Posts Tagged ‘design ethnography’

Frame Insights: Going back to first principles in the Innovation Planning Process

After conducting research, we need to bring structure to what has been found and learned. We sort, cluster, and organize the data gathered and begin to find important patterns. We analyze contextual data and view patterns that point to untapped market opportunities or niches. Finding insights and patterns that repeatedly emerge from multiple analyses of data is beneficial. ~ Vijay Kumar, 101 Design Methods

“It’s what happens after the research that’s important” is something I found myself saying three times to three different people in three different contexts over the past couple of days. Anyone can go out and interview users and beneficiaries. What’s important is what happens during the Analysis phase.

To ponder this in detail, I wanted to go back to first principles, and drill down into the post research stage where we are expected to frame our insights.

Vijay’s slide pops out 5 key outcomes from this phase, and these are critical for solution development in the subsequent phase. These 5 outcomes from analysis of the data collected during the research phase are:

  1. Looking for patterns
  2. Exploring systems
  3. Identifying opportunities
  4. Developing guiding principles
  5. Constructing overviews

It is this stage that distinguishes the quality of the outcome. Now, in the case of our work in the informal economy operating environment, we have built up an overview of the landscape over the past several years, primarily through immersion and thick data collection using design ethnography methods.

Starting from the purchasing patterns and buyer behaviour of low income consumers, back in early 2008, all the way through to the development of guiding principles such as flexibility, we have explored and mapped the ecosystem from numerous vantage points.

Today, our synthesis of user research does not happen in isolation from the body of work – intellectual property – that has been developed over time, through experiential and practical knowledge.

This, then, is what underlay my conviction when I spoke about the importance of the quality of interpretation of the data, and the transmutation of these interpretations into implemented insights in the form of new product features, service design elements, or nuances of the payment plan in the business model.

Increasingly, the Frame Insights phase of our work has led to the evolution of our understanding of the commercial landscape in rural and informal markets where incomes tend to be irregular and volatile, and infrastructure is inadequate or missing. It is this that I’ve been attempting to capture under the category of Biashara Economics.

It’s not Africa specific. The patterns hold, give or take ~30% margin for historical/cultural/social differences, across continents. That is because these patterns are the natural response to the common characteristics of seasonality, volatility, uncertainty, and unpredictability. And this is why one can see the success of the prepaid business model around the world.

It strikes me here that this in fact validates the methodology and approach to exploration and discovery in unknown contexts, something I had framed as the starting point for the very first such project almost a decade ago. Over time, I discovered how much the methods, as delineated by Vijay in Chicago, had to be adapted for the context but that is a topic for another time.

Borderland Biashara: Mapping the Cross Border, National and Regional Trade in the East African Informal Economy

efl research team

Rinku Gajera & Michael Kimani, Malaba Border, Kenya, January 2016. Photo: Niti Bhan

And, we’re back! With apologies for the long delay in posting on the blog, we’d been busy wrapping up our groundbreaking design research for development programming project for Trade Mark East Africa this past month or so. As you can imagine, the last few weeks of any project suck all the bandwidth out and leave little for blogging or writing.

Let me be the first to say that this project could not have been executed or completed without a rockstar research team – Rinku Gajera, Research Lead, and Michael Kimani, Research Associate, together put in gruelling hours in the sun, and on Skype, to help increase our understanding of the informal economy in East Africa, particularly the informal trade sector – cross border, national, and regional. Emerging Futures Lab has been immersed in design and development of pioneering methodology for mapping the informal trade ecosystem – henceforward known as biashara, at the borderlands of the East African Community, since November 2015.

tmeaFor this opportunity, I must thank the CEO of Trade Mark East Africa, Frank Matsaert, who saw our passion and our belief in the worth and value of the informal sector, and recognized the need to understand the traders, their business practices, and their aspirations, as the first step necessary for the design of interventions that are not only people-centered, but cost effective and impactful.  We were granted creative license to colour outside the box of the terms of reference with our designer’s empathy and exploratory mindset, and frame this project as an exercise in developing the understanding necessary for the design of human centered methods, tools and frameworks for development programming. You can be sure that there will be more on this topic published soon on this blog, so grab the RSS feed now, or sign up for inboxed posts.

