Posts Tagged ‘systems design’

A theoretical approach to Value for Money in aid & development: Optimizing research and design for ‘best fit’ iterative programming

Last year, I briefly touched upon this concept as an approach to cost effective programme design that was still flexible enough to provide room for iteration for best fit.

Today, I want to explore the concept further to evaluate its potential as a framework for incorporating the concurrent shift in development thinking towards Value for Money (DFID) principles, in addition to designing for best fit.

Value for Money as a Process Driver

Value for Money (VfM) is not the same as traditional monitoring and evaluation which seeks to measure impact of a project, and occurs usually after the fact. In many large scale projects, this may not happen until years after inception.

Instead, VfM is defined by the UK’s National Audit Office as ‘the optimal use of resources to achieve intended outcomes’, which in turn, the DFID document contextualizes for their aid programming investments as “We maximise the impact of each pound spent to improve poor people’s lives.”

If this applies to all investments in aid related programme development, then it follows that it must also apply to earliest stage of discovery and exploration that leads to problem framing i.e. the necessary groundwork to write a comprehensive and inclusive design brief for future programming.

Thus, the conceptual approach that I introduced at the beginning of this post, which is taken from the discipline of Operations Research, and seeks to solve the challenge framed so – what is the optimal solution that minimizes resources (inputs) for maximum outputs (value creation) – fits as a potential framework that can theoretically apply from the earliest stages of implementing development strategy, even before inception of any related projects, including early stage research and feasibility studies. After all, the function of Linear Programming is optimization.

Note: Here I will only consider the theoretical aspects from the point of view of programme design research and development, and not the mathematics. That will have to wait until I have gathered enough data for validation.

Design Research for Programme Design Purposes

In this context, the primary function of such an exploratory project is to identify the opportunity spaces for interventions that would together form an integrated programme designed to effect some sort of positive change in the ecosystem within which it would be implemented, and offer a wider (more inclusive) range of cross-cutting benefits.

In the language of product development, we are attempting to build a working prototype. We cannot build and test first prototypes to see if they work, directly, because our room for failure is much less spacious for experimenting with aid related programming, ethically speaking. This is not a laboratory environment but the real world with enough challenges and adversity already existent.

Programmes are not the same as consumer products, nor are they meant to be designed and tested in isolation before being launched for pilot testing in the market. Their very nature is such that innocent people are involved from the start, often with a history of skepticism regarding any number of well meant donor funded projects aimed at improving their lives. This changes the stringency of the early stage requirements for design planning.

At the same time, the nature of the task is such that no first prototype can be expected to be the final design. So, from the very beginning, what we must do is set the objective of the outcome as a Minimal Working Prototype (MWP) that meets all the criteria for an optimal solution, and NOT a Minimal Viable Product (which may or may not work wholly as intended until tested in the field for iteration.)

That is, the first implementation of the iterative programme design must fall within the bounds of the solution space – that which is represented by the shaded area in the diagram above.

The Optimal Solution is the Iterative Programme Design

Thus, what we must be able to do at the end of the discovery phase of research necessary to write the design brief, is tightly constrain the boundary conditions for the solution space within which the MWP can then be iterated. This minimizes the risk of utter failure, and maximizes the chances of discovering the best fit, and all of this within the definitions of Value for Money and it’s guidelines.

There are numerous ways to set the goals for optimization – one can minimize resources and maximize constraints, or minimize risk and maximize return on resources invested. These will guide our testing of this framework in field conditions to validate the robustness of this theoretical approach.

In this way, we can constrain our efforts to discover best fit within predefined limits of tolerance, while retaining the flexibility to adapt to changing real world circumstances and progressive transformation of operating conditions.

Best fit, then, becomes less a matter of experimentation without boundary conditions and more a discovery of which of the many right answers – if we take the entire shaded area as containing “right answers” to the problem at hand – help us meet the goals of intervention in the complex adaptive system in an optimal manner.

