Posts Tagged ‘agency’

The importance of user agency for good design in the humanitarian and development context

humancenteredThis is a topic that has come up so often on Twitter that I thought to write it out once and for all. A link would be ever so much easier to argue with than to make the case for recognizing the agency of the end user – whether an intended customer or beneficiary – of an innovation.

At some point, I’ll get around to writing a much longer version with citations and links to contemporary research in iterative programming for complex, adaptive systems i.e. the ecosystem intended as the target recipient for the implementation of a socio-economic development program or project. For now, this short version will do.

The late John Heskett, professor in Design Planning and Market Forces at the Institute of Design, IIT, Chicago, once said in the classroom (notes, Spring 2003) that an invention could not be considered to be an innovation until it had been embraced by the end user. Witness the difference in adoption between Apple’s iPod and the Segway human transporter.

This metric of success for the novel – be it a product or a service, or even a business model such as the prepaid/pay as you go means of using mobile phones – requires that the customer (the end user or the beneficiary, as the case may be) be given the opportunity to choose, that is, to make a decision on whether to adopt, adapt, or reject the innovation in question.

In order to choose, and to decide, the user for whom such systems are designed must then be imbued with agency, rather than be considered passive recipients of the innovation.

This respect and recognition of the recipient’s agency forms the core of our work in innovation planning and concept design inspired by primary research in the informal markets of rural and urban sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the ASEAN. It has been informed by more than a decade of practical knowledge from experience in the field.

And it is this recognition of agency, which is that which empowers, that provides the foundation for our processes and systems, our methods and tools, and thus, our learning and teaching of how to think differently across the bridge of disparity, and inspires conceptual design of holistic solutions.

Without explicit acknowledgement of the individual’s agency or recognition of the diversity of circumstances, abilities, and aspirations in a community, any designs meant to effect positive change will remain lifeless attempts to intervene from the outside. Witness the number of pilots that fail to scale, or programmes that remain unsustained once external funding ends.

Mpesa takes on Banks with Mobile wallet linked Prepaid Card

Mpesa prepaid card

Mpesa prepaid card

On June 10th, Kenya’s leading mobile payments platform, Mpesa, announced it was piloting a Lipa na Mpesa prepaid card linked to mobile wallets. The card is an interesting product in a Kenya’s payment market turf wars. Banks versus a dominant Telcos, Safaricom.

According to Techweez,

“The card, mirrors a user’s M-Pesa account, meaning whatever amounts are in your M-Pesa wallet are reflected in the card. The card is NFC enabled where a user can Tap and Go at the point of checkout when making purchases for goods and services. The card is to be used at merchants for purchase of goods and services and will have its own Point of Sale System”

The card links with customers Mpesa wallet and phone service for SMS notifications.

 

What does this mean for the industry?

Safaricom now owns and controls a complete vertical, end to end: SIM card, Communication network infrastructure, cash in cash out (CICO) agents,  acquired merchants and now, prepaid card and Point of Sale.

The company, has single handedly built out a payments infrastructure comparable only to a combined Banking, card company, ATM and Merchant network.

With its own proprietary Point of Sale System, Safaricom’s grip on payment channels will only tighten. Only approved Mpesa products will work on it, just like Safaricom decides who appears on SIM card Menus.

 

What is going on?

It seems odd that a company renowned for mobile payments is taking us back to cards, even after successfully scaling mobile payments in Kenya. It speaks to its competition with Banks at merchant level and cash in – cash out point like agents.

Financial Services agency in Kenya, Kahawa West

Financial Services agency in Kenya, Kahawa West

Kenyan Banks have always been on the back foot, trying to catch up with Mpesa. Eventually they teamed up to take on Mpesa. Partnering with Visa and Mastercard, banks have swamped customers with branded debit cards. Cards let you pay at acquired merchants using Point of Sales card terminals, withdraw cash from ATMs, and cash in  or cash out at agency banking points.

In contrast, Mpesa users already enjoy all the benefits of cards, even withdrawals from ATMs via their phones. The Lipa na Mpesa card  simply expands options for its customers’ mobile wallets to include what banks offer too – card payments.

Kenyan banks combined are yet to catch up, as per the Central Bank of Kenya statistics they have:

  • lower cards issued versus Mpesa subscribers at 19 million
  • lower acquired POS merchants versus Mpesa Merchants now at 44,000 merchants
  • lower bank agents versus Mpesa’s mobile money agents now more than 83,000 agents

To be fair, it is not the first time a Telcos has got into the card payment business. Airtel launched a Airtel Visa Card in February 2014. But hey, this is Kenya, Mpesa territory.

The card is currently being trialed in an internal pilot with 1,500 of its employees using the card to pay for their meals at the company’s cafeteria.

 

The importance of the agent/customer relationship for successful financial inclusion

The role of agent networks in East Africa’s mobile money and mobile banking roll-outs is widely documented; as an intermediary, a kiosk exchange point – accepting deposits for e-money/ withdrawals for cash and usajili (registration).