Download the Borderland Biashara Ecosystem Mapping project at the Kenya/Uganda border at Busia and Malaba.

Nov 2015Inception report Informal Economy, Kenya/East Africa/Uganda
Jan 2016Literature Review on Informal Cross Border Trade in the East African Community (EAC), the DRC and South Sudan
May 2016Final Report, General Public – Borderland Biashara, by Emerging Futures Lab

Pasteur’s Quadrant and Ethics: Research framing among lower income and rural people

Informal Economy, Market Analysis and Segmentation

Banglemaker, Rajasthan, Dec 2008 (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

When I forget myself, I come back to this photograph to remind me of whom I really work for and why. His name was never asked because he was much older, and thus respected. One could only call him aap (thou). He was my first interviewee for The Prepaid Economy project, more than 6 years ago, when I set out to find out more about those on irregular and unpredictable income streams managed their household finances in the rural context. Patriarch and Master Craftsman, he led his family in the hand crafting of lac bangles, which he and his son then took to the capital to sell.

I come back to him today because I never forgot the sharp  and sudden lesson I learnt from my experience in attempting to interview him for the project. Oh, he was all smiles and goodwill, welcoming and willing to helpfully share whatever he could. I’d been introduced to him before, as he was a wellknown craftsman in the region. And yet, till date, I could probably not tell you a single thing about the way this home based informal business managed their household finances.

I was dumbstruck once the tea had been drunk and the polite necessities out of the way.  I’d come prepared with a 10 page questionnaire on all kinds of things related to the informal economy, the unpredictability of cash flow, on savings and loans and emergencies, as well as why the prepaid business model work so well. Only when I faced him with this sheaf of paperwork did I realize that I could not bring myself to ask him any of these probing, nosy questions on something as personal as his income and spending habits.

Respect was the barrier to curiosity. Respect silenced me. And with deep regrets and much respect I made my farewells after a few half hearted and polite questions on the business of making and selling bangles and bracelets.

Respecting the researched

I was reminded of him today when I came across an extensive global survey of people’s financial habits. I cannot put my finger on what made me feel as though this survey didn’t care about seeking to understand people’s lives and challenges, the constraints and conditions in which they struggled to hold life and limb together. To dream about sending the youngest to university or aspire to owning a milch cow.

It seemed to feel more like a market research report meant for a profit seeking consumer product company attempting to identify opportunities to exploit and gaps to leverage, to grow market share and reach a new consumer segment. Yet, it was meant for the greater benefit of the target audience, unlike say, beer.

Solutions meant to improve quality of life must grapple with the tension between creating value and capturing it ~ Niti Bhan

Beer does not pretend that drinking it will improve the quality of your life and wellbeing. It knows its place and role in your life. The market research for beer has its own integrity. You don’t expect to understand the context and the operating environment of the excluded.

Why should this be an issue anyway?

For too long the excluded have also been the ignored. The informal economy, lumping together as it does the shadows and the greys, is perceived, for the most part, as a bad thing. The cash based rural and informal markets, the livelihood activities, the various ways  and means those ekeing out a living make do, all these end up tarnished by the same  brush.

And so, we have little or no knowledge of the way this operating environment works, what makes it tick, what are the larger patterns at play and the rhythms of its transactional flows. Its only now that this segment of the population is being taken seriously in their own right, as customers and as a demographic, not simply as passive beneficiaries.

Look at that man above. A much respected craftsman and artisan, part of the cash based rural economy of his home village, his return from the big city after selling his inventory only means an injection of capital for the entire community.

Thus, if we’re to design and develop products or services or even, programmes, meant for him and his family (and all the others like him, who make their livelihoods in these humble traditional ways), we’re better able to succeed if we can contextualize our concepts and anchor them to the conditions and constraints of the operating environment.

That is, we need to understand the ecosystem in which we seek to introduce the new. We need insights to understand not only his aspirations and goals and needs, but also his challenges, patterns of cash flow and buyer behaviour.