The point to note from this conceptual framework is that there is never any ONE right answer, so much as the answer will be that which we discover to the question “What is needed right now for us to meet our goals, given these changes since we last looked at the system?”

It is this aspect that loads the burden of a successful outcome on the front end of the entire research and development process, given that framing the problem correctly at the outset is what drives the research planning and steers the discovery process in the direction of relevant criteria, conditions, constraints, and user needs that will not only form the bounds of our solution space, but also act as waymarkers for monitoring change and evaluating its progression.

Balancing the outcomes in systems design

The Carpenter’s Problem as a solution framing tool is quite flexible. It permits a spacious solution space in the shaded area of the graph, that allows for localization and customization for best fit to particular region or geography.

For instance, the challenge of designing the most inclusive internet for all the newcomers from emerging economies, must map against the minimum viable and optimal solution.

Is access to a signal the actual problem to be solved?

“Unlearn the past to create the future”

ckptyranny1The late Michigan University management professor, CK Prahalad, is best known for his last, and most famous publication, The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. But to MBA students, management consultancies, corporate planners, and regular readers of the Harvard Business Review, he is also known for a long and distinguished career in management thought leadership. Identifying and recognizing the Core Competency of corporations is another one of his strategy concepts.
I bring him up because today I want to start my keynote on behalf of the Inequality and Technology opening conference by BankInter Foundation for Innovation with a point he made in a speech given at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad back in 2009.

The tyranny of dominant logic, he called it. We are all socialized to believe, he said, that developing countries cannot be the source of innovation. And this dominant logic provides the theoretical lens by which we see the world. Developed country managers, consultants, academic researchers, all have been socialized to accept this notion.

Because of this, he said, we have never questioned the premise that innovation flows from the top down to the bottom; or, from the North down to the South; or, from the developed countries to the developing. But, as he pointed out with numerous examples in his speech, this doesn’t actually hold true. And this blinds us from seeing otherwise. We must unlearn, the past, to create the future, he told us.

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Read On…

People-centered systems design thinking out loud

feature_jaimeThis morning I was pondering the complexity involved in weaving together four separate threads of ‘innovation’ into one holistic system. They were not unrelated to each other, and the end users are more or less the same for each, but each is also a standalone solution to a pain point in an ecosystem. I was tinkering with the idea of trying to knit them into one – would it be far too complicated, both to implement, and to develop conceptually? Or, would the complexity be worth the additional headaches because the outcome would be well worth the effort of integration into a holistic and seamless concept?

From the product development point of view, the research question is whether an integrated, seamless solution is more viable and desirable than four standalone solutions developed by individual teams, in parallel, within the same ecosystem, and for the same target audience. Feasibility is the question being evaluated, from the value for money perspective. Of course it could be tried, that’s the beauty of design – one attempts to build prototypes to test one’s paper based theories to see if they break in the real world. But was it worth the time and resources to build the prototype in the first place?

It was while grappling with this minuscule yet wicked problem that I was reminded of a gentleman I once heard speak at the Better World by Design conference in Rhode Island about 8 years ago. Jaime Lerner is very well known to urban planners and city designers, I’m sure, but perhaps not as familiar a name to the rest of us. He conceived the idea of the city as a living, breathing, organic system – a turtle, as you can see in the diagram above. Life, work, movement, are all integrated together.

While the systems design challenge I’m pondering is more technology based, as is usually the case in today’s world, and not a cityscape, I believe that one can take away some powerful insights from Mr Lerner’s philosophy for design planning for a complex human ecosystems. In this context, its the informal and rural economic system prevalent in the developing world. Not unlike Brazil, where Mr Lerner perfected his vision.

Commerce in the informal sector is a living, breathing, organic ecosystem made up of human beings in flexible, negotiable, and thus, reciprocal relationships with each other. Much of the groundwork for this conclusion can be discovered in the reports linked to here. If we set aside the cityscape, and consider the essence of Mr Lerner’s philosophy, we see that his three key concepts are life, work, and movement.

