Cities are designed for cars but can designers kick-start an era of micro-mobility?

We speak with product designers about how micro-mobility vehicles like e-bikes and scooters can be made appealing for wide-ranging modern audiences.

Twenty years ago, a commuter on a scooter was an oddity. But today, scooters, e-bikes and other small personal vehicles are part of the estimated $41.2 billion (around £30 billion) international micro-mobility market.

It is a space with huge potential – one McKinsey & Company study projected the market could be worth $450 billion (£326 billion) in the US and Europe by 2030. Micro-mobility’s growing favour among the public is bolstered by ever-improving technology, but also because it’s considered a more environmentally friendly way to move around the city when compared with car travel. It’s also quicker and arguably more convenient than walking, especially for the “last mile” of commutes.

To ensure micro-mobility maintains its upwards trajectory, good product, UX and UI design need underpin the experience. Additionally, services and platforms supporting these vehicles need to be fine-tuned. Finally, consideration for how these forms of transport will fit into the wider context of cities built for cars will be key.

The Model Eleven, designed by Yves Béhar for Unagi

“The aesthetic is integrated and continuous”

While developing the Model Eleven electric scooter for micro-mobility company Unagi, industrial designer Yves Béhar says aesthetics were an obvious starting point for his team. The look of a product, after all, is a helpful way to legitimise adult scooter travel and the wider micro-mobility market. “[All elements of the scooter] are carefully detailed, the aesthetic is integrated and continuous, and the colours elegant and expressive,” he explains.

That’s not to say the design stops at surface level, however. The Model Eleven is the “world’s first” smart electric scooter and comes with a suite of interactive elements designed to make navigating the city easier and safer. Among the features are a built-in turn-by-turn navigation system courtesy of Google and “Collision Protect AI”, which can help riders avoid street obstacles like streetlights, cars, people and signs.

Béhar says the Model Eleven was built with city landscapes in mind while other scooters currently on the market are not. “As designers, we have an opportunity to create a solution that is specifically designed for a city landscape,” he says.

The PAL scooter, designed by Layer for NIO

“High-performance products that express lifestyle values”

Beyond the look of the product and its special features, classic ergonomic elements also need to be well thought through. The Model Eleven, according to Unagi is the lightest full-suspension scooter on the market – it is this kind of feature which designer and founder of Layer industrial design studio Benjamin Hubert says is essential.

“Any mobility product is a serious mark of status – that’s why there are so many different car brands,” he says. “But equally, vehicles need to be comfortable to own and use.” A lightweight and foldable vehicle offers more flexibility for users, Hubert explains, and better appeals as a “lifestyle” product rather than just a way to get from A to B. “The most effective scooters, for example, are going to be the ones that look and feel just as good in your hallway or living room as they do on the street.”

When Layer designed PAL, a modular personal scooter, for Chinese electric vehicle company NIO, it did so with this “lifestyle” element in mind. “We believe it is important to create high-performance products that express lifestyle values and sensibilities rather than an overtly tech-driven language,” said the studio of the project.

The PAL scooter, designed by Layer for NIO

“These services need to be appealing, easy to use and offer value for money”

But product design is only one part of the puzzle. As Hubert explains, the uptake of micro-mobility vehicles depends on a cast of strong supporting elements and government legislation. The combination of these two elements, he says, is one of the main reasons why so many e-scooter and e-bike designs get stuck in the concept phase.

Strong supporting elements, like linked apps or hiring platforms depending on if users own or rent their vehicle, need to make sense to a wide range of users, Hubert says. For PAL, Layer developed a related app, which connects users to the wider NIO system of using machine learning to become accustomed to their routes over time.

“From a consumer point of view, these services need to be appealing, easy to use and offer value for money,” he explains. “It’s an equation that is ever-present in all product design, but particularly when you’re dealing with this level of complexity.”

And then there’s the question of how micro-mobility can fit into the wider city context. “It’s a massive infrastructure project,” says Hubert, adding that in many cities around the world, laws specifically prevent the riding of e-bikes and e-scooters in certain places – like pavements, for example. Britain has tighter restrictions for these vehicles than most other countries.

The Model Eleven, designed by Yves Béhar for Unagi

“We should be talking about mobility in the widest sense of the word”

The obstacles mentioned so far are those faced in the immediate term. But for micro-mobility to grow, there are a number of avenues that might be explored to ensure further adoption. James Melia, founder of product design studio Blond, says he sees the opportunity to “humanise and soften” the aesthetic of scooters and e-bikes. “The market feels saturated right now with over-styled and overly-techy looking products,” he says.

Melia also says modularity – the ability for users to update and fix their vehicles when needed – will be key. “I believe we should be able to upgrade or replace digital componentry, such as the CPU or battery; in the same way, we might change the chain or tyre on an analogue bike or scooter,” he says.

Meanwhile Hubert says for micro-mobility to mature, “we should be talking about mobility in the widest sense of the word”. That is, how these vehicles can help all people to move.

“We generally think about micro-mobility today as young people zipping around cities, but I think so much could be done in this space to help support individuals who can’t move in the same way you might conventionally,” he says. For many micro-mobility vehicles, balance and an intuitive sense of the technology are things designers can take for granted. But Hubert believes a more accessible design approach could help disabled people immeasurably.

Scooter for Life, designed by PriestmanGoode for the Design Museum

“Why is it only the younger age groups that use this form of transport?”

This belief was one of the main drivers behind PriestmanGoode’s own micro-mobility project, called Scooter for Life. The project, initially commissioned as part of the Design Museum’s New Old exhibition, aimed to question “why is it only the younger age groups that use this form of transport”, according to consultancy founder Paul Priestman.

Scooter for Life aimed to “design a scooter that would fit all ages, keep people fitter for longer and be a replacement to stigmatised mobility scooters,” Priestman says. Extensive research and interviews with target user groups produced a list of requirements, such as the need to be able to take the scooter into shops and on public transport, have space to store groceries and fit into a flat or house.

“One of our main challenges was to design a scooter that would feel safe and steady, hence the three-wheeled design, which provides extra stability,” says Priestman. “We also designed an optional seat and electric power, as well as integrated safety breaks.”

Scooter for Life, designed by PriestmanGoode for the Design Museum

“It is by far the quickest way to get around”

For all three designers, the future looks bright for micro-mobility – provided it can address and work with the challenges stated. Melia perhaps best sums it up when he says the challenge will be in “understanding the consumer and their requirements, which is particularly interesting because these requirements are changing rapidly as technology evolves”.

Priestman, who is currently stationed in Shanghai, says there are already examples of how these alternative transport systems can thrive in the cities of 2021. “Here, bike sharing is immensely popular as the users can use the wide and segregated bike and scooter lanes, which allow them to zip past any stationery traffic – it is by far the quickest way to get around the city,” he says. Melia similarly says the UK could benefit from looking to international examples set by cities with cycle-friendly infrastructures like those seen in the Netherlands.

Hubert too believes the only way is up. “Big brands are taking this seriously, where traditionally they would not have,” he says. “I think the market for this will only become more saturated as the years advance – but crucially the ones who will win in the public’s eye will be those that are sensible, sensitive to user needs and sustainable.”

A concept scooter designed by Blond

What do you think about the design opportunities around micro-mobility? Let us know in the comments below…

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  • kris November 30, 2021 at 4:57 pm

    design homework gang

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