Pasteur’s Quadrant and Ethics

Simply counting heads or the “What” or “How” is not enough, in my opinion. We must also seek out the “Why” without which there is always the danger of exploitation or over emphasis on the profit angle. Consumer insights for those with disposable incomes are not the same as understanding the conditions of those without. Solutions meant to improve quality of life or wellbeing for the under served must grapple with the tension between creating value and capturing it.

pasteurThis diagram, better known as Pasteur’s Quadrant, captures this inherent tension between consumer marketing driven research (Applied) and social sciences (Pure basic) to offer a middle path. One that fits the context of the lower income demographic, or those who manage outside of the formal institutions and services. I’m not using the word “Bottom of the Pyramid” anymore because the more I’ve gone into the field to talk to people the less I think of them as the bottom of anything. That’s a top down label that lumps billions of people into an undifferentiated mass rather than acknowledging their agency and aspirations.

The Ethics of Use-inspired basic research

This validates the paucity of knowledge and understanding of the informal sectors of trade and business, even as it seeks to identify opportunities and synthesize insights that can inform solution design.

Ethics in research is not simply how personal data is anonymized etc but also integral to the framing of the lens through which we choose to study the target audience.

Do we see them as an untapped resource to be exploited for profit or do we seek knowledge that can better enable us to provide for their needs?

This is a choice that researchers must make as their frame of reference, their biases and assumptions, and the goals of their intended audience all come through clearly in the manner in which the reports are written and the material shared.

Human centered design for financial inclusion: Lessons from fieldwork in rural India, The Phillipines and Kenya


Financial inclusion has become mainstream thinking in economic development. The vast majority of the unbanked live in the developing world, and a significant proportion of this population are rural residents. One can easily surmise, without recourse to statistics, that the bulk of the target audience for institutions seeking to offer them affordable and accessible financial services are part of the rural economy.

Now, the role of human centered design and its toolbox of methods and processes is being recognized as mission critical for successfully enabling these initiatives. So little is understood about the rural economy, particularly that of the developing world, that without the insights that design ethnography (also known as user research or more broadly, exploratory user research) among the end users can provide, barriers to adoption will remain unaddressed.

With this in mind, I thought to share lessons learnt during the past 6 years of experience in the application of human centered design processes in order to observe and understand household financial management behaviour in rural Africa and Asia.

Human Centered Design

Human centered design traditionally applies the insights from user research to inform and inspire the design of a product or service. At the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago, there were scores of methods and frameworks for every step of the entire process. In particular, the analysis and synthesis phase after fieldwork was completed was considered critical in identifying the actionable insights that would drive the conceptual design and subsequent development of solutions. All of this required that we frame the problem correctly at the very beginning, in order to ensure that our findings would be relevant and appropriate. Here’s a diagram that captures the entire concept:

Adapting human centered design for understanding rural household financial behaviour

Back in late 2008, when I first began framing the original problem statement for the iBoP Asia Project’s first Small Grants Competition, I quickly realized that the methods and tools as developed and disseminated in Chicago, could not be directly applied without adaptation to the distinctly different operating environment, and, the then unusual objectives of business model design.

Firstly, the tools and techniques for user research developed and refined in a first world sophisticated consumer market accustomed to decades of market research, telemarketing and surveys of all stripes wouldn’t work among lower income rural residents in a developing world context. They had little or no exposure to market research or design research of any sort, and surveys and questionnaires tended to imply government census takers or some kind of social study by an NGO. After all, it is only now that we are taking the “financially excluded” seriously as potential customers with wants and needs in their own right.

Secondly, back then, nobody had yet applied human centered design methods for intangible outcomes such as insights on household financial behaviour or the conceptual design of a payment plan for a community. User research conducted as part of the human centered design process was for consumer facing client companies looking to improve existing products or develop new ones i.e. very tangible outcomes. My research question was:

What insights can we derive from observing and understanding how those at the BoP currently manage their household budgets to inspire new transaction models or pricing strategies for businesses wishing to serve the poor more effectively, yet profitably?

Thus, I found myself not only having to adapt the methods and tools available to me, but also develop frameworks to sample a representative segment of the rural economy given the conditions and criteria of the operating environment. This I will share now for everyone else who will now be using the human centered design  approach for financial inclusion.

