Posts Tagged ‘product design’

Is Your Product Ready for Africa? Why Kigali’s “Smart” Project Faces an Unforeseen Challenge

However, KTRN boss agreed that they share responsibility since they never conducted a profound market research to determine whether the gadgets are compatible with African weather.

“We sincerely didn’t realize that the weather would affect the gadgets”~ Public Buses Wi-fi: Harsh Weather, Incompatible Gadgets Interrupt Kigali’s ‘Smart’ Project, KT Press, 16th October 2017

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across a Korean device manufacturer completely unprepared for the exigencies of the African operating environment. Do we simply hear less about the robustness of Chinese electronic devices, for instance, or do we hold them to a lower standard? That’s a conversation for another day as its an entire screed in itself.

Here, I’ll just introduce our simple framework for ensuring you’ve covered all the bases when developing a new product for a market with very different conditions from your existing ones. Perhaps, it may provide food for thought for both the procurement side of the equation, when thinking about technical specifications and requirements, as well as the potential supplier side, when thinking about entering the African market.

Place: Feasibility

…inadequate infrastructure is a fact of life. Whether is variability in electricity supply in the urban context or lack of it in the rural. Things we take for granted in the operating environment in which these lenses were first framed – pipes full of running water, stable and reliable power, affordable, clean fuel for cooking, credit cards and bank accounts – are either scarce, inadequate or unreliable for the most part.

Feasibility, thus, takes on an entirely different meaning in this context. Each location or region (place) may have different facilities.

This rather obvious oversight has tripped up much larger manufacturers than this. Consider Whirlpool.

Emerging new markets, such as Rwanda’s, are rapidly adopting the latest technology. Is your product up for the challenge?

Labour saving African kitchen appliances: Market opportunity for product design and social innovation

Mama making ugali (nsima) over a 3 stone fire in Kisii, Kenya (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

After watching their Mamas spending hours over an open fire, sweating over the daily dish of ugali or nsima or fufu – the African kitchen’s favourite carbohydrate – inventors and innovators across the continent are taking the initiative to ease her burden with nifty, new kitchen appliances.

While culinary details differ from region to region – West Africa’s fufu is cassava based, while East Africa’s ugali is made of maize – the essential element in common is the time and effort involved in cooking the stiff, sticky, starchy staple.

The latest is from a young man in Malawi, who, after 3 years of tinkering that’s reminiscent of Dyson’s obsessive iteration, has successfully prototyped an nsima (or ugali) cooker. It makes the perfect maize porridge of the type you see Mama stirring in the photograph in just 36 unsupervised minutes.

Opening-the-nsima-cooker-600x450And that’s where he’s at with the product, which can also be started remotely by the ubiquitous mobile phone.

On the other end of the continent, however, Togolese electronics engineer Logou Minsob has gone much further with his award winning invention, the FouFouMix. It converts pre-cooked cassava into fufu in less than 10 minutes.

Fufu or foufou is made from pounded yam also known as cassava. The tuber is cooked and then pounded into a particular sticky consistency. This article from Ghana, whose myths claim it as a food for the gods, describes the entire back-breaking process taking many hours and many hands to get just right.

youmomentumslideThis visualization of the process is his older model – there’s already a new model in production and the factory is in full swing. Why I find it interesting however is due to its similarity with this visual of yet another indigenous invention, the idli maker – the idli is a South Indian steamed rice cake.

2As you can see, those wheels are made of granite – considered the only way to grind the soaked and fermented rice into the right consistency to be steamed in specially designed pans.

There’s a pattern of arduous consistency being translated into convenient time saving mechanisms.  Backbreaking labour is inspiring invention.

vintage-ad-kenmore-washing-machine This is exactly how the giants of home appliances began their global brands, through the invention of washing machines and dishwashers and vacuum cleaners – all the things that made life easier for the industrial era’s housewives. Domestic appliances revolutionized daily life, minimized the need for servants and opened up a world of learning and leisure for women in the industrialized world.

Yet, neither of these appliances are commonly found in superstores anywhere in the world, nor are they products that any of the big name brands would think to develop. While the Indian product is certainly meant for a regional niche, unlike a pressure cooker, say, the African devices newly being invented are not. Each have potential across their entire regions.

Indigenous product innovation and opportunity

And this potential new market opportunity goes beyond product innovation or category creation. Just like the labour saving devices of the previous century, these have the potential to truly liberate women from the hours spent on the most basic household chore – cooking the daily meal.

Unlike the social enterprise attempts to focus on health benefits of smokeless stoves or solar lamps, these have emerged organically from local inventors spotting an opportunity for genuine innovation. The demand certainly exists, and its one that is independent of the household’s income range.

There’s a whole new market opportunity to be tapped, by these and other such similar inventions, if only consumer brands would take a moment to notice.

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.