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Design for developing countries

Establishing a methodology for Human-Centered Design in a challenging context

Published by Abby Nydam on August 1, 2016

Based on insights gleaned from the Gates Foundation’s experience in trying to improve conditions in Africa, the Gates Foundation issued a grant to iDE in 2009 to create a guide that would provide human-centered design tools to other NGOs and social enterprises. The Gates Foundation connected iDE to IDEO, a design firm that had begun focusing on consumer experiences in 2001 and was seen as the leader for commercial user-centered design. (Despite the similarity in names, there had been no previous connection between iDE and IDEO.) The IDEO team brought their established design methodology, design language, and creative discipline. iDE introduced IDEO to our clientele and our tailored approach on how we put “talking to a hundred farmers” into practice. The results of these “field-tests,” along with the combined experience and wisdom of the designers and project staff involved, eventually coalesced into the first-ever HCD Toolkit for developing countries.

Talking to a hundred farmers

Paul Polak, iDE’s founder, anticipated the human-centered design concept with his motto of “first, talk to a hundred farmers.” Polak, who had practiced psychology for 23 years before turning innovative entrepreneur, was passionate about the idea that any solution that people will actually use has to be based on how they perceive the problem and what they want to achieve in solving it. He began putting this concept in practice when he founded iDE in 1981, utilizing it first in Africa, and then in Bangladesh. Polak’s obsession with the end-user underscored his belief that poverty was not a condition, but a symptom, and that it could be solved through providing access to markets.

It was this hallmark approach to markets and focus on the end-user that made iDE a highly innovative organization, one of the first to use a business approach to poverty. Through a “ruthless pursuit of affordability,” Polak challenged the engineers and designers of iDE to meet the needs of farmers who made less than $2 a day by focusing on locally available materials (thus reducing import costs and delays), easy maintenance (so the farmer or a local mechanic could keep the technology working), and scalability (or, as Polak later expressed it, “if you don’t think you can sell at least a million units at an unsubsidized price...don’t bother”).

Tapping the knowledge of rural people. This is a map of a village drawn during a participatory session with local farmers, led by Kebede Ayele, Country Director of iDE Ethiopia.

iDE PC Resource Map Boda

The birth of Human-Centered Design

In 1988, Don Norman, then a professor in the department of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, published The Psychology of Everyday Things (later retitled The Design of Everyday Things). In it, he offered a consumer-oriented view of natural human interaction by exploring the links between design and human psychology. One of his examples was how humans interact with doors. When you approach a door, if it has a simple rectangular metal plate, the door is indicating to you that all you have to do is put your hand against the plate and push for it to open. Similarly, if the door has a handle, it’s indicating that you should grasp the handle and pull to open the door.

Except we’ve all encountered a door with a handle that doesn’t open when you pull it, but has to be pushed. Often, to counteract this poor design, someone has put a PUSH sign on the door. The problem, Norman would say, is not that the user failed the door, but that the door failed the user. Norman’s solution to issues like these is user-centered design, where designers listen to users to ensure that their designs meet their intended use.

Norman’s concept of user-centered design strongly influenced the commercial world, especially the rapidly developing computer hardware and software industry. Norman himself left UC San Diego to join Apple in 1993, initially as an Apple Fellow, and then as their first User Experience Architect.

When iDE opened a human-centered innovation lab in Cambodia, it was the only lab of its kind in Asia dedicated to solving poverty.

iDE PC 3 Phases of HCD

Connecting design to tools

Melinda Gates recalled working in marketing and software development at Microsoft and seeing “firsthand how the needs of the customer informed the development of [Microsoft] products.” As co-head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, she learned of a particular user-centered problem faced by iDE, which had received a grant from the foundation in 2007. iDE was promoting treadle pumps in rural East Africa to help farmers, who traditionally relied on rainfall, use groundwater to irrigate crops. The pumps were selling well in some places, but not in others. iDE identified communities where sales were slow, and went in to talk to the farmers to find out why.

The treadle pump requires the farmer to stand on the pump and pedal, a movement similar to riding a bicycle or using a stair-stepper. The movement requires a lot of hip swaying, which presented a problem in conservative communities where a woman’s hips swaying was viewed as inappropriate. It didn’t matter how cheap the pump was or how well it worked; if it required a woman to get up on the pump and sway her hips, no one was going to buy it. iDE redesigned the pump, and sales increased immediately.

A design revolution

The HCD Toolkit was designed specifically for organizations working with poor communities. The free kit, now in its second edition and available for download here, walks designers through the human-centered design process and supports them in activities such as building listening skills, running workshops, and implementing ideas. The process has led to innovations such as the Easy Latrine, the HeartStart defibrillator, the Super Tunsai, CleanWell natural antibacterial products, and the Blood Donor System for the Red Cross. Over three editions later, the toolkit has been downloaded more than 155,000 times.

Since his initial insight into focusing on people first, Paul Polak continues to lead the drive for drastic change in how designers work and think. In 2008, Polak co-founded D-Rev, a non-profit that seeks “to create a design revolution by enlisting the best designers in the world to develop products and ideas that will benefit the 90 percent  of the people on earth who are poor, in order to help them earn their way out of poverty.” Creating the toolkit changed IDEO, too. In 2010, IDEO formed IDEO.org to implement human-centered design in the developing world through a non-profit arm. And Don Norman continues to focus on human-centered design, coming full circle to return in 2014 to UC San Diego as the director of their new Design Lab.

Using what we learned from our participation in the development of the HCD Toolkit, iDE created our own Human-Centered Innovation Lab located in Cambodia, the first of its kind in Asia. The iDE design team embodies deep local knowledge, business acumen, and product design expertise. HCD is essential to our success as a world leader in building markets for sanitation and addressing agricultural challenges for small-scale farmers. For example, every iDE sanitation initiative starts with a Deep Dive to understand not only the user, but every person who impacts the user’s decision to purchase. We would not have sold 230,000 latrines in Cambodia if not for the insights and design principles gained during this research. iDE now incorporates HCD into every part of our global efforts.

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Tagged: U.S.A., Design, Africa

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