Posts Tagged ‘exploratory user research’

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.

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.

New Market Analysis: It all boils down to Interpretation

This isn’t a new diagram for anyone familiar with my writing. Its a diagram I’ve been using to explain where my work fits into the innovation development process since I first saw it on Luke Wroblewski’s blog back in 2006. However, I’ve just been struck forcibly by the realization that there’s a very important piece of this process that’s missing. And that is Interpretation.

What do I mean by Interpretation? 

Lets start by taking a look at the ever popular user centered design process, simplified in linear form, although we all know there are numerous feedback loops and iterations constantly happening in real time.

The understanding we seek in order to conceptualize and design emerges from the immersion in the new operating environment we wish to enter. This where we go and meet people and talk to them and watch and listen and learn. Its when we get back and analyse our findings that our aim is to synthesize them in the form of actionable insights that can drive the design and development of a new product, service or business model. The space between Insights and Design is when and where we conceive the ideas we wish to develop into workable constructs. Its a given that the process isn’t as linear as diagrammed and ideas and concepts occur much earlier but what is critical, and this is what I realized today, is in how we interpret our findings from the field.

This is the bit I’ve circled in red.

This is where our assumptions, especially those we don’t recognize, and our presumptions, are most likely to let us down. Two people, present in the same user observation study, meeting and listening to the same people, can interpret the raw data in very different ways. So much of this has to do with our preconceived ideas of the target audience not to mention especially important when you’re looking at such a study in a culture and society very different from your own, that its no wonder specialists in the field of design ethnography or user research keep emphasizing the need to able to step outside of yourself in order to observe and understand someone else.

While this is naturally important in all kinds of human interaction, it becomes far more crucial in the context of a professional user research project.

That’s why there are any number of case studies and examples of products and services that fail to match people’s needs or meet expectations *even* after extensive and expensive exploratory user research studies.

Did we manage to interpret our findings correctly? Did we understand what someone was saying in the context of their own culture and mindset and society? Or did we interpret their words and actions from the perspective of our own frame of reference?

I’ll end this with a simple example that comes to mind as I write this. A couple of years ago I was in the field for a small solar power manufacturer who could not comprehend why the very sensible decision of being able to save oodles of money on kerosene by investing in an affordable solar lamp was not being made by his intended target audience. Why were they not purchasing this product even though it made so much sense to do so?

In fact, it turned out, the real question was, did it make sense to the potential customer in the context of their own cash flow, income stream and household management?

Part 4: The visual documentation of the original research on rural economic behaviour


I have uploaded a PDF synopsis of the fieldwork conducted during the original Prepaid Economy research including approach and methodology.  Also documented are the different ways those in the rural economy manage their ‘investments’. These images support the observations documented in Part 2 and my thoughts on rural Indian cow ownership have been fleshed out here.

Also of interest maybe this paper from Purdue’s Agricultural Economics department on The multifunctionality of livestock in rural Kenya whose abstract states:

While many contemporary development programs with regard to Sub-Saharan Africa’s pastoralists promote improved livestock marketing as a way out of poverty, they also fail to take into account the multi-functionality of livestock within these communities, and thus are doomed to failure. While livestock are a main source of income for the pastoralist household, they also serve a purpose as a store of wealth, food source, and status symbol. Furthermore, cattle and smallstock (sheep and goats) fulfill each function to a different degree. Since livestock are so multi-functional, marketing projects could better achieve their objectives if they had a more accurate picture of what motivates household livestock sale decisions.

Part 2: The Observations made during original research on rural economic behaviour

One can roughly consider the relative income (or wealth) across three regions where observations were conducted on a continuum where the Indian village was the ‘wealthiest’ while the Malawians were living closest to the edge. However, on synthesizing the combined data collected across geographies, patterns of financial behaviour emerged that showed similarities of intention and goals.

For example, non-perishable food grains such as wheat in India or rice in the Philippines were considered a form of wealth that could be stored, acting as savings or insurance. A portion of the harvest would be held back, to be either sold on demand for cash, over the course of the year or as a source of food. Wealth was also stored, as security, for the longer term, in the form of silver ornaments (in India) or as an investment, in the short term, as livestock – pigs, chickens or a milch cow.

Also, people rarely held on to money in the form of cash for any length of time, for the most part due to lack of access to banks and/or the high cost of maintaining an account proportionate to their incomes.  Available cash was usually converted to “kind” – either goods or livestock- the choice of which reflected careful prioritization. These tangible purchases then acted as financial tools depending on their “convertibility”-

  • long-term security (silver);
  • planned savings (buying building materials on a piecemeal basis over time until a house could be built);
  • insurance or a “cushion” against shocks (a pig that could be sold to raise cash or eaten as food) and finally,
  • investments (milk bearing cow, young piglets to rear to maturity, culling high margin ‘fighting cocks’ from chicks).

Cashless transactions, thus, were frequently observed. These behaviours were most complex in India; where a sophisticated mechanism allowed a group of farmers to negotiate the annual retainer for the services of a carpenter in the form of a number of sacks of wheat to be paid during the harvest and the local shops would set a ‘currency’ conversion rate of a kilo of wheat to the rupee to be used for buying sundry provisions. The shop that insisted on cash only transactions priced its goods about 10% cheaper than the rest. Barter was far simpler in Malawi, where a mobile phone could fetch its equivalent price in goats.

Here, it must be noted that very often each household’s resources such as a store of fuel (cow dung in India; firewood elsewhere), chickens or a kitchen garden and assets like milch goats or cows, would be pointed out with pride.  For their possession implied an independence from cash money – in almost every interview, people would emphasize how little they needed to purchase in the store or nearest town for their daily needs as they were self sufficient in these demonstrated requirements. Often it would be added that in a city, you had no choice but to purchase everything you needed.

Thus the use of purchased resources were optimized for maximum cost/benefit and  their use extended as much as possible before replenishment. For example, if a household had access to cooking gas, they would still use firewood or charcoal for foods that took longer to cook while the more expensive fuel was used for foods that cooked quickly.

In the Philippines, cashless transactions were rarely in the form of goods but tended to involve time or physical labour, primarily as a form of social capital in the community. These complex webs of the rural community’s social networks of trust were obvious in the patterns of sharing and cooperation seen in every country. Groups would invest and save together, for example, the extremely sophisticated cooperative ladies lending circle which had expanded over time to include the services of a local bank in India; or the beekeepers cooperative in Malawi where half the annual profits were saved in a common account while the other half was equally shared.

In addition to the behaviour patterns mentioned above, an external factor was observed to be of great significance in the management of rural household expenses.  While it naturally differed in timing and reason from region to region, every household and profession could predict, within reason, the ebb and flow of income based on the seasons of a natural year. In fact, many other observed behaviours were often directly linked to these expected peaks, such as the harvest season, and lows, for example the dry season when fields lay fallow.  This pattern of expected ups and downs or seasonality in income flow was seen to affect even those who were not directly involved in agriculture, as the local economies were closely knit and interdependent.

Note: This blog was begun as a way to publicly share my thoughts during fieldwork, so much of the raw data and immediate observations are available under the category “user research” as well as blog posts written during January 2009 to April 2009 as seen in the archives available on the right hand sidebar.

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.


From the fact that mtandao is a newly minted word in Kiswahili that means network – from the verb tanda which means to spread – to the signboard’s assertion that its no longer simply a matter of getting access to the internet but instead a consideration of what’s next – our early survey of cyber cafes is pointing to a far more complex scenario than initially imagined. We’ll be refining our approach over the next day or so before plunging into fieldwork proper.