Posts Tagged ‘methods’

On Seeing


Microtrader’s market stall, Karatina market, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2013)

Michael Bierut writes a paean to the power of observation in his introduction to the new print run of George Nelson’s How to See. His concluding words resonated deeply:

The unifying theme behind all of Nelson’s lectures – and, indeed, behind his life’s work – was a simple, and optimistic one: by seeing more clearly, one could make better, more thoughtful, and ultimately more humane choices about our manmade environment, that world “God never made.”

Not only did it make me want to run right out, on a snowy Sunday night, and buy the book – I’ve made a note to myself – but it made me reflect on my own work and it’s underlying philosophy of Understanding and Sensemaking before attempting to design for complexity and diversity.

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How value flows in informal trade networks, Busia, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2016)

When I read Michael’s words describing Nelson’s methods for photography and documentation, I recognized my own. And more importantly, I recognized George Nelson’s contribution to the discipline of industrial design, even down to his undeniable influence on curriculum along with Charles Eames.

My first exposure (yes, you saw what I did here) was in 1989 at the Eames’ inspired National Institute of Design where the introduction to photography as a design tool included developing your own black and white snaps in the darkroom. It changed the way I thought about the function and utility of a camera – from vacation accessory to appendage and tool. Three decades later, my preferred choice is a small point and shoot that comfortably and inconspicuously fits into the palm of my hand.

Niti with her camera, Mamelodi Township, South Africa (Photo: Dave Tait 2008)

I learnt to look for patterns in the photographs, at night, after the end of each day out, when the daily routine of downloading, sorting, filing, and transferring a copy to the external drive took place.

The first two or three days are often just noise, the stimulation of the overburdened senses in the sights and sounds of the bazaars and the landscape and the people. But soon, if you know you’re looking for it, the chaos starts to coalesce into signals that begin to weakly emerge and this then helps refine the focus of the discoveries and the directions for further exploration.

Eastern Cape, South Africa (Photo: Niti Bhan 2008)

And, sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, that series of snaps taken from a speeding car, can turn up a thing of beauty. Or a mundane visit to the wet market provides a composition of harmonious hues and textures.


Kibera Market, Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2011)

I’ve never been able to do it as deliberately and consistently as professional photographers, but it doesn’t stop me from taking my camera out whenever something catches my eye.

Developing a user centered methodology for emerging markets and the bottom of the pyramid

When I first began strategic design planning and concept development specifically focusing on low income customers back in late 2007, it was a learning experience in more ways than expected.  The key challenge, which I’d identified back then and tend to refer to as the “values gap” between mainstream consumer culture and what used to be called the Bottom of the Pyramid or BoP market, can be articulated so:

The biggest hurdle to success in the BoP market has been a lack of understanding that this market is very different from the mainstream consumer culture prevalent in the developed world. Producers immersed in mainstream consumer culture (elements of which include easy credit, buy now/pay later terms, and style obsolescence) tend to consider those at the base of the social and economic pyramid as having a very similar or same worldview and value system as their existing consumers; that they simply have less disposable income.

So the value propositions of the products, services, and programs introduced for lower income markets—particularly in the developing world—are still based on elements of the value system prevalent in global consumer culture. There is a gap here, and its most obvious in the marketing messages, advertising and communications which tend to emphasize product benefits or value that may not be relevant—much less contextually appropriate—to the BoP customer’s life. When the value proposition of the seller has little or no resonance with the value system of the target market, it will most likely be ignored.

