I recently had cause to discuss the design ecosystem as a holistic approach to entering a new market or addressing the needs of a customer demographic that was unfamiliar or very different. I’d touched upon this earlier this year in a post I wrote summarizing my learnings from the field when considering the markets at the base or the bottom of the pyramid, but this time I want to take a deeper look at the basic concept of taking a systems approach to the design of products, services and business models. I’ll start with the paragraph from the earlier post, for some background and then explore this area further:
The majority of industrial designers in studios and corporate departments around the world are tasked with the design of a specific product or application, isolated contextually, for the most part, from the larger ecosystem of the market primarily due to their experience of and immersion in the existing sophisticated marketing infrastructure. They have the luxury of access to information flows on packaging, distribution, supply chains and retail outlets as well as competing designs and this lets them focus on refining a particular product, package or UI.
This situation is almost reversed when it comes to the BoP consumer and the BoP markets. The paucity of information does not only hamper the BoP themselves but also those who seek to serve them. Furthermore, much of the market infrastructure is non existent or of a vastly different quality than that experienced in richer markets. Factors such as income streams that are irregular and lack of financial tools such as consumer credit available for outright purchase are issues rarely considered during the design process but can and do influence the final outcome. Products designed in isolation may win awards but may never quite impact the quality of life in the manner they were designed to do so if their business model, pricing or payment plans, much less distribution or usage do not reflect the conditions of the operating environment.
With so much uncertainty, can a systems approach provide the flexibility and adaptability to respond to rapid changes that the global flow of information is influencing in customer demographics and markets around the world? Perhaps it may do so, if the entire approach to a new or emerging market opportunity is addressed holistically. This snippet caught my eye today, from an article in the news:
Engineers and architects are taught that when something doesn’t work you should see if its fundamental design — the collection of ideas believed to be true when the system was first set up — might be obsolete. Engineers and architects are taught that — in order to make a system work — you must replace those ideas which may have been true in the past but are no longer true today. This is called “redesigning the system.”
In this case, the critical aspect is the foundation on which the system has been designed viz.,
fundamental design — the collection of ideas believed to be true when the system was first set up
and here, we can take the phrase “the collection of ideas believed to be true” as being equivalent to the assumptions we make, the criteria we define or the constraints which bound the solution space. Thus, in the example of the lower income (BoP) markets given above, we begin from the premise that the emerging markets in the informal economy are vastly different from those in mainstream consumer culture and thus we address them accordingly.
Now taking the thought a step further, when we consider uncertain contexts or situations, how then can we address the challenge if a significant proportion of the variables are in flux or unknown? Can we identify and articulate the various elements involved that influence the design of the whole ecosystem, leaving the actual answers to be answered from observations in the field? Or can we find patterns that allow us to extrapolate environmental conditions given that some sets of variables will be similar or the same as other better known situations? And given this, can flexibility of response be built into the systems design itself, using the basis of design thinking which is iterating the solution based on feedback from end users and the environment, as long as we know which elements are fixed and which are mutable?
At this point, it makes me stop and wonder if there are lessons from the informal economy where uncertainty and chaos seem to be the norm and where income is irregular, that could conceivably be applied to enhance the design of business models, products and services to increase or improve their flexibility and adaptability, in general terms?