Archive for the ‘Process’ Category

The challenge of assessing the size of an emerging market opportunity

Kagio fresh produce market, Kenya, April 2013

Untapped opportunities in the developing world bring with them their own challenges for businesses seeking to invest in them.  An interesting one is that of assessing the market size and value, particularly for the lower income demographic that operates primarily in the informal economy (often called the BoP or bottom of the pyramid).  This snippet frames it well:

To begin, it is critical to understand why traditional market sizing methodologies are ill-equipped to size emerging markets. To illustrate, if a firm were to use traditional methods to size a mature market such as the coffee market in the United States, it would consider demographic trends (e.g., aging baby boomers), psychographic trends (e.g., increased health consciousness), past sales trends and consumption rates, price movements, competitor brand shares and new product development, and channels/retailers among others. However, conducting such an analysis for emerging markets presents a challenge as several of these factors (e.g., past sales, demographics of the customer when there are no current customers) don’t exist because the markets are presently untapped.

The situation is exacerbated  by lack of easily available demographic data, few formal retail channels, little consumer knowledge, and if the majority of the target audience happens to be outside the urban population centers, even lack of basic infrastructure like roads. One must begin from scratch. Can any rules of thumb be developed as we increase our understanding of the next few billion customers?
This conversation will continue.

A very different kind of human centered system design with highly efficient processes

Every profession must come face to face with the ultimate reality of the ways that their industrial training can be perfect in operational form yet perverted completely in its application.

As an Industrial and Production engineer, I studied assembly lines and efficiency. As an Industrial Designer exploring the concept of human centered design, particulary from a systems point of view, I learnt how to orient the ecosystem of device-service-revenue around the challenge of humanity’s needs. My B-school training only enhanced the strategic planning and control of processes and systems, to cater to the market’s needs.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, Poland

Yesterday, a glass window separated me from a display in a museum. A shrine, a penance and a memory.

There was a bolt of grayish brown cloth. And carefully displayed upon this bolt of industrial manufactured textile was the natural fibre that was the raw material.

Three plaits of hair – brown and grey and faded blonde.

Human hair. Female human hair with traces of cyanide, according to the plaque next to the display, validated by forensic scientists.

Raw material bagged and sold for 40 pfennigs per kilogram to textile manufacturers.

 I found myself screaming inside with a sudden blinding spurt of rage against mankind. 

And, as a human being, I wept.


/today, I sit in lone meditation in my room. It is my 47th birthday.

Reframing Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) as a human centered design challenge

The tangible manifestation of the concept of turning government’s calls to action for public private partnerships in development was crafted by Jeroen Meijer of JAM Visualdenken and expertise on sustainable agricultural value chains provided by Bart Doorneweert of LEI, Wageningen.

The design challenges, as we called them, reframed the problem statement in the form a visualization of the particular commodity, the particularities of its geography, the intent of the intervention, the point of view to be taken by the multi stakeholder teams and the good agricultural practices to be sustainably transferred to enable adoption even after donor funding was ended.

Here is the sample:

Reflections on design thinking for government: empowering policy makers and stakeholders

Yesterday I came across a post on The World Bank’s blog, “Design Thinking for Government Services: What happens when the past limits our vision of the future?” Given that I’m in the process of writing a report on the role that human centered design can play in government, that too for a developed nation, I’d like to take this timely opportunity to deconstruct the concept and reflect upon it further.

There have been numerous ways that design thinking has been explained to the general public in the past decade or so since the phrase gained notoriety. The most common understanding is that as introduced by the author of the blogpost linked to above:

We can either: (a) use statistics, trends, quantitative surveys, and historical data to produce reliable results; or (b) develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs. The author makes a very good case for validity, which is usually forgotten by companies that prefer reliable results that keep most companies’ top executives and stock analysts at ease.

This call for a change on how to tackle innovation has originally been directed to businesses, and takes the concept of design thinking (that is, borrowing the thinking process of designers) to services and companies in general. However, I believe it should also be applied to governments, more specifically on how governments should take advantage of ICTs to improve service provision internally (within government entities) and to citizens.
So what is design thinking for governments anyway? It is not that much different than its private sector equivalent. It is about going back to the basics. And I mean the basics, trying to understand what citizens need from their governments (yes, that far back) and then answering the question: how could governments (hopefully, leveraging the new set of technologies and devices that exist today – and their spread among the general population) be able to satisfy these needs? Then, it is all about building prototypes, testing, trial and error, and of course a good set of evaluation and feedback mechanisms

While the author has indeed noted in the footnotes that the design process has been simplified, imho the situation as framed is not as simple as that. I’d like to take a step even further back into the basics and look upon the system holistically in order to frame my own thinking on this topic.

