Posts Tagged ‘programme design’

The formal sector and economic development: A lesson from marketing

Pursuing the thoughts introduced in the previous post further, I looked up the original reference on “formalization of the informal sector”1.

Alan Gelb, et al. 2009. “To Formalize or Not to Formalize? Comparisons of Microenterprise Data from Southern and East Africa.” CGD Working Paper 175

“…in East Africa, weak enforcement of tax payment and no significant difference in access to services between formal and  informal firms means that these variables do not explain the allocation of firms across the informal-formal divide.

We conclude that in countries with weak business environments, informal firms are just as likely as formal firms to increase their productivity as they grow.

Thus,  interventions to increase productivity and lower the cost of formality may be helpful.”

The question comes back to what is the benefit of formalizing when the costs associated with it do not offer any additional services, such as reliable electricity, for instance, that offset the investment.

Formality only becomes a barrier when new market opportunities require paperwork – a formal sector customer, or a chance to export.

“…improvements in the business environment in East Africa are potentially more valuable in changing the balance of benefits and costs from formalization, and so encouraging small firms to formalize and grow.”

Really, what seems to be the case is that instead of pushing individual entrepreneurs to formalize, it is their operating environment that must be tweaked in order to attract them towards formalization. As long as there’s little difference between the formal and informal sectors of the economy, there is no incentive to invest in the relatively expensive and cumbersome process.

The key insight here is that the current day efforts to push towards formalization, must instead transform into a pull towards formality.

If indeed we’re now seeing the end-users as customers of our services, then we must market the benefits in order to attract them. This has implications for the durability, and thus, sustainability of programs and initiatives, beyond the life of the project.

With the nuanced shift in perspective offered by Gelb et al, we can also see the role that human centered design can play in this journey. Who better to identify what customers’ need and want?

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Projected Impact of recognizing and integrating end-user’s agency on innovation adoption rates

Rajasthan, India January 2009

Our problem statement for the recently completed, two phase project on sustainable agricultural value chains, was framed as follows:

What are the barriers to adoption of sustainable agricultural practices that limit their spread and scaling? What are reasons and/or causes of the existence of these barriers?

 The complexity and wicked nature of the problem space – why do farmers stop using innovation (new agricultural technology and methods)once donor funding ends in large scale public private partnerships (PPPs) for social and economic development at the base of the pyramid (among subsistence farmers in rural Africa, for eg)- meant that we had to step back massively in order to grasp the entire process of PPP initiation and conceptualization all the way through to impact assessment after the usually multi-year projects ended.

Our aim was to identify the potential barriers to adoption i.e. the problem areas, in current day program development processes, at the systems level, rather than overwhelm the problem space with attempting to identify situational challenges unique to each PPP proposal.  Were there generalizable problems that could be identified, first, in the existing process, broadly speaking, and if so, could they be framed for solution finding at the individual project level?

We began with the premise that putting the user at the center of the program design would exponentially improve adoption rates as programs would seek to fill gaps in the existing infrastructure or services or validate and enable the end user’s aspirational goals. When we assessed the existing situation against this lens we discovered that in the majority of the cases, the first time there was any contact with the end-user of these programs (the beneficiaries) was at the impact assessment stage of the project, usually after hundreds of thousands of dollars and many months or years later.

Observations during our fieldwork on this project as well as from past experiences have always demonstrated the joy of recognition or appreciation end-users always expressed when the context of of user research and its relationship to a problem solving outcome of some sort (device, app, biz model etc) has been explained to them as background to our intrusions into their daily life. This project’s particularities emphasized this aspect and threw up the role of the end user’s agency in choosing to adopt an innovation in their daily work or not, as opposed to such programs tending to impose participation and outcomes as the only means to document measurable impact. 

We offer the hypothesis, to be validated in the next phase of research in the field, that this explicit recognition of the end-user’s agency that the upfront design research conveys to the participants (and the general community) as well as the integration of their context and its constraints and conditions into the program design, inspires and motivates far greater rates of adoption of the “innovation” (whether a pruning technique or a new seed or even equipment) which then tends to be perceived as a custom tailored solution.