In the context of the informal valueweb, movement could be considered with far more layers of nuance than simply transportation or mobility as one would in the context of urban planning. And, in the context of an ecosystem, it could be stretched to cover the flows of value in between the nodes in a value web – these we’d earlier identified as information, goods, services, and currency. That is, movement is the lifeblood of the organic network, the transactions that take place, and most importantly, the element of give and take which distinguishes human to human interactions.

Thus, if we were to step back from the design of the details of such a complex human interaction system, we too could conceivably think of it as living organism – perhaps not a turtle, which is a better metaphor for a city; perhaps there’s some other metaphor waiting for us to stumble over. In the meantime, I do wonder if we have the underlying philosophy for the design of complex, interdependent human interaction systems?

 

Previously.

Part 2: Enabling development’s paradigm shift from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’

Workshop I_end user in sight during evaluation

Programming in International Development jumps directly into the Design phase of the projects. This is the root of the challenge they face now as they seek to change the paradigm away from ‘best practice’ to putting the end users at the center of their strategies, with ‘best fit’. I identified this problem in the Autumn of 2012 whilst delving into the internal project development processes with civil servants at the Netherlands Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economy during a customized internal workshop.

It should be mentioned at this point that while Robert Chambers has extensively promoted the participatory approach, there were issues in the process that were explored during our work, and can be covered in a separate article. Participatory design is not synonymous with user centered design, and neither approach includes a robust methodology for assessing the landscape of the operating environment in conjuction with solution development for ‘best fit’, particularly in the developing world context.

Before we can jump into the design of a project or programme – whether with or without the participation of the end users/beneficiaries, we need a structured approach to grasping the context of the challenge. Without a map of the landscape of the ‘wicked problem’, one cannot navigate the complexity (1). This so called landscape map of the ecosystem in which the development project will be introduced, should not only include understanding the people and their operating environment, but identify and frame the touchpoints for the design of ‘best fit’ interventions.

That is, there’s a need for framing the problem in a manner such that the outcome narrows down the solution space i.e. delineating the boundaries for ‘best fit’ prior to the inception of the design process. In the field of design, these boundary conditions can be known as design criteria and constraints, along with filters for assessing optimal solutions at the conceptual stage from the plurality available.

UCSD

These first three steps in the process BEFORE jumping into design are collectively known as Design Planning, and their outcome minimizes the wasteful experimentation of ‘suits to try’ for ‘best fit’ as the design phase begins with the ‘measurements’ necessary for a ‘bespoke suit’ tailored to fit, to stretch the analogy. Bespoke tailors do not expect their carefully measured suit to fit their client on the first try, and usually one returns two or three times for the final fitting. Similarly, customized programming may require tweaks and can be considered a working prototype (a pilot program, for instance, prior to scaling) where the kinks are worked out together with the participants.

This will require work upfront at the start of the multi-year programmes. There are no silver bullets to addressing complexity.

 

(1) Part 1: An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools

An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools

This post follows on from the previous one which introduced the concept of a ‘best fit’ approach to the ‘wicked problems’ in development. There I posited that consumer facing private enterprises looking at the African market would benefit from considering Development’s thought-leadership in this regard, given their experience in the challenging operating environments of the developing world.

I also noted that while the ‘best fit’ concept was a welcome paradigm shift for addressing complexity, the siloed thinking common to academia left far too many gaps in their approach and process.

In this post, I will begin to explore the seminal thinking (1) at the intersection of business and design  – also known as innovation planning – for methods and tools to address complexity in a holistic way, all the while keeping in mind that we need to ensure the end users (the rural poor, the people, or the beneficiaries) are at the center of the strategy (Chambers 1988).

Where is the gap?

A careful review of the working paper provides evidence that the challenge faced by international development practitioners when considering a ‘best fit’ approach to programme design is the lack of a robust methodology proven to take one from A to B. Here, we can think of point A as their original ‘best practice’ paradigm, and the attendant methods learnt through study and experience. Point B would be a validated process, with an accompanying toolkit, for applying the ‘best fit’ approach. One can confidently say a How To Handbook is missing, and the siloed thinking creates the barrier to developing one within the field.