Jay Doblin first introduced the concept of separating the act of design (giving tangible form) from the planning of design (what, how, when, why) in his seminal paper “A short, grandiose theory of design“. In seven pages, Doblin presents a straightforward and persuasive argument for design as a systematic process. He described the emerging landscape of systematic design so:

  •  For large complex projects, it “would be irresponsible to attempt them without analytical methods” and rallied against an “adolescent reliance on overly intuitive practices.” 
  • He separated “direct design” in which a craftsperson works on the artifact to “indirect design” in which a design first creates a representation of the artifact, separating design from production in more complex situations.

Doblin and others were responding to the increased specialization of design and the complexity of managing large design programs for corporations. It was a natural process to begin to discuss how design should move upstream to be involved with the specifications of problems, not only in the traditional mode of production which design had been practiced. 

Government is by virtue of its nature a large and complex system. To leap forward into the intuitive, empathetic mind state of a human centered designer without a rigorous methodology for analysis, synthesis and subsequent planning would be far riskier indeed than to offer stakeholders the tools to empower their decision making for more impactful outcomes.

Going back to Roger Martin’s words quoted by The World Bank author, develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs, the critical part missing in this proposed embedding of design thinking is the answer to the question How to tackle and propose a valid solution? 

And it is this How? that the steps undertaken prior to the design and development of a solution can offer the tools to answer, for they begin first by attempting to understand the complexity of the situation in order to identify and frame the problem to be solved by the design processes and methods.

Until then, the concept as currently articulated will remain the purview of professional designers applying their approach to problem solving on the behalf of governments and international institutions such as The World Bank. That may fit in within the author’s articulation of “borrowing” the thinking but in real world terms, the steps of the process are not within any government’s ability to execute. They are not Nokia, to quote on of our interviewees, able to field a team of user researchers each time they seek to craft a programme for end-users (citizens).

What government actually needs is a set of tools that empower policy makers, advisors and planners to identify the correct problems where intervention is required and then to craft programmes that meet these needs. This aligns the intent with the actions undertaken and thus improves the impact of the outcomes. 

In the jargon of business and design, that could be said to be improving the success rate of an innovative product or a service in the market by lowering the barriers to adoption by the end users by offering them a clearly realized value or meeting an unmet need.

And, that is the fundamental premise of the human centered design approach to solution development.

User centered design thinking: An approach to problem identification

What is user centered design thinking?
Lets break this phrase down, first into two parts of two words each,
user centered = being user centered means that your frame of reference for creating a system, a product or business model is always the potential or intended ‘user’. Immersion in the user’s environment, also known as ethnography or user research or user observations or whatever you want to call it, allows one to stand within the constraints and context of the environment in which your audience operates. 
This experience, thus, allows you to gather and collate insights into the context in which your implemented design will work to solve a problem or challenge.  More formal methods of information gathering such as camera studies, interviews and behavioural prototyping add metrics and data that help guide the intuitive response to a possible solution or first prototype of one.  One could say that becoming user centered means to pull oneself out of one’s own frame of reference in order to place oneself in another’s shoes.
Through this, we come to know the general constraints and outlines of the recommended approach or solution that will be the end deliverable of such an exercise.
Now we come to the infamous and much abused term, design thinking =  It is ultimately yet another attempt to find a name for a whole brain approach to problem solving, one that uses the logical analytical tools and frameworks of the business world as well as the fuzzier, more intuitive ones from the world of design. Key is knowing when to use which metric or tool in order to best communicate the intent of the proposed program, the goals to be achieved or the problem or challenge to be addressed thus providing a roadmap or direction for the prototype that is implemented in the field to be tweaked into or measured up against.
But overall, if the user centered design thinking approach to solving large scale systems design problems is to be successful, the key challenge is to frame the problem correctly at the outset.
Once we are able to frame the problem correctly, addressing the real challenge or the unmet or undiscovered need, as more formal product designers are wont say, the design brief essentially writes itself as there is always that overarching goal that one can measure one’s progress and results against. At each stage one asks are we addressing the correct problem or challenge?
Are we solving the right problem?