Reflections on design thinking for government: empowering policy makers and stakeholders

Yesterday I came across a post on The World Bank’s blog, “Design Thinking for Government Services: What happens when the past limits our vision of the future?” Given that I’m in the process of writing a report on the role that human centered design can play in government, that too for a developed nation, I’d like to take this timely opportunity to deconstruct the concept and reflect upon it further.

There have been numerous ways that design thinking has been explained to the general public in the past decade or so since the phrase gained notoriety. The most common understanding is that as introduced by the author of the blogpost linked to above:

We can either: (a) use statistics, trends, quantitative surveys, and historical data to produce reliable results; or (b) develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs. The author makes a very good case for validity, which is usually forgotten by companies that prefer reliable results that keep most companies’ top executives and stock analysts at ease.

This call for a change on how to tackle innovation has originally been directed to businesses, and takes the concept of design thinking (that is, borrowing the thinking process of designers) to services and companies in general. However, I believe it should also be applied to governments, more specifically on how governments should take advantage of ICTs to improve service provision internally (within government entities) and to citizens.
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So what is design thinking for governments anyway? It is not that much different than its private sector equivalent. It is about going back to the basics. And I mean the basics, trying to understand what citizens need from their governments (yes, that far back) and then answering the question: how could governments (hopefully, leveraging the new set of technologies and devices that exist today – and their spread among the general population) be able to satisfy these needs? Then, it is all about building prototypes, testing, trial and error, and of course a good set of evaluation and feedback mechanisms

While the author has indeed noted in the footnotes that the design process has been simplified, imho the situation as framed is not as simple as that. I’d like to take a step even further back into the basics and look upon the system holistically in order to frame my own thinking on this topic.

Jay Doblin first introduced the concept of separating the act of design (giving tangible form) from the planning of design (what, how, when, why) in his seminal paper “A short, grandiose theory of design“. In seven pages, Doblin presents a straightforward and persuasive argument for design as a systematic process. He described the emerging landscape of systematic design so:

  •  For large complex projects, it “would be irresponsible to attempt them without analytical methods” and rallied against an “adolescent reliance on overly intuitive practices.” 
  • He separated “direct design” in which a craftsperson works on the artifact to “indirect design” in which a design first creates a representation of the artifact, separating design from production in more complex situations.

Doblin and others were responding to the increased specialization of design and the complexity of managing large design programs for corporations. It was a natural process to begin to discuss how design should move upstream to be involved with the specifications of problems, not only in the traditional mode of production which design had been practiced. 

Government is by virtue of its nature a large and complex system. To leap forward into the intuitive, empathetic mind state of a human centered designer without a rigorous methodology for analysis, synthesis and subsequent planning would be far riskier indeed than to offer stakeholders the tools to empower their decision making for more impactful outcomes.

Going back to Roger Martin’s words quoted by The World Bank author, develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs, the critical part missing in this proposed embedding of design thinking is the answer to the question How to tackle and propose a valid solution? 

And it is this How? that the steps undertaken prior to the design and development of a solution can offer the tools to answer, for they begin first by attempting to understand the complexity of the situation in order to identify and frame the problem to be solved by the design processes and methods.

Until then, the concept as currently articulated will remain the purview of professional designers applying their approach to problem solving on the behalf of governments and international institutions such as The World Bank. That may fit in within the author’s articulation of “borrowing” the thinking but in real world terms, the steps of the process are not within any government’s ability to execute. They are not Nokia, to quote on of our interviewees, able to field a team of user researchers each time they seek to craft a programme for end-users (citizens).

What government actually needs is a set of tools that empower policy makers, advisors and planners to identify the correct problems where intervention is required and then to craft programmes that meet these needs. This aligns the intent with the actions undertaken and thus improves the impact of the outcomes. 

In the jargon of business and design, that could be said to be improving the success rate of an innovative product or a service in the market by lowering the barriers to adoption by the end users by offering them a clearly realized value or meeting an unmet need.

And, that is the fundamental premise of the human centered design approach to solution development.

