In this way, driving for ITN may be more appealing to retirees who provide rides for social good, with the added benefit of planning for their own needs and that of their loved ones.

Unlike most transportation services, ITN offers a free hotline and searchable online database service called Rides in Sight. The service helps seniors and their families across the country find transportation. And although ITN isn’t widely well-known, the company hasn’t gone unnoticed either. Among Freund’s recognition is being named one of “12 People Who Are Changing Your Retirement” by the Wall Street Journal in 2008, being honored with the Inspire Award by AARP The Magazine in 2009, and being recognized as one of the top 11 social entrepreneurs by Forbes in 2012. Fast forward to today, many headlines on transportation cover technology companies releasing new mobile applications, acquiring large financial investments, and forming partnerships with vehicle manufacturers and robotics companies to enhance their offerings and develop self-driving cars.

But in spite of being around for many years longer than many other ride-sharing services, it is possible that ITN’s annual subscription fee (on top of its per-ride fee) and request for advance notice to schedule rides have contributed to their modest growth. The toughest challenges that ITN has faced with regards to widespread growth and adoption, however, become apparent when comparing its business model to that of Uber. With each new ITN affiliate comes the need for local startup funding, a local operations team, and the optional support of an ITN“pre-affiliate” representative who provides coaching to the local team in the early development stages. According to Freund, raising this money and finding the right people to manage an affiliate can take time. As importantly, once created, ITN affiliates have faced challenges maintaining a sufficient pool of volunteer drivers. Freund indicated that the few times affiliates have failed, the reason is usually that it wasn’t able to maintain a consistent group of drivers.

Meanwhile, Uber has leveraged their mobile application and for-profit driver model to scale rapidly. After developing its initial smartphone application, the company piloted the service with 3 cars in New York City in January 2010. Tracking the company’s spectacular growth over the next few years: official launch in San Francisco in July 2010; acquisition of a $1.25M investment in October 2010; acquisition of a $11M investment in February 2011; launched in NYC in May 2011; acquisition of a $32M investment in December 2011; launched in Washington D.C., Chicago, Seattle, and Boston, and pursued international expansion in Paris, in the winter of 2011; acquired a $258M investment and pursued expansion in India and Africa in August 2013; acquired a $1.2B investment as it pursued the China market in June 2014; you get the point. Over this time period, Uber was able to expand rapidly in both national and international markets, create several service offerings at various price points, and widen its service offerings outside of car rides.

It’s not that ITN has avoided the use of technology; among their technology-enabled resources are a web portal for affiliates to measure their performance, as well as ITNRides software to manage accounts for members and volunteers, schedule and track rides, calculate billing and finances, and manage community outreach. But ITN and Uber employ fundamentally different business models; the technology, funding model, and target population clearly differentiate the services. And perhaps ITN was initially ahead of its time, as Uber’s success has benefitted ITN by making the concept more comprehensible. These may explain why ITN has seen gradual growth over a couple of decades, while Uber has seen explosive growth in a handful of years.

Still, ITN’s impact is significant. At the time of writing, ITN has offered over 660,000 rides. The company has compelling stories of the ways in which it has helped seniors. One such story was when a 90-year-old rider, an engineering teacher in New Jersey, was running late. She explained a situation of not meeting her driver at the scheduled pickup time because her class went overtime: “ITN drivers know my schedule better than I do…The driver actually found her way through the maze of classrooms…to find me.” Knowing that the teacher couldn’t drive, the driver admitted: “I was worried about her.”2 I wonder…will self-driving cars generate humane stories like this one?