Framing the problem correctly

This was the most important element in ensuring the successful outcome. Tina Seelig has written on how REframing a problem can unlock innovation, a valuable insight when you’re already immersed in your own environment like a fish in water. But when we step outside of our accustomed operating environment to one which is dramatically different – a poor rural region for example, we can so often be overwhelmed by the sensory overload that we are unable to contextualize the challenge from the end user’s perspective. We’re too busy noticing all the differences and unable to distinguish the important from the mundane or identify macro patterns of behaviour because we are distracted by the minutiae of daily life.

The impetus for this line of research came from observing the success of the prepaid business model as mobile phone sales took off across the developing world. So my initial problem statement had been “What makes prepaid mobile airtime work so well for this demographic and what can we learn from this successful adoption to inspire business models and payment plans for other products and services?”

That emphasis on the mobile phone and its attendant business model would have narrowed the focus of my research and thus, influenced my questionnaire and observations. On the other hand, by shifting the focus away from what interested me, and broadening it to encompass the challenges of daily life, I would be able to perceive the entire context within which any particular business model or payment plan worked. That is, I took a step back from just the mobile phone or any one particular payment plan to understand the rhythm and the patterns of the rural economy. I framed the research as follows:

The focus of our exploratory and user research in the field will be to understand the challenge of planning household expenses and budgeting when incomes are mostly irregular and unpredictable.

This allowed me look at the larger patterns at play in the rural economy and as I was find out later, provided a foundation for understanding the cash based informal sector prevalent in both urban and rural regions of the developing world. That is, it formed the basis for understanding what makes the informal economy tick, something that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I’d kept the original focus as narrow as why prepaid airtime enabled the rapid adoption of mobile phones among the lower income demographic.

Takeaway for framing the design research problem statement

When you approach your client’s particular interest area in the broad space of financial inclusion, don’t just focus on their specific interests without considering the entire ecosystem within which the intended produce or service will reside.*

Rapid prototyping to test research protocol and questionnaire

The beauty of the human centered design is that nothing is expected to work the first time its built. Prototyping and refining the design based on user feedback and observation is embedded in the iterative nature of the process. This is also part of design thinking – the willingness to experiment to see what works, usually with the participation of the end users.

Thus, when I first set out to use design methods in this wholly new way (seeking to understand household financial management among the rural poor), I insisted on a ‘prototype’ location first. This allowed me to test the questionnaire – it was completely thrown out right after the very first attempt to interview someone – as well as develop the framework for sampling uncertainty in the informal sector.

Don’t imagine that your carefully prepared questionnaire and the rest of your research protocol will hold up in the field. Be prepared to evolve it in order to see what works. That’s why its so important to frame the problem statement first so that you know what you’re trying to understand. We’re talking about sensitive topics when researching for financial inclusion, and our goal should be tread respectfully towards greater understanding rather than rigidly following research protocol.

User profile identification matrix for sampling a representative pool

Design ethnography aims to gather an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such behavior. The qualitative method investigates the why and how of decision making, not just what, where, when. Hence, smaller but focused and representative samples are more often needed, rather than large random samples.

Since the object was to understand how those on irregular incomes planned and managed their household expenses, a variety of claimed income sources such as farming, shopkeeping, job or minicab driving was deemed important to be identified in each location.

In order to ensure that the sample best represented the local context and situation, a qualifying chart was developed ad hoc in the prototype location (India) as a method to approximately evaluate an individual’s ability to predict the timing and amount of their income, and thus plan their expenses.

This found to be useful in ensuring that the widest possible variety of local influences on cash flow were represented in the sample pool, not merely the majority of the population who were farmers, all of whose fields of wheat or rice would tend to ripen for harvest around the same time.

For example, in the Philippines, the representative sample pool, by primary stated source of income, included a rice farmer, a minicab owner/operator, a sari sari shop owner, a door to door frozen food seller and a furniture craftsman with his own workshop.

It was also ensured that the range of remittances (from zero to only for savings) received by the individuals was also varied. Individuals with full-time jobs were not considered nor were those whose sole source of income was remittence from abroad.

Takeaway for developing your own matrix for sampling the local populace

This chart formed the basis for sampling across various income streams. The employed have a regular salary, they are able to say with accuracy exactly how much money to expect and on which day. The odd jobs labourer, at the other end of the spectrum, cannot predict if he will get work on any particular day nor how much work. The farmer (generalized here) is able to estimate approximately when the harvest will be ready for sale and its value, though naturally not as accurately as a regular paycheck.