“. . .as the first point of contact, human agents help bridge the gap between a high-tech service and low-literacy clients.” – CGAP

But, most research falls short of exploring the subject in its entirety, specifically, the relationship between customers and human agents  – a recent example is the just released Agent Network Accelerator Survey – Kenya Country Report 2014 by Helix Institute of Digital Finance. To sum it up, I would say it was a numbers driven top-down approach to the subject (most likely focusing on what is best for the service provider), that failed to explore the human touch-points that make mobile money relatable.

“A lot these findings, I’m noticing, do indeed do all the research, but leave their underlying assumptions on people unquestioned [. . .] researchers go in & see behaviour – the What & How – but assume a lot on the Why”@prepaid africa

As I see it, there is a subtly rich layer to the mobile money agent and client relationship that is readily observable in close knit communities; frequent micro-transactions lead to conversations beyond basic transactions, off-the-cuff inquiries, and thus reinforce continued trust. For people not well acquainted with the intricacies of mobile money, or tech for that matter, these human intermediaries – the agents, most of whom happen to be women – are your trusted guides to the technology and face of the service providers.

Which is why, this assumption in a post by Mondato, hit a nerve.

“In the long run, as more fully developed digital payments ecosystems develop, there will be less need for agents . . .”

When talking about Africa’s markets, in mobile financial services or whatever context, research reports which disregard the qualitative nuance of local, social and communal interaction, lead easily to such assumptions. The  Helix report for example, grouped agents into 2 categories: rural and urban. On the ground however, these are polar extremes on a scale. If we go by strict definitions, this frame of reference doesn’t translate on the ground ; more common is a mix of both, or peri-urban or even rural folk who commute to their place of work in peri-urban. Perhaps a measure of cash intensity or ‘unbanked-ness’ in immediate contexts makes for a better framing?

My point is, the agent – customer relationship on Moi Avenue in Nairobi’s CBD, is markedly different from Githurai’s packed informal market place despite both located in Nairobi. In this cash intensive ecosystem, in the thick of all the chaos characteristic of informal micro-economies, human agents sit right next to mama biashara and boda boda guys. Here is where, you are likely to find the unbanked, underbanked and lower income segments.

I can’t help but think there is a larger role for mobile money agents in financial inclusion; one that resonates with commonly observed themes in this segment – social groups, local, face to face, trust. Like Monica, a cyber cafe attendant in Maai Mahiu whose role in the local community extends beyond simply offering internet browsing services. Jan Chipchase aptly describes this as symbiotic : customers, agents and service provider.

“The careful use of real world analytics combined with contextual qualitative understanding has the opportunity to reveal not only what people are doing, but also the nuances of how and why . . . this in turn will lead to the next round of service innovation insights”

Projected Impact of recognizing and integrating end-user’s agency on innovation adoption rates

Rajasthan, India January 2009

Our problem statement for the recently completed, two phase project on sustainable agricultural value chains, was framed as follows:

What are the barriers to adoption of sustainable agricultural practices that limit their spread and scaling? What are reasons and/or causes of the existence of these barriers?

 The complexity and wicked nature of the problem space – why do farmers stop using innovation (new agricultural technology and methods)once donor funding ends in large scale public private partnerships (PPPs) for social and economic development at the base of the pyramid (among subsistence farmers in rural Africa, for eg)- meant that we had to step back massively in order to grasp the entire process of PPP initiation and conceptualization all the way through to impact assessment after the usually multi-year projects ended.

Our aim was to identify the potential barriers to adoption i.e. the problem areas, in current day program development processes, at the systems level, rather than overwhelm the problem space with attempting to identify situational challenges unique to each PPP proposal.  Were there generalizable problems that could be identified, first, in the existing process, broadly speaking, and if so, could they be framed for solution finding at the individual project level?

We began with the premise that putting the user at the center of the program design would exponentially improve adoption rates as programs would seek to fill gaps in the existing infrastructure or services or validate and enable the end user’s aspirational goals. When we assessed the existing situation against this lens we discovered that in the majority of the cases, the first time there was any contact with the end-user of these programs (the beneficiaries) was at the impact assessment stage of the project, usually after hundreds of thousands of dollars and many months or years later.

Observations during our fieldwork on this project as well as from past experiences have always demonstrated the joy of recognition or appreciation end-users always expressed when the context of of user research and its relationship to a problem solving outcome of some sort (device, app, biz model etc) has been explained to them as background to our intrusions into their daily life. This project’s particularities emphasized this aspect and threw up the role of the end user’s agency in choosing to adopt an innovation in their daily work or not, as opposed to such programs tending to impose participation and outcomes as the only means to document measurable impact. 

We offer the hypothesis, to be validated in the next phase of research in the field, that this explicit recognition of the end-user’s agency that the upfront design research conveys to the participants (and the general community) as well as the integration of their context and its constraints and conditions into the program design, inspires and motivates far greater rates of adoption of the “innovation” (whether a pruning technique or a new seed or even equipment) which then tends to be perceived as a custom tailored solution.