As an effort to commemorate poignant stories like this, Freund celebrated ITN’s 20-year anniversary by embarking on a 60-day cross countryStorybook Tour road trip in 2015 to visit seniors with stories of how ITN had touched their lives. ITN launched a #storybooktour Facebook campaign and created a dedicated website to display photos and videos of Freund’s interviews along the way. The company also held a #sharearide campaign that year, encouraging people to offer rides to older adults in need of a lift, and to post pictures and stories of their experiences on social media.3

Another small-scale transportation service, SilverRide, distinguishes itself with a travel agent touch to its offerings. SilverRide offers services in the San Francisco Bay area such as private excursions, social events, and courier services. The company requests advance notice for rides, guarantees on-time pickup and drop off, offers accompaniment to an appointment or activity, and manages payments automatically.As well, the company partners with SilverPlanet to help seniors navigate housing decisions. SilverRide also allows seniors to enlist the help of “Silver Advisors” – geriatric care professionals who provide Medicare assistance, fall prevention services, driving ability evaluations, and other services. Notably, their offerings reach far beyond a car ride.

SilverRide illustrates a recurring theme among several service providers for seniors: an overlap with travel, housing, and wellness. Services in the sharing economy may indirectly help seniors get to and from their destinations without directly offering transportation services. Stay tuned for a future blog post covering this topic.

As I alluded to above, several car companies and transportation providers have made significant progress in the development of self-driving cars. Uber is offering select riders a lift with their self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. But with an Uber driver and engineer in the front seats, how close are we really to a widely available, fully autonomous car? A research analyst at BMI Research thinks we still have a ways to go – 15 to 20 years, in fact. Already there are reports of mishaps in Pittsburgh, such as a fender bender as well as a car going the wrong way on a one-way street.

While Uber, Google, Tesla, and others race to get fully autonomous vehicles to market, there seems to be little conversation about the social and psychological implications. Do non-driving seniors, and the broader population, in fact want self-driving cars? Yes, at least to some extent. But will we buy them? Will we get bored of them? What will the word “driver” even mean? Will seniors feel more or less independent? A recent article in Forbes, as well as a study conducted by AAA (indicating that ¾ of Americans are afraid to ride in a self-driving car), start to explore these important topics. But more discussion about the implications is needed. Why? Because it just might impact the massive R&D investments being made in autonomous vehicle development…and the lives of our citizens.

The ensemble of innovation across a variety of industries — only a subset of which I cover here — spawns a myriad of possibilities. Keeping pace with the speed of innovation, older adults will certainly be going places.


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Transportation for Seniors - We're Going Places

Part 2 of a 3-part series

Like their younger counterparts, seniors have transportation needs. They need the grocery and other stores, they need time with friends, they need medical care – just to begin the list. Notably, 79% of individuals age 65 and older live in suburban or rural areas.1 And in 2014, 16.9% of the 38.4 million Americans age 65 and older, and 26.3% of the 14.6 million Americans age 75 and older, didn’t drive.2 While seniors may stop driving at some point, their need to leave home continues.

We could think about all of the ways that we can transport – bus, foot, bicycle, car, moped…but many of these don’t work well for seniors. In fact, the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) estimates that 26 million older Americans depend on others for mobility.3Fortunately, there is an amalgam of transportation options for non-driving seniors. Ride-sharing is one such resource.

Lift Hero, for example, offers rides exclusively to seniors in the San Francisco Bay area without the need for a smartphone. All Lift Hero drivers have first aid certification and complete a thorough training program that covers assisted living equipment and emotional issues. The service also provides roundtrip rides, access to driver profiles, and family and friends can track ride progress in real-time via email or text. The company has even considered offering an add-on service in which drivers would record medical consults and communicate them securely to family. These features are unique, which helps distinguish Lift Hero as a senior-focused option among the ride-sharing services.

While Uber and Lyft don’t target the senior population like Lift Hero, they have come a long way in meeting the needs of seniors. Following its participation in the White House Conference on Aging in 2015, Uber began piloting a program at retirement communities and senior centers in several cities that provides free or discounted rides and free technology tutorials (since the service requires use of a smartphone). Uber has also created UberAssist, a service for individuals with physical disabilities that enlists specially trained drivers using vehicles that can accommodate wheelchairs, scooters, and walkers. Just recently, Uber teamed up with Revera, a senior living community in Canada, and is now offering rides to residents at The Annex independent living community in Toronto. This community leverages UberCentral – a service created for businesses, rather than for seniors – without the need for a smartphone or an Uber account (eliminating one potential barrier to use).