But this gap was not just in the findings from the fieldwork, I discovered.  It was also there in the user centered design (UCD) research process; in the approach and methodology; and, in the underlying assumptions of the methods and frameworks. After all, UCD has emerged from the same operating environment as that of the majority of the producers and most certainly has been part of, if not partially the creator of, the global mainstream consumer culture in which we’re all immersed. Therein lies the rub. The process is not divorced from its context and thus, we found, it needed to be far more flexible as it evolved and was adapted to the challenge of conducting exploratory user research in slums and villages and townships across the developing world. For the human centered designer, more likely to have been trained in the heart of the most sophisticated consumer markets in the world, there were additional challenges when considering the new and emerging consumer markets at the BoP. Almost 3 years ago, I framed it thus:

The majority of industrial designers in studios and corporate departments around the world are tasked with the design of a specific product or application, isolated contextually, for the most part, from the larger ecosystem of the market primarily due to their experience of, and immersion in the existing sophisticated marketing infrastructure. They have the luxury of access to information flows – on packaging, distribution, supply chains and retail outlets as well as competing designs – and this lets them focus on refining a particular product, package or UI.

This situation is almost reversed when it comes to the BoP consumer and the BoP markets. The paucity of information does not only hamper the BoP themselves but also those who seek to serve them. Furthermore, much of the market infrastructure is non existent or of a vastly different quality than that experienced in richer markets. Factors such as income streams that are irregular and lack of financial tools such as consumer credit available for outright purchase are issues rarely considered during the design process but can and do influence the final outcome.

And so, when Emerging Futures Lab was born and marketing material crafted, I framed our methodology and approach towards the immersion phase that initiates user centered design and innovation planning for a wholly different marketing, operating and economic environment and geography. The BoP were the great unknown and design could not begin without understanding.  Subsequent projects in the field in the years since have refined the nuance a wee bit but here is the original basis:


We begin at the end.

Our first task is to clarify and understand the goals of user research. Why are we looking at this market? Whom do we seek to understand? What are the questions that need to be answered? What do we want to do?

Our destination drives our planning.

Profiles are carefully selected to not only meet the requirements of the research agenda but also to best reflect the demographics of the emerging consumer market. We use our extensive online and personal networks to identify and recruit our potential users in rural Kenya or Philippines or India etc

We listen for meaning and value

Identifying key concerns, purchasing patterns, core values, behaviour and mindset that relate to our goals ensures the results will be relevant and usable. These values and key concerns are used to filter the ideas before a second round of refinement in order to ensure that all recommendations made are based on the results of observations and actionable insights from the field.

We question your assumptions

We identify and challenge your existing assumptions on consumer behavior, quality of life and environmental conditions faced by the BoP consumer in their in daily lives.

We maximise constraints and minimize complexity

Only after the selection of the most important user concerns and criteria against which future design concepts can be filtered does the conceptual process begin. Maximizing the design constraints before the brainstorming process sets the boundaries for the solution space.

We recommend exceeding expectations

Rigorously evaluated design directions and concepts that resonate with our userʼs values and fit comfortably within their budgets and lifestyles can help ensure sustainable success. Insights also provide the touch points and guidelines for developing programs and communicating effectively with your audience lowering the barriers to user acceptance and decreasing the rate of dropouts.

We aim to understand and over deliver.

Putting people first: the difference between “what” and “why”

Pondering the topic of contracts and creativity in yesterday’s post made me think about problem areas, how they’re identified and how they may be deconstructed. In simpler terms, the difference between the “what” and the “why”.

Take two regions in a country, one far more fertile and having a better overall economy than the other. Yet both areas face the same lack or unmet need. Take a product which fills this need. Yet it’s sales in the far more economically challenged area are more than double that of the first region. Why?

The numbers gave the company a means to identify a problem but are not able to provide any explanation for the discrepancy. It was these very same metrics that originally identified the first region as one which would be a good location to launch a product – average income was higher, unmet need was felt by almost 90% of the population, retail outlets were numerous etc.

This is where the need for exploratory user observations in the field, in order to understand the customer base and their behaviour made sense, as the company’s sales data (contradictory to initial performance estimates) needed explanation that only the people generating those same numbers could answer themselves.

Data, charts, graphs, metrics and numbers all have a role to play but when they are about human beings (and not just the number of cars per minute produced in an automated factory line) I believe that role is a supporting one, not the Oscar winning star of the show.