June 22, 2020

WHY E-SCOOTERS ARE SO DAMNED FUN

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Dr. Markman is the Annabel Irion Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at The University of Texas at Austin and the Director of the IC² Institute. He received his Ph.D. in 1992 from the University of Illinois and worked at Northwestern University and Columbia University before coming to The University of Texas at Austin in 1998.

Dr. Markman has published more than 150 scholarly works about cognitive science, decision-making and organizational behavior. He is also the founding director of the HDO program. Dr. Markman and several of his books, including Smart Thinking, Smart Change, Bring Your Brain to Work, and Brain Briefs (co-written with Dr. Bob Duke), have been featured on Dr. Phil and other programs. Beyond the UT campus, he is probably best known as the co-host of KUT’s “Two Guys on Your Head” radio show and podcast, where he and Butler School of Music professor Bob Duke explore the human mind with a unique mix of research, humor and everyday relevance.

BEAM: One of the remarkable things about surveys of e-scooter riders is their enjoyment ratings of the experience. Why do they feel so fun?

I think there's lots of different things going on with e-scooters. For one thing, we've aimed these scooters at adults, but the scooter itself is something that originated as a toy for kids, right? So, you have lots of people with fond memories of letting loose that inner daredevil (and if you didn't own one you were envious of the kid up the street who did) and then suddenly these scooters have become an engine for mobility in urban areas, and you don't even have to own it (at least permanently).

If you think about the kinds of transport forms that we really romanticize, they tend to be open air ones, everything from a motorcycle down to a bicycle. So much so that every middle aged person now feels the urge to dress themselves up in lycra and spend thousands of dollars to get on a bicycle. And I think scooters take advantage of that as well; you've got that kind of freedom, a little bit of wind rushing through the hair, and all of those things combine to create this really, really wonderful experience that I think people just love.

I think they allow us to reconnect a little bit with the person that we were at some point in the past - our less careworn selves.

As we get older, unfortunately we also take on more responsibilities, and so any opportunity to engage in a little nostalgia is a good thing because it brings you back to a time when, even if life wasn't actually simpler, it felt simpler. So you rarely see somebody on a scooter who's not smiling, because it's just a kind of fun experience.

 

BEAM: The comparison with motorbikes is very interesting. They’re somewhat more powerful than the average e-scooter, but riders always talk in very visceral terms about the emotional, almost zen-like, experience of riding. Do e-scooters channel a little part of those same feelings?

One of the things about humans is we're really good with tools in general. And part of what it means to become comfortable with any tool is that it does become an extension of the self. Think about a tennis racket, for example. When you first start playing tennis, you don't know how to swing it, you're not sure what to do. You often hit balls off the end of it, or the neck of it. But at some point, as you get used to the game, you just always hit the ball on the strings. It may not always be in the sweet spot, but you're getting there.

At that moment, the distinction between what's part of your body and the tool itself begins to evaporate.

You're no longer thinking of, "Oh, I've got to swing this in a way that is two feet past the end of my hand". You're just swinging as this is how you swing to hit the ball.

I think you get that state in mobility as well. When you're first learning to ride a bicycle, you're just desperately trying to stay up on it, but then eventually it just becomes this natural instinct where you're moving in concert with the machine. And I think that scooters take advantage of that same aspect of the way we meld with tools. But similarly, that instinct only comes with sufficient practice. So one of the issues is if you're somebody in their twenties or thirties and you haven't gotten on a scooter since you were 11, then that first step back on it is always going to be a little tricky. And of course, the chances are that the scooter you had as a kid was self-propelled and not electric powered.

There's a certain amount of learning that you have to do that's awkward, and so it's important not to judge the joy of the experience by the first time you do it, where it will be novel, and a little nerve-wracking. But as it becomes second nature to use, at some point you no longer have to think about the actions; they become more habitual. Getting to that sense of "flow" really requires a certain level of competence, and needs you not to be consciously thinking about your actions anymore.

 

BEAM: The “flow” experience will be common to all e-scooters, whether privately owned or shared, but does the ridesharing form of e-scooters have any additional influence on a rider’s experience? How does sharing fit in?

Yes, the sharing thing is a fascinating part of this. If you think about your experience of sharing things when you were growing up, it was usually situations where one of you owned the thing, and you had to give up some control or some rights to it to share with somebody else. And that's a really hard thing for people to learn to do. We do learn to do it, and as adults, we become much better at allowing people to borrow some of the things that we have, but there are plenty of things we would never necessarily lend to another person.

What's interesting about the most of the sharing economy is that none of us owns the thing that's being shared. I mean, of course, that somebody owns it, but it's the corporate entity rather than another human being. And so the negative emotions that are normally associated with sharing don't apply.

