Human centered design: Surprising insights from rural Kenya

One of the most surprising things that struck me over the past couple days of running around doing recce visits for our upcoming rural research was just how rapidly and how well the concept of the user centered design (UCD) process and thus, the human centered approach to research and development was not only understood by our rural hosts but how much it was appreciated. As others in the field know, it can often be a challenge to explain to clients why user research is critical and what kind of difference it can make, more so in the former rich world.

Even the local councilor’s political protege beamed when he heard that it was critical to understand ‘his’ people first and their daily life before coming up with any product, service or plan. In fact it makes me wonder whether his little part of the world is in for any changes?

Mind you, we were extremely blessed during our visit to Makueni district – one of the more challenged parts of Kenya, where the arid landscape can suffer from insecurity of such essentials such as food and water.  Our contact there introduced us to his old friend, who was in between contracts, and Rafael (whom I’m sure I’ll be mentioning more in future posts) turned out to be an experienced expert in poverty alleviation programs and a trained anthropologist to boot.  Our initial meeting rapidly turned into a project planning session.

But that’s a welcome side note. I started this post because as we were discussing the methodology and approach that I intended to use for our consumer insights research, I found that not only was the UCD process grasped rapidly by all the others at our table, its value was also appreciated and understood.

As our local businessman friend explained, too often products for their market were simply direct imports or secondhand and shoddy goods “sent to Africa”. The fact that their community’s lifestyle and daily challenges were considered important enough to be understood first before the development of any strategy or device was felt to be a mark of respect.

It makes me ponder whether we do the economically or infrastructurally challenged a disservice to continue to think of them as the BoP – no one, if asked, would ever consider themselves the base or bottom of anything.  And I wonder if that’s why so many of these socially beneficial products or poverty alleviation products and programs fail because to embrace them would imply to one’s peers and community members that one was ‘beyond hope’ or ‘poor’ regardless of one’s one economic challenges?

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