Lyft has also made considerable strides in its transportation services for seniors. The company released a pilot feature that allows riders to schedule rides in advance. While not marketed as a service targeted at seniors, scheduling rides ahead of time has the potential to help seniors miss fewer medical appointments, visit family more often, and feel more independent. Since starting Lyft for Good, a program designed to support community initiatives, Lyft has partnered with the San Francisco chapter of Little Brothers to provide rides for seniors to medical appointments, as well as with Meals on Wheels in cities like San FranciscoPortland, and Austin to deliver meals to homebound seniors. Additionally, Lyft ran a holiday season fundraiser with PayPal in which riders across the country made tip donations that raised over $95,000 for Meals on Wheels.

Like Uber, Lyft’s efforts in the space include an increasing number of tactical partnerships. The company created Concierge, a platform that allows local partners to request rides for their customers through Lyft without a smartphone. Lyft formed a partnership with NEMT providerNational Medtrans Network in New York City to fulfill rides for seniors to non-emergency medical appointments. And in recent weeks, Lyft has formed additional partnerships with Sunshine Retirement Living (to provide rides for retirement community residents), with GreatCall (to offer rides through an easy-to-use cell phone for older adults), and with Aging2.0 (the leading organization that accelerates innovation for the aging population).

Bearing in mind these developments in transportation options for seniors, let’s take a closer look at the challenges these services seek to address. They offer rides for everything from medical appointments, groceries, and pharmacy visits to errands, social gatherings, and community events.

Convenience: bus stops, subways, and other modes of public transportation pose numerous challenges for seniors. Public transportation schedules are limited in certain areas, and stops are often prohibitively far from seniors’ residences and destinations. Seniors may face other physical and psychological challenges, such as vehicle entry and exit, variable weather, lack of confidence in personal safety and self-protection, lack of available seating, and difficulty with map reading and navigation. Family members are often busy with work and their own families, or may not live nearby. Seniors who don’t have a friend, family member, or caregiver nearby are less likely to have ease with scheduling transportation. Ride-sharing services are a handy solution.

Cost: Compared to drivers and taxis, ride-sharing services are often comparable in price while offering several other benefits.

Accessibility: Seniors who use wheelchairs, scooters, and other mobility devices need their rides to be accessible. This remains an area of opportunity for most ride-sharing services, as drivers that work for ride-sharing services use their own vehicles which are often not accessible.

Assistance and accompaniment: Seniors may need door-through-door service, such as support during car entry/exit, bag carrying help, and assistance after a medical appointment. Roundtrip rides and on-call drivers may be needed. According to findings from the National Household Transportation Survey, compared to driving seniors, non-driving seniors make 15% fewer trips to see the doctor, 59% fewer trips to shop or eat out, and 65% fewer trips to visit family and friends.4 In addition, approximately 3.6 million Americans miss or delay medical care because of transportation issues, 16.3% of whom are age 70 and older.5,6

Trust: One of the most important concerns for seniors when leaving home is trusting their driver. Ride-sharing services are increasing rideraccess to driver profiles. Still, seniors who don’t use technology may need to rely on others such as their adult children to select a trustworthy driver.

Social isolation: Seniors, like younger folks, need social interaction to achieve and maintain a high quality of life. Ride-sharing services provide seniors the opportunity to visit with their friends and families, attend local community events, and participate in social gatherings. Studies have shown that isolation and loneliness in seniors is associated with health-related issues and mortality.7,8

Each ride-sharing service has its own strengths and weaknesses. By positioning itself as a senior-focused service, Lift Hero offers targeted services that address senior-specific needs. Uber and Lyft are more widely available and have strong brand recognition, particularly among younger generations. This may increase the likelihood of their use by seniors, since both recommendations and introduction to using the service may come from children and grandchildren. Still, there are gaps. Vehicle accessibility, service availability for seniors in rural areas, specialized driver training, pre-ride trust in drivers, and seniors’ awareness of the options available to them all pose barriers to the adoption of these services. The amalgam of logistical and psychological factors that play a role in how seniors make transportation decisions has generated a market chock-full of opportunity for further growth and development.