What is the challenge?

While Ramalingam et al (2014) recognize the need for tools and processes from other disciplines more familiar with complex systems, one can gather a sense that they don’t know where to start. One cannot simply throw various methods and tools at problems, like spaghetti on the wall, to see which sticks. Even in mathematics, formulae are carefully selected based on the variables available, and the answer to be calculated. One doesn’t blindly throw data at all the available equations hoping to discover the one that fits the problem statement.

This challenge is better articulated in Matt Andrew’s blogpost which posits that the ‘best fit’ approach to policy and programme design is akin to choosing a new suit of clothes. The implication is one must try many different suits in order to discover the ‘best fit’. This is wasteful and time consuming.

What can people centred innovation planning offer?

First, the fundamental premise of human centered design firmly focuses the outcome of the processes on the context and needs of the end users. This orientation offers design a headstart in considering Robert Chambers’ emphasis on putting people first. The entire discipline is eminently suited to take on this challenge for international development, in an empathetic and holistic manner.

Second, addressing complex systems designed for human interaction is another key facet of the field of design, particularly the specializations that deal with computer human interaction of all types. This means there is a vast body of work created over decades meant to consider exactly this point.

Third, rather than wasting time and money on “trying on different suits” for ‘best fit’, there are proven approaches developed to minimize the failure rate of innovations introduced in the consumer market, and maximize the adoption rate by the end users. In particular, the areas of design thinking, design planning and design innovation have years of expertise in considering exactly this.

Finally, for development policies, and programmes to provide value for money, and sustainable, beneficial outcomes for their target audience, they must be designed such that they are viable, feasible, and desirable. This requires a holistic approach to solution development integrating elements from more than just one discipline, whether its design or development.

The philosophy of the methodology required to leap from “We must pivot to ‘best fit'” to bridging the gap of knowledge of “How to map the wicked problem and assess the context for programming” will be covered in the next article.

 

(1)

Strategy as a Wicked Problem by John Camillus (HBR 2008)
Living with Complexity by Don Norman (MIT Press 2010) Chapter 1 PDF
A Short Grandiose Theory of Design by Jay Doblin (STA Design Journal 1987)
Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan (Design Issues, 1992)

Pivoting from “best practice” to “best fit”: An interdisciplinary perspective

There has been an evolution in thinking about development practice. Buckley and Ward (2015) found a broad consensus for a shift from a ‘best-practice paradigm’ (Chambers 2011) to one of ‘best fit’ — that is, development interventions that are ‘optimally adapted’ to the socioeconomic, political and ecological context at any given moment (Ramalingam et al. 2014: 3).

While the private sector’s approach to consumer marketing and product innovation offers much to improve the success rates of government policy and development programming, there are lessons from development’s thought leadership that offer global brands a strategic advantage when considering the frontier markets on the African continent.

One of these is the pivot away from the ‘best practice paradigm’ – Robert Chambers anticipated the contemporary concept of design thinking in his lifetime’s body of work – to design for ‘best fit‘, an approach to crafting solutions to ‘wicked problems’ embraced recently by the UK’s DFID. Indeed, the UNECA’s recently released Transformative Industrial Policy for Africa explicitly mentions the need for industrial policy designed for ‘best fit’.

Corporate strategy consulting tends to rely on the ‘best practice paradigm’, and this is demonstrated in the slew of analysis and reports by large firms, and boutiques. While the African continent’s markets are still considered nascent, this approach may pass scrutiny, but as the South Africans are discovering to their cost, their own legacy of ‘best practices’ are not always fit for purpose further north of the SADC.

What can we take away from the field of development research?

Ramalingam et al’s abstract for their working paper “From best practice to best fit: understanding and navigating wicked problems in international development” starts with,

The methods of complex systems research are increasingly being used and valued by international development organisations. These approaches enable a shift away from existing tools and business processes that reinforce a focus on static, simple and linear problems. The evidence is that these methods can help development partners better navigate the complex, dynamic realities they face on a day-to-day basis.

