Raising some concerns about urban user research insights being applied to design for rural markets

So, how exactly do you make this thing work again? (Jan 2009)

The Rural Market Insight Group at the Centre for Development Finance (CDF) conducted a six-week product test with a Base-of-the-Pyramid (BoP) household in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. The purpose was to explore whether urban user testing of rural-targeted BoP products yields relevant user insights in early design stages. Surprising results warrant further research of this potentially valuable technique.

It was with great interest that I browsed through the results of the CDF’s research conducted for a newly designed cook stove.  Their rationale for evaluating the applicability of their research results across the urban/rural divide was framed thus:

However, extensive rural user testing that would provide the necessary design insights is demanding for companies with limited time and budgets, looking to scale up quickly. Companies must locate rural test sites, target households willing to test and provide user feedback, make multiple site visits to collect data and analyse insights, modify prototypes and repeat the process several times in several locations.

A valid point. Particularly when the BoP market’s pricing requires minimizing sunk costs during the R&D phase.  The research team then tests the user testing process/methodology with an urban BoP user who shares many similarities with her rural cousins in her kitchen. Their findings include:

 While it will always be necessary to conduct BoP product testing with a rural target audience, urban testing can alleviate financial and logistical challenges that researchers face when conducting early-stage usability and design testing on BoP consumer energy products. Urban spaces offer high densities of BoP-product users, many of whom retain rural behaviours. Close proximity to potential testers allows for low-cost, high-contact interaction with testers and continuous tracking of user behaviours that would go unnoticed with less contact.

So why should there be any reason for concern? The team emphasizes the need to put the user at the center of the design process and articulates the challenges and limitations well.

Timing, context and relevance

The success of these findings should not imply that that understanding user behaviour among urban migrants from rural regions offer actionable insights for rural BoP users in their own environments.  User testing is not the same thing as user research, and certainly not exploratory or applied user research of the kind implemented to identify  opportunities or develop new market strategies.

What is the difference between user testing and user research as applied to the context of the user centered design process?

From Josh Walsh’s linkSimply put, the biggest difference is when they are used in the process.

Here, a product that has already been designed and prototyped is being tested in the field [implementation] in order to apply the findings to refine the design of the particular prototype. The basic idea or concept for a product emerges from the insights which are based on the initial user research (immersion) – the findings from prototype testing offer insights for improving an existing design but by this stage, but  will not answer the question of whether the basic design was appropriate for the user’s environment in the first place.

And if these research findings are also to be used to offer affordable and relevant products, then the financial behaviour as well as access to and affordability of the relevant fuel will change significantly between the urban and rural environments.

From the researchers’ own document:

The Quality of User Experience – Alben 1996
The UCD concept is based on questions about user experience with the product:

1. Does the user understand how to use the product?
2. How does the user feel while using the product?
3. Does the product serve its purpose?
4. How well does the product fit into the user’s environment?

Cost, Convenience and Caution

Refining an already designed prototype can certainly be done conveniently and cheaply nearby, however initial concept development and design strategy should not be assumed to rely on the same findings.

Another grey area of confusion emerges from the UCD process popularized in the development of softwares and websites, being conflated with the human centered design approach when it is implemented for industrial design of tangible artifacts that are manufactured with materials and resources.  It is far easier and cheaper to tweak a prototype for user interfaces or software applications and then test it with the users, after requirements gathering, than to change the basic engineering or mechanical aspects of a product’s design even in the prototype phase, once the concept has been developed.

Therefore, it is far more important to get the initial research done correctly among the target audience for actionable insights that lead to concepts and design criteria before the product is designed or prototypes are even built and test.  In the long run, that saves far more time and effort, not to mention costs, than attempting changes much later in the product development path. It is where major commitments are typically made involving time, money, and the product’s nature, thus setting the course for the entire project and final end product.

Here is a snippet on the role of User research or User centered research and the when and why  during the product design and development process:

User-centered research is regarded as an integral part of the design and development process. To most, UCR is presented as an essential component of how concepts are conceived, developed and tested in contemporary design. It is involved in all parts of the design process used to best address user needs and expectations. This entails using the research during early phases to identify new design opportunities as well as testing concepts during later development and postproduction phases. As such, the UCR is defined as a tool for  generating new opportunities as well as evaluating concepts in development.

Value for money and a return on investment

There are far too many well designed products for improving the lives of those at the Base of Pyramid that have never quite managed to achieve their goals than those that have succeeded.  Understanding the variety of powerful tools design makes available for observing our potential audience, their needs and their environment and knowing when to apply what and why can often save far more time, effort and money in the long run while improving the chances of success for the new product introduced.

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