Exploring the concept of user inspired policy planning

Getting up close and personal with Farmer Pedro at the Minbuza

Since late September I’ve been collaborating with Bart Doorneweert on an exploratory project for the Dutch government, taking a closer look at the design process for policy and planning related to private sector development of sustainable agriculture value chains. We’ve been thinking a lot about the user, the end user or the producer, that little guy at the bottom of the pyramid and where and how he fits into the grand scheme of things.

Bart’s most recent posts have been giving me much food for thought as they articulate the familiar (user centred design process, planning and thinking) in a wholly new way and I’d like to share some key snippets here:

Immersion is a project development time allowance for identifying patterns of behavior and capturing unpolluted data, which explain current behavior (also called exploratory user research).Even before you start working on developing a potential solution, you begin with finding focus by asking what would define the problem you are trying to solve.Immersion is a form of subjective inference: something, which depends entirely on an individual’s perception. However, if patterns check out and tend to repeat themselves in other circumstances, or replicate concisely, then subjective judgment is compounded to a more objective phenomenon, and becomes verifiable by others.It is then, when actionable insight appears, because the pattern has provided an insight and become a structure that organization can use to craft solutions.
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The purpose of immersion is to discover patterns, which can evolve to a new basis for objective decision making.

Immersion can be seen as a mechanism for mitigating the constraint that uncertainty imposes on organizational decision-making.

With the pace of change accelerating, the immersion exercise increases in value and in necessity. It will need to be done more widely and frequently to update our current objective decision making frameworks, and prevent them from becoming an obsolete representation of the actual world.

What I liked about the way he’s framed this activity of Immersion (call it exploratory user research or simply fieldwork), the first phase in the user centered design process, is how he has connected its relevance to dealing with the challenge of uncertainty and rapid change.

Uncertainty is the only certainty, I’ve often said, when it comes to the conditions in the operating environment at the Bottom of the Pyramid, and strategies demand flexibility and responsiveness in order to cope effectively with the perceived chaos of the developing world.  But what he’s added here is this little insight from the perspective of policy and planning for sustainable development programmes:

It was once the wish of social engineering to control for uncertainty in the social environment. The premise was that you could make decisions based on a certain desired outcome, and hedge against the risk of it turning out otherwise. But through a couple of decades of iterating on the concept of social engineering we now know that it can only achieve so much. The power to coerce people to choose one type of behavior over another dissipates under change and uncertainty. The framework has shown to be ineffective, or too costly at best, and the social environment has increased in dynamics thereby making it less controllable.

It has been said that 96% of innovations fail and much of it is a hit and miss spaghetti on the wall affair. Human centered design planning has claimed to increase the success rate of the new – whether a product or service – by starting with understanding the intended target audience i.e. user research, exploratory and broadly focused, in order to identify opportunity spaces (and unmet needs) for design and development of products or services that offer value and resonate with users’ worldview.  This is critical for ensuring that relevant, appropriate and affordable solutions are ultimately designed for the intended target audience. The aim, naturally, is to lower the barriers to adoption and decrease the dropout rate.

Conceptually we can take this thought one step further by applying the same approach to solution development for policy and planning of sustainable programmes for development in the agricultural value chain. We can begin our user centered approach by questioning and validating our assumptions about Farmer Pedro and refreshing our perceptions of his current day status, situation and aspirations, as much as any multinational mobile manufacturer, but in practice, how would this work in an arena that has traditionally been top down and on a grand scale?

Is it enough to be inspired by the human centered process, in a complex multi-stakeholder context such as this, to simply remember his presence in the meeting rooms of the first world, or is there a way to add his voice, far away though he may be, to the design and development process?

As Bart has written, too many programmes fail to continue once donor support is withdrawn i.e. they are not sustainable in and of themselves:

Rather than focusing on the results of a project, I propose to take a different perspective on the purpose of private sector development. The task of a private sector development project is to create a temporary organizational vehicle, which is geared to search for the new business model that will deliver replicable and scalable ppp impact. In other words, it’s not the impact itself we’re after, it’s the business model that will deliver the impact. Private sector development, as a complementary coalition of for-profit, and non-profits, should limit its resources to validating such a model, ie. a feasible, viable, and desirable model.Exit comes after such validation.