Interim project report: User centered Agricultural value chain development

My colleague and project leader for the current work in The Netherlands,  Bart Doorneweert has just published an excellent analysis of our workshop on user centered design for a multi stakeholder group invited by the Ministries of Economic Affairs and Foreign Affairs.

Here’s a snippet:

Insights on the multi-stakeholder working process
When the break-out groups re-convened after their design exercises, we asked each group to present their ideas, and discuss their assumptions and constraints with the audience. Across all presentations we discovered an interesting pattern. Participants found themselves to be confronted with an inability to associate with the user, deeming that area of the value chain apprehensive for conjecture about farmers’ needs, and too far removed in terms of values. In our attempt to lower the barriers to applying the user-centered approach through a free-form exercise, we apparently raised an inherently imbedded barrier to consider the user. Rather, participants insisted to direct their problem-solving attention to a more abstract, distant level of thinking (the value chain), or a particular part of the value chain that is more closely associated with Western values (working from the perspective of Nespresso, rather than the coffee farmer).  

This inability to associate with the users had impactful implications for ways in which the groups constructed design solutions. The approaches used were vertical in nature, thinking only within the bounds of what would directly associate with production of a particular agricultural commodity. In their thinking on solutions, people diverted to general principles (tea production provides for income, and thus makes the farmers happy), and then divided the relevant principles into disciplinary segments (like finance, training, agronomy, trade, etc).

The System Monster, by Jeroen Meijer, Jam visualdenken

Market Segmentation in the Informal Economy

This table is from “How to profit from Africa’s different consumer groups” and the research is from NKC Independent Economists group. There is something lacking in understanding the patterns of purchasing power when segmentation methodology from the formal economy are applied ad hoc to markets which are primarily informal.

As mentioned at the end of the previous post, an alternate method of segmenting the mass majority markets across Sub Sahara might be to cluster by volatility of cash flow. Farmers, for example, will tend to have cash 2 or 3 times a year, based on their crop and their geography, and some of these will be earmarked ahead for farm inputs.

Then, depending on which segment one is targeting and the proportion in that bracket earning a living from a variety of sources rather than a fixed salaried job, one can assess how much adaptation would existing business models and payment plans require for reaching the majority of the target audience.
 This will differ from product to product, the articles breathlessly divulging all about this suddenly recognized African consumer market are still focusing on the creamy layer at the top of the income pyramid with their mentions of ice cream and caviar.

The old way focused on amounts of periodic cash flow, that is, income, as a means to segment people by disposable income available for consumption. The new way might have to look at their basket of groceries and then decide based on purchasing patterns.

The challenge arises when obsolete methods from a wholly different operating environment are applied out of context and the results interpreted in the same way as though there are no fundamental differences in the population and their mindset. There must be a reason why 96% of the hundreds of millions of mobile phone users across the continent are on prepaid or pay as you go plans.

Takeaways from experiencing the human centered design process

Design adds greater value in the long term by being applied to the HOW of business (practices and process), whereas being applied to the WHAT of business (products) ends up having limited value as those products become commoditized. ~ paraphrasing Clement Mok, March 1st 2005

For an audience who will neither practise the design profession nor tend to apply the user centered design process in their day to day work, what could be the essential takeaway from a day spent immersed in the experience?

Call it experience design, but crafting a workshop for a multi-stakeholder group cannot begin without first identifying what it is we wish for them to experience. I’ve been mulling this over for the past couple of weeks, ever since the questions were first posed and here’s my attempt at articulating the essence of what I believe to be the most important “Aha!” from this exposure.

Human centered: To practise, one must become.

Permit me to circumlocute for a moment in order to articulate this concept with clarity. There are numerous terms that have been applied to the way the producer (the manufacturer or the organization, as the case may be) communicated about their products and services to their target audience – “top down” approach, “push marketing”, “mass communications”, and of course, advertising. The idea was that you made a widget which you then advertised and promoted heavily in order to sell it to your intended customer base. “The job of advertising is to create a desire”. Wants rapidly became confused with needs, and this can be seen everyday in the mainstream consumer culture we are all immersed in.

Begin with the users.

Don Norman wrote the book to advocate user-centered design – a philosophy that things should be designed with the needs and interests of the user in mind, making products that are easy to use and understand.

John Heskett once said that an invention is not an innovation until it is adopted by the users.

Taken together, we find the seeds of the reversal in thinking that leads to a more “bottom up” approach or “pull marketing”, to use the vocabulary of the preceding paragraph. That is, one isn’t attempting to create demand so much as to identify it and then satisfice it, in a manner that offers value to the end user, thus lowering the barriers to the adoption of  your product or service or program.