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Transportation for Seniors - We're Going Places

Part 1 of a 3-part series

Ride-sharing services and other transportation options certainly afford non-driving seniors a sense of independence. A senior may not be able to drive anymore, but she can still get around. But I believe that even the best ride-sharing services out there may be missing the mark in one critical way. What was it like for these seniors to drive in the first place?  

Let’s take a step back. Why might seniors need help with transportation? They may no longer be able to transport themselves. Many of these individuals are unable to bicycle or walk long distances, live far from the nearest bus stop, and no longer drive. Particularly for those who drove in the past, the implications of giving up a driver’s license are significant. Driving provides us with a powerful sense of independence. Whenever we want, we can just go. No arrangements, no approvals, and no assistance. And if desired, with no destination. This liberty is tough to rival. Yet when seniors stop driving, we may replace a driver’s license with a new solution. We’ll drive grandma ourselves. We’ll hire a personal driver. We’ll walk mom to the bus stop before we go to work. We’ll train grandpa to use his smartphone and use a ride-sharing service. We offer great alternatives, but ignore what has been lost.

For those of us who drive, or used to drive, we know the feeling of closing the driver-side door and fastening our seat belt. We turn the key, just enough to hear the light ticking sound, and then we release slightly as the motor is injected with energy and roars with potential. We take hold of the steering wheel. With an automatic transmission, we push the button on the shifter, and pull it backwards into the appropriate gear slot. For those who prefer a manual transmission, we exert a force to navigate the shifter into gear, and then slowly let up on the clutch with one foot while simultaneously giving the gas pedal a gradual push with the other. Each of these detailed movements demands coordination, vision, and care. Importantly, we feel these movements. We know we’ve started the car because we feel the key in the correct spot in the ignition. We know the shifter is in gear when we feel it drop into a settled state. We know we’re headed in the right direction because we feel the steering wheel passing through our fingers. We know gas is getting to the engine because we can feel the pedal under our feet. And for those with physical limitations and adaptive driving equipment, we know we’re on our way because we can feel control over the world passing by in front of us.

In addition to the felt sense of operating a car, driving also provides a sense of movement in times of stress. Exerting even a moderate force on the gas pedal can provide a thrill. Driving can help discharge pent up emotions. It can also be a simple and relaxing leisurely pastime. Destination-less driving in particular can provide a sense of freedom, and satisfy a driver’s sense of wonder, wanderlust, and exploration. Regardless of how often drivers go for rides in this way, they take comfort in knowing they can “hit the road” in a moment’s notice.

The feeling of sitting in the driver’s seat provides an unmatched sense of independence. Living in suburban or rural areas and not driving puts seniors at risk of isolation, which can lead to a host of emotional and physical problems. Social interaction is a basic necessity for our health and wellbeing; regardless of age, connecting with and relating to other humans is among our most basic set of needs. Many studies have been conducted regarding the effects isolation can have on seniors. According to studies referenced in the AARP Foundation’s Isolation Framework, isolation can lead to illness, loneliness, depression, suicidal ideation, and morbidity. Consequently, transportation as a means to engage in a social context is a basic need and is identified as an instrumental activity of daily living (IADLs). The social opportunities that readily available transportation provides is critically important in improving and maintaining health and wellbeing, and is put at risk when we rely on others for transportation.

The transportation options available to seniors, such as ride-sharing services (to be discussed in Part 2 of this series), help mitigate many of these risks. Their value is undeniable. But, do they help restore the sensed feelings of driving? Do they enable the senior to feel the movement of the key, the shifter, the steering wheel, the pedals? Do they put the senior in the driver’s seat? The transportation and senior services sector are both ripe with opportunity for innovators to explore ways to address these gaps. With today’s rapid technological advances, such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and even Google’s self-driving car, what if seniors could experience driving, without actually driving, and still reach their destination? Now that would be a trip worth riding home about.


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