If you are only looking at farmers’ incomes then consider a spread across cash crops, size of harvest, crop mix and produce sales patterns. There are high potential farms and low potential ones.  The idea is not to end up with your entire pool of people with similar patterns of cash flow. If you’re looking at a village or rural population cluster, consider agribusiness services such as shopkeepers and transporters, as well as other service providers such as water delivery, small kiosk, market traders etc.

The reason for this is due to the variance in people’s ability to plan for savings, loans, mortgages, credit or other financial products based on their ability to predict their cash flow. The more uncertain your income stream, the more risk averse you’re likely to be.

Locations in country

Choosing locations to sample depends on the aim of the design research study – are you looking at the  entire country? Or just one particular region? Based on geography, different parts of the country may have more or less food security, so again it makes sense to sample from at least two if not three distinctly different areas based on their economic standing.

From the perspective of financial inclusion, it doesn’t make  sense to only look at two similar economic regions with cash crops, unless your study’s focus is a middle or higher income level demographic.You may also wish to consider a spread of profiles based on their distance to the nearest market town or financial services institution. Patterns of behaviour will differ based on time and money it takes to travel. For instance, even if your income streams gave you the confidence to consider a loan, the cost of travel may not make it worth the effort.

Final thoughts

The informal and rural economies are far more sophisticated in their financial management than we are able to perceive in the first instance. Designing solutions that work with the rhythms of the natural seasonality are more likely to be adopted than those which impose calender schedules. Negotiable flexibility and trust based webs of cooperation are part and parcel of the hyper local rural economies. How can we retain these pillars of community life and resilience in the face of adversity and uncertainty even as we seek to include the marginalized with our modern tools and technologies?

* See the problems with introducing Google’s Beba Pay design without taking entire ecosystem into consideration

Exploratory User Research in the Rural Economy

When I first began developing the attributes by which to select representative user profiles for the original fieldwork to begin understanding the “prepaid economy”, that is, household financial management in rural India, The Philippines and Malawi, it was based on people’s ability to plan and budget.

Sustainable Value Chain 8

One can plan best when one is certain of the amount of money incoming and its date of arrival, thus one is best able to manage household expenses on a regular salary on a periodic calender based schedule.  If we cluster rural residents by their ability to accurately estimate the amount of money against its arrival, then the salaried employee is at one of the continuum of certainty. He or she knows exactly how much they will receive and on which date. The other end, however, is the most uncertain, such as the case of the daily wages labourer who may or may not be called for work on a particular day or week.

The farmer, if experienced, tends to fall in between these two points, as they are usually able to look at their crops and estimate approximately the yield and readiness of the harvest. This simple framework of time and money allowed for a reasonably representative sample of any particular region where geography is responsible for the climate and the seasons. The uncertainties faced by local farmers were broadly the same.

Now, we hope to take a closer look at this segmentation model to better refine our understanding of rural economies. At which point did a farm transition from mere subsistence towards aspirations? How? What distinguished a member of the global emerging middle class (GEMs) from one who was barely able to hold house and hearth together? Which other actors were critical to the rural economy, delineated in this case as the last mile of the agricultural value chain, and who were the supporting cast ? All farmers in a region are not alike – how would we begin to cluster sub-segments and which additional attributes would help us?

As a starting point, here are some of the key insights that have already been consistently identified:

  1. The greater the span of control the end user had over their time and money in a payment plan – the amount, whether it was in cash or kind; and its timing i.e. the frequency, periodicity and duration, the greater the likelihood of its success.
  2. Seasonality was a fact of life and cash flows over the course of the natural year reflected this aspect. High seasons and low; wet seasons and dry – the rural economy was closely tied to the land, the ebb and flows of income affecting everyone in the farming community, from shopkeepers to truck drivers.
  3. Liquidity does not reflect wealth, nor cash expenditures a signal of purchasing power.
  4. Affordability is less a matter of absolute price and more dependent on the flexibility of the payment pattern.
  5. In the majority of the developing world, the rural economy is flexible, informal, local, social and interdependent. Trusted social networks were the basis of looking upon the community as insurance in bad times and resilience in the face of uncertainty and adversity a recurring characteristic.