But what you also have with sharing is convenience. If it's there whenever I need it, then that's perfect because I don't then have to worry about taking care of it, and I don't have to worry about charging it. I can just use it when I need it, leave it where it was and move on without a care in the world (in fact, all the behaviours your mother would have disapproved of when you were a child). And if you look at the variants of the sharing economy overall, that's when it's worked the best; where the item is there exactly when you need it.

Where it's worked less well is in places where you need to do too much work to get it. For example, there was an attempt at a sharing economy for tools under the assumption that you only need tools occasionally. I own a hammer like many people do, and I pull that hammer out three times a year, and so you'd think, "Well, that's really inefficient. Why should I own this hammer when I could just get one those three times a year when I need it?".

But when I need a hammer, I need it right now. And if the hammer's not out on the street so that I can just step out and pick it up, then it does me no good. I just don't plan my hammer usage that far in advance. And so that's why some of the sharing companies just didn't work as well. But for scooters, that’s not the case.

I think a lot of the mobility solutions such as scooters and bicycles, have a really nice sweet spot there where you can make them utterly convenient, so that they're available exactly where and when you need them without requiring you to plan ahead.

 

BEAM: Living in the US you would have seen with your own eyes the rollout of e-scooter services in the very early days of the industry, and there were some fairly interesting social battles being played out between the early adopters and broader communities. How have those early conflicts evolved?

I think that whenever you introduce something disruptive into a social setting, there's a period of time where people don't know what to do with it. In that moment, you are developing a social norm, and it's a social norm that has to exist inside of a system in which there are already a lot of other social norms. So if you think about the urban areas where a lot of the scooters got placed or dumped when they were first introduced, initially there was no real attempt to coordinate with the municipalities to try to determine what rules might be put in place, or to create structures to create a little bit more order. Instead, it was just, "Let's see what happens."

 So as a result, you got this exploration phase, as people tried to figure out how to navigate, in this case, the social space; so is this something you're supposed to be riding on the sidewalk or the street, each of which has its risks? Do you leave it in an orderly place on the corner, or do you just throw it down and walk away from it? If it's left in the middle of the sidewalk, what is the reaction of the pedestrians that are now inconvenienced by it? And all of these issues were things that had to be played out.

Every culture has its own sense of how you treat the people around you, and the US tends to be pretty individualistic on that front. So I think a lot of people who were riding these scooters were thinking mostly of themselves, rather than of everyone else.

I think that for anyone coming to the US from Singapore or Korea or Japan, the sidewalks are pretty chaotic. People are constantly crossing against the lights. And of course, in those Asian countries you get the opposite experience, where there's rarely a jaywalker to be found. So that creates a very different public mindset.

If you think about it, for dominant modes of mobility such as cars we created a great deal of infrastructure for them. We have lanes, channels, and designated parking spots. So people don't just leave their car anywhere, they park in designated spots, and there's enforcement of that. There are even racks for bikes that are put in particular places, and people have that opportunity to lock up their bike and walk away. We build infrastructure that allows us to use these mature forms of mobility.

Now, if you look at what's happened in the US, there's been a similar evolution with scooters. I'm lucky enough to spend my life on a college campus, and of course, college students are a great demographic for shared scooters, and certainly many companies took advantage of that. But even on campus what we're seeing now is the development of designated scooter parking zones, with little spots marked out, and active encouragement of riders to park there. The university even started carting away scooters that were just left out, and fining the operators. And so there was this negotiation back and forth between the users and the guardians of the social space. And then of course the scooter operators started passing those charges back to the consumers, which then in turn helped to shape their behavior a little bit.

So I think we saw a kind of evolution from chaos to a lot more order, which involved a combination of people learning about each other and the technology, as well as entities doing so - whether it was cities, or organizations like universities stepping in to create a little bit more regulation. Some of that regulation was around things like parking and some of it was around speed, for example, adding an automatic electronic limiter on the maximum speed that you can ride a scooter through a college campus.

This is not that dissimilar from what we saw with smartphones, and how people figured out what was and wasn’t socially appropriate.

Now you have the situation in which everyone gets in a queue in Starbucks and nobody talks to each other because everyone's got their face buried in the phone. And that's become such a social norm that it's actually a little bit of a surprise if you're standing waiting and somebody else turns and says something to you (which was pretty commonplace 10 years ago). So, we definitely see that kind of evolution as every technology weaves its way into the fabric of our lives.

 

BEAM: Many historians of tech adoption talk of a moment when a device or service “crosses the chasm" from early adopters to usage by the majority. What are the drivers of this phenomenon?

One of the most important things for any technology is for it to be used visibly by others. I think a lot of us draw hints from the world as to how we're supposed to act and what we're supposed to do, so if you see lots of people doing something - whatever it is - it makes you want to do the same thing. It’s a phenomenon called “goal contagion”; the more that you can witness other people doing something, the more interested you become in doing the same thing. So I think that technologies that have very slow adoption curves tend to be ones that are only used at home where you have no idea whether anybody else is doing it.

