How I Learned to Design for Seniors, Shoppers, and Celebrities

Russell Wilkins
Oct 13, 2016 · 5 min read

What does it take for an idea to become reality?

It’s kind of a trick question, because there are many ways for an idea to take shape and be born into the real world.

Some seem to appear fully formed. Others come with a lightning bolt of inspiration that’s followed by months or years of meticulous, laser-guided focus and incremental improvements.

But there’s another route-to-reality that is my favorite, because it is the most exciting, and, for me, the most rewarding: it’s when you start with one idea and get to work, only to realize that over time, through that work, your idea has become a totally different thing — a better thing. One that has taken on a life of its own.

UberCENTRAL is a great example of this last way.

When we started what would become UberCENTRAL — our service that allows businesses to request and manage rides for multiple customers, patients, and clients — we didn’t realize its true potential. How that realization drove UberCENTRAL’s design is, I think, a story worth telling.

Of kluges and concierges

We are always eager to learn how people are using Uber in the real world, and their ingenuity never ceases to inspire us. We’d found that many hotel concierges were using multiple smartphones to order Uber rides for their guests, a clever workaround to get around the fact that our app was designed with single-account, single-device users in mind. When faced with several guests at once, hotel staff were unable to order rides for guests without having access to multiple devices.

Obviously, this system was less than ideal, and it was only one of several unique constraints. Hotels had no easy way to bill rides to their customers’ rooms, which would challenge product adoption. More importantly, hotels in and of themselves didn’t constitute a compelling enough business case to justify designing and building out a product this massive.

At a lot of companies, this would have been the end of the story. Chase an idea for awhile, sure — but if faced with what looks like a dead end, you cut your losses and move on to the next thing.

That’s not the way it works at Uber.

“A bunch of startups within a startup”

One of my fellow designers has referred to Uber as “a bunch of startups within a startup.” I think this feels exactly right. At Uber, everyone — designers and engineers, individuals and teams — is encouraged to take the initiative: starting up new projects, coming up with new ideas, and then following the thread to see if it leads somewhere interesting. And if you see what looks like a dealbreaker: keep going.

Considering these challenges, we realized that what was special about our idea wasn’t limited to hotels — we recognized the many other potential clients who could be better served by a centralized platform.

That’s where the fun really began. Once we stopped thinking of it as “Uber for hotels” it became “Uber for hotels/boutiques/hospitals/senior centers/community services…anywhere that would be better served by a centralized service…and UberCENTRAL was born.

Aunt Millie and the bodystorm

We worked with Common Courtesy, which was created to help people with limited mobility and inadequate access to public transportation. Common Courtesy introduced us to people who taught us about other user needs we’d want to consider:

  • Communication with the rider is effective through SMS (rather than push notifications from the app).
  • If you do have a smartphone — but not the Uber app — a mobile-friendly web page that allows you to see your car on a map will do the trick.
  • If you’re not a current Uber user, then we can’t expect you to know the usual Uber jargon.
  • We need to build on the web, not native, to accommodate businesses who could be behind a firewall and riders who don’t want to download additional apps.

To start working through these unique design constraints, we created an InVision prototype, and then we brought together product managers, engineers, and members of our legal and research teams for a session of “bodystorming” — basically a physically active, improv-style version of brainstorming.

If you think the word “bodystorming” is a little silly, try doing it…you’ll feel a lot sillier. But that’s really the point. By getting outside of our comfort zones and physically acting out different roles, we made sure we weren’t taking anything for granted while testing out different scenarios. My personal favorite was one Aunt Millie, “a senior citizen without a smartphone needs a ride home from her physical therapy appointment.”

By thoroughly investigating the process through bodystorming, we were able to identify potential pitfalls and iterate in real-time before putting down a single line of code.

Teaming up

Next, we were ready to bring in the Engineering team. From then on, Design and Engineering essentially lived together all the way up to launch day. At Uber, we are firm believers in cross-functional teams; we don’t simply “throw designs over the fence.”

With Engineering on board, we had a functional prototype within weeks, because our engineers are basically superheroes. We first tested in-house, sending a few willing guinea pigs to Sightglass, a local coffee shop. This was a big deal for us: the first time at Uber that a rider wouldn’t need an account and wouldn’t be using the app. Needless to say, it was a little nerve-wracking, but luckily we only lost two designers, which is acceptable.

JUST KIDDING! Everyone made it to the coffee shop without a hitch. From there we moved into beta testing, working with retail partners, hotels and senior care facilities. This collaboration has yielded some unbelievably helpful feedback and research to help take this product to the next level. Since launching in July, we have seen UberCENTRAL used in a range of situations — ferrying customers to Bloomingdale’s, trips to In-N-Out Burger for a late night Double-Double courtesy of Hotel Angeleno, and returning mobility and access to people who would otherwise find it difficult to participate fully in their communities.

One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in design was hearing back from some people in this last group. Before UberCENTRAL, these men and women had thought of Uber (if they’d heard of it at all) as “something for young people going to parties”. They had found their own freedom of movement severely limited. For these folks, UberCENTRAL has reopened doors they thought were permanently closed, and become an integral part of their lives lived in the community.

Leaning into serendipity

At Uber, a creative, self-directed approach isn’t only encouraged, it is essential to our design environment. When the original concept for a project doesn’t pan out, we don’t view it as lost work, but as the starting point for a new series of questions — questions that may lead to even more interesting discoveries. It’s been incredibly gratifying to be a part of UberCENTRAL, to watch it take shape and move in unanticipated directions. I’m excited to continue working to broaden Uber’s accessibility for everyone, and I can’t wait to start work on the next great idea…and I hope I don’t recognize it by the time that we’re done.

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.

Russell Wilkins

Written by

Designer, Maker, Bike Fanatic

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.

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