Posts Tagged ‘design for bop’

Lessons for toilet builders from the history of India’s cookstove development efforts

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Learning from the maker, herself. Rawal village, Rajasthan, India in January 2009.

Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar has written a superb critical analysis looking back at the history of India’s development efforts to provide viable, feasible, and desirable solutions to the myriad unmet needs of the common man. Using cookstoves as her narrative theme, she explores the challenges of base of the pyramid product development and marketing, and draws lessons for “the toilet builders of today.” A must read for social enterprises, entrepreneurs and design for impact.

Years after its big launch, India’s stove mission is going nowhere. A new government is in power, and another object meant to save the rural poor is now galvanising excitement. Companies such as Indian Oil, L&T, Tata Consultancy Services and Vedanta, among others, have pledged to build toilets to stop people from defecating in the open. Meanwhile, the cookstove programme has practically vanished from view, quietly renamed the Unnat Chulha Abhiyan and downsized.

This was not the first time a big push for clean cookstoves started only to falter. The history of India’s cookstove programmes parallels the evolution of the global development agenda, shaped by the geopolitics of each era—saving forests in the 1970s, improving women’s lot in the 1990s, preventing global warming in the 2000s. Since the 1970s, development agencies and governments around the world have spent millions of dollars promoting clean stoves as the solution for a succession of big problems. These programmes reflect a yearning, among nation-builders and international donors alike, for silver bullets—objects that are quantifiable technological solutions, but also symbolic, such as vaccines, mosquito nets and toilets.

A timely find, as the World Bank et al renew their PR push to promote toilets over mobile phones. The rise and fall of the “next big thing” for the poor is as much a trendy hip thing of the moment as any 15 minute internet celebrity. As silver bullets emerge and disappear according to donor whims and fancies, its the poor who suffer from half baked solutions and incomplete projects left behind like abandoned children’s toy in the sandbox.

Badly trained, reluctant stove-makers meant bad stoves. In one Haryana village, 67 percent of users said the new chulhas were too high, and over half said the cooking holes were too small for their pots. In Punjab, many families found their fuel consumption increased. In Orissa, chimneys were removed because villagers feared their thatched roofs would catch fire. In one village, a row of houses did burn down. “We couldn’t talk about chulhas in that area for years,” said Sarin.

There was also a more fundamental issue: the programme’s goals were out of sync with what women wanted. While the focus was on making stoves that consumed less wood, women wanted ones that emitted less smoke, or cooked faster.

As always.

As for clean cookstoves, she came to the conclusion that structural problems couldn’t be solved with single-point interventions. “Designing a smokeless biomass chulha,” she said, “is in some ways more complex than designing a nuclear power plant.”

And in India, we note the same issues that plague the  sales of “objects to replace dirty stinky kerosene” and other things that are good for you, like oatmeal.

Over the years, Karve found that even better-off rural communities were not persuaded by arguments about health, the environment, or even time saved in cooking. Women’s time and health were not valued; any family with Rs 1,000 to spare would first buy a mobile phone. She came to believe that the “aspirational value” of the stove had to be engaged. Like any successful consumer product, “the price has to be right, the benefits outstanding, and it has to look good,” she said. “It has to be cool.” That kind of hard-sell made Karve, with her “NGO mindset,” uncomfortable.

Is that women’s health is not valued, or that the rupee invested in the mobile phone brings back a greater return than the rupee sunk into a stove or toilet? What are the assumptions we are making on why people choose  to make these trade-offs, and how does that bias us so that our own assumptions end up being consistent barriers to new product introductions to this target segment? We have enough years of experience with the stoves and toilets and water purifiers to want to pause and reflect by now.

“Why must the global alliance for a developing-country problem be headquartered in Washington?” he said in an interview in his IIT office, in 2013. Besides, he wasn’t sure that the GACC’s market-driven approach was the correct one. “I’m always worried when people say there’s only one way to solve a complex problem,” he said.

Which brings us full circle to the problems of toilets and the bank.

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.