In recent years, those kinds of companies have tried to use social media to try to get people to publicly show that they're doing something, and many have even tried to build a certain amount of social media virality into the devices themselves. The Peloton exercise bike is a great example. There have been exercise bicycles for 70 years, and mostly they've become glorified coat hangers after a few months because people purchase them, but don't stick with using them. But where devices like the Peloton have succeeded where others haven't is partly by creating a little bit of social structure within the offering, because they’ve taken something that would ordinarily be used only as an individual, but now are demonstrating that there are other people doing the same thing (and that there's a lot of them).They're very clever about calling out how many rides different people have taken on their Peloton.

So I think with scooters, you have the massive advantage of public visibility. And with that, early on, you want to give incentives to some people to try them out and use them visibly, and in so doing, demonstrate to everybody else, hey, this is fun, it's quick, I can learn to use it quickly. That’s an important thing to do.

Fortunately, that’s never been easier. With some of the early bike sharing systems, you had kiosks and you had to go through an elaborate procedure to rent the bike out and it took a while the first time you wanted to use it. Now, between the fact that everyone is carrying a pretty powerful computer in their pocket, and that computer is generally already set up to make payments, it speeds the process considerably because it takes just seconds to download an app and you can usually log yourself in with some other login you've already got and it will connect right up to your payment system. You've reduced what they call the friction associated with trying to use it.

So with tech generally, it’s a really easy time for people to try things, and with scooters specifically, it's a relatively low cost to the owner to give a pretty steep price reduction to encourage that trial (or even make the first ride free). And as long as that first experience is a good one, then you increase the chances that people will try it again. But in the long term, people have to see how they can use it to do something that's going to be useful to them.

If you look at many of the early users, they went and rented one, rode in a big circle, and then left it more or less where they found it. And after that, they were like, "Well, that was fun, but I'm not sure this is for me”.

For operators, I think the alternative is to say, "Well, hey, I'll tell you what, why don't you use it to go to the store, or to get to a friend's house”;  to actually get people to use it to do something that would have been more inconvenient to do in another way.  Because then you're demonstrating, not just, "Hey, this thing was kind of fun”, but “it was fun and it helped me to accomplish a goal that would have been harder to accomplish otherwise”. That speeds up adoption because more people know what to do with the technology, more quickly.

 

BEAM: Urban planners often talk about the concept of a “walkshed”, where people use a kind of heuristic of what facilities there are within a 10 or 15 minute walk of where they live or work - shops, restaurants, cafes etc. One of the things we've observed is that when people have access to scooters near their home or workplace, they have this enlarged sense of their walkshed, and people's “horizons” literally start to broaden. How will that impact usage patterns, and ultimately, the development of the category?

It's funny how when I was a kid, I would read these books about people who lived in the city and it would talk about how they never really got out of their neighborhood. I thought, "Well, that's crazy. How could that be?". Having grown up as a suburban child, we were constantly getting in the car and driving several miles to get anywhere.

But then my first job as a professor was at Columbia University in New York City. And so I lived in the city right across the street from the University, and like many city dwellers I spent a lot of my time walking around from place to place. And then I had that experience of realizing that months had gone by and I hadn't really been more than about six blocks from my apartment. So I’ve lived that walkshed experience.

But of course you don't do that explicitly; you don't think to yourself, "I'm going to live my life within this radius." But instead what happens is you just begin to think, "Well, I've got to go to the store, where am I going to go? Oh, well, there's a little grocery store down on the corner. I'm going to go there." And that just becomes the habit. And then you look back on it and realize, "I haven't gone anywhere". So with things like scooters, what you get is a gradual widening of that: it isn't something you start to actively think about, but suddenly the scooter's right there out in front of your home and you hop on it and in the five to ten minutes that you want to spend getting somewhere, you get much further geographically.

And then, a month after you start using this you'll look back and you'll go, "Oh, no, that's interesting. I've doubled the size of my neighborhood without trying.".

Then, in turn, one of the things that comes with that is it eases some of your social interactions. The chances are you've got a certain number of friends who live just a little too far away to see as often as you'd like to, because one or the other of you is going to have to hop on a bus, or you're going to have to take the car or an uber ride, and car parking is a pain and ride shares are expensive. And so at some point you realize, "Well, I'm just not seeing these people as often as I used to,". But now, in the same amount of time that it would take to get an Uber or wait for a bus, you can just hop on a scooter and be there. So you actually find yourself spending more time with people, which is at the end of the day, is one of those ultimate drivers of human behaviour.

Yes, there's something inherently fun about a scooter, but ultimately, they survive because they're a mobility solution and they have to be serving people's goals. And I think that as people begin to notice, "Yeah, I get to go to that restaurant that I normally don't go to. I get to see that friend I don't normally see", those people are going to become your frequent riders, because they're the ones for whom this is really filling a need that couldn't really be filled in any other way. That is what will make e-scooters a really sustainable business in the long term.

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