Value is contextual. 

What might make sense for the producers, however, becomes even more challenging to gauge when attempting to provide solutions for end users across the vast gulf of disparities – of income, of socio-economic strata, of geography and culture and language, of experience and mindset, and thus, of values.

Understanding the difference. 

Human centered design took the premise that if we were to begin first by understanding our target audience, their environment and challenges, their lives and hopes and wishes and desires, we could identify “unmet needs”, or gaps in the system, which offered an opportunity for innovation. New products could be designed to meet these needs, thus offering a value to the customer and differentiating themselves from the competition, considered to be inadequate. This is the central premise of the user centered design approach to solution development.

Respect, empathy, humility. 
Thus, we could proffer that the human centered approach puts the intended target audience (the user) as the focal point or the frame of reference by which to assess and evaluate the design, from their perspective. What are their aspirations, dreams, hopes and challenges? What do they want to do? What is the benefit of your product or service or program, in the context of their daily life? Why should they adopt your invention?

You, sir.

We hope to enable a shift from the top down, “we know best for you” approach that characterised the past and closer towards our common humanity where we work together to solve our closely interconnected world’s problems.

Yeah, that last is a bit of a stretch but our aspirations must always be just a tad out of our reach no?

Mapping the path to prototyping an adaptable user centered design process

We’ve all seen the classic User Centered Design (UCD) process diagrams, mostly linear, that attempt to communicate the steps yet unable to capture the iterative nature of the activity simply due to the limitations on how many circular arrows one can add without losing clarity. When I first began exploring the process deeply for application in emerging markets, this is the one we naturally used during a brainstorming experience with David Kelley back in April 2006:

But those of you familiar with the application in the practice of user centred design will recognize that this section applies to the design planning phase, prior to the design and development of the first prototype, boxed up here as “implementation”. You’ll also note that “User research” or rather, “Immersion” in the field, is left implicit, although one can say that it is represented by the green circle. Exploring as I was, back then, the intersection of where design met business, I felt this diagram was limited in its ability to communicate what really happened, much less why or how.

[Illustration of the Process of Design from a great height]

Shortly thereafter, in May 2006,  Damien Newman put the now famous “squiggle” up on his blog in response to a contemplative post of mine. Aha! I said, when I read what Damien had to share about his illustration:

So I decided to consider how to frame design activities in all disciplines, to discover which ones were worthy of placing on my map, could be the process one takes to set about producing a designed solution. I think in its most basic and fundamental form, the process of design that one embarks upon, can be seen in three steps/stages/phases (whatever): Abstract, Concept & Design.

At first there is a sort of theoretical, not yet in existence, essence of a thought, state or problem solution. As designers, we set about to bring that abstract state into a concept, something that can be communicated, perhaps visualized, definitely discusses and shaped. The final stage is the design of the concept, into the form, solution or final presentation of the concept.

I’m not sure if you were to have stood at Fort Point in San Francisco at around 1827, and said “We need a bridge to get over there” if that is a fair description of the Abstract, phase – but its about the time a typographer decides to start their first sketches of a typeface that it shifts from being abstract into a concept.

At a firm like IDEO, all design starts with a healthy amount of messing around in the abstract. Human Factors leads their approach to framing a design concept and problem – and they clearly (like others too) excel at bridging any gaps between these three phases, and at including the client, their customers and designers in the process.

This squiggle was in response to this post of mine from August 2005, Design vs Design thinking where I’d first attempted to distinguish between the tangible role of a human centered designer and those who were inspired by the human centered design process for business strategy and planning. But, as experienced practitioners and thinkers on the messy, chaotic, non linear creativity inherent in these activities will recognize immediately, the squiggle is too implicit to help communicate the process with clarity to audiences without exposure to the process, such as your typical client organization or institution. Linear, structured thinkers need to feel confident they understand what you are planning to do and how you’ll go about it before they’ll sign a check.

And so, we finally arrive at early 2008, where the first attempt to crudely diagram the evolving process for emerging markets and bottom of the pyramid (BoP) customers as articulated in my previous post from 7th November 2012, was prototyped so:

Quite a few circular arrows are missing from the How? and Next? phases here as it attempted to frame the bullet points from process description into a visual format. Now I hope that with the help of excellent visual thinkers involved in our current project, there is a chance that this process can be greatly improved.