However, scanning their references shows gaps that emerge from siloed thinking natural to narrowly focused academic research. Businesses of all stripes daily navigate complex, dynamic realities with greater vulnerability.  An interdisciplinary perspective, as espoused by Aalto University, would thus encourage the consideration of adding a soupçon of Business and Design, to the Engineering, prior to synthesizing the key elements of ‘best fit’ for new market entry strategy, viz.,

Strategy as a Wicked Problem by John Camillus (HBR 2008)
Living with Complexity by Don Norman (MIT Press 2010) Chapter 1 PDF
A Short Grandiose Theory of Design by Jay Doblin (STA Design Journal 1987)
Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan (Design Issues, 1992)

As we can see, business, and then design, both have given much thought to this space now being touched upon by development researchers and theorists. This will be the topic of the next post, what lessons my teachers might have to share with the practice of development. For now, we’ll consider the value inherent in their explorations of the subject matter.

Development’s value to the practice of business strategy and innovation (design) planning lies in its deep and decades long experience in developing countries. As Ha-Joon Chang et al state:

Insofar as most African economies look rather similar to each other economically, it is not because they are in the same continent but because all economies – in whichever continent they are – at low levels of development look rather similar to each other, due to the lack of specialisation and diversification in the production structure, which then leads to high degrees of homogeneity in occupational structures, social organisations, and lifestyles.

What the Development industry brings to the table is experience in operating in the challenging operating environments of the erstwhile third world, especially among the lower income segments of the population, and outside of the population dense conurbations. Only a handful of consumer facing global brands have anywhere near this type of experience, and that too from the profit maximization point of view. Emerging market consumer firms, hyper local startups, and others in the distribution chain with such ground level expertise in traditional markets tend to keep their strategies close to their chests and their trusted relationship networks even closer.

Till now, ‘best practice’ as conventionally approached by private sector and social enterprises keen on addressing these untapped opportunities has been to partner logically with local NGOs for local expertise. But the last mile of customer experience has always struggled to translate itself from thinking of satisfying demanding consumers to resonating with established mindsets of passive beneficiaries. This has had its own problems.

So, what does ‘best fit’ mean, then, in this context?

Matt Andrews, at the Harvard Kennedy School, thinks of it as choosing a new suit of clothes. However, this description I’ll hold on to for the next post as it contains the problem statement that our interdisciplinary methods are designed to address.

Ramalingam et al’s original version with authors’ formatting:

‘Best fit’, a concept stemming from governance efforts, describes aid programmes that are optimally adapted to the political, social and economic context. Such programmes can take advantage of a plurality of possible solutions, which can be deployed flexibly. They often work at multiple levels simultaneously – from community to national and even global policy levels – in order to facilitate and bring about change.

Businesses contemplating the African consumer market would do well to take such a holistic approach to their market entry strategies, and the design of products, services, and business models. Adapting to the complexity and challenges inherent in the developing world’s operating environment for ‘best fit’ becomes even more critical for successfully bridging the disparities of context.

This shift in orientation requires questioning the dominant logic of existing corporate best practices, and, instead, a willingness to explore, discover, and experiment with crafting wholly new approaches to sustainable business practice, on multiple levels simultaneously. They have the advantage of proven and robust methods and tools from the disciplines of design and business, requiring only a little tweaking of the lenses. Understanding customer needs should already be in their DNA.

 

 

 

 

NB: Interdisciplinarity involves the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity (e.g., a research project). It is about creating something new by crossing boundaries, and thinking across them.

Systems thinking and the mobile platform for economic impact and wealth creation

I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time now, percolating as it has in the back of my mind but it was Mark Kaigwa who finally spurred this writing. This is not all about MPesa, though it will take a look at some of the issues why its runaway success in Kenya has not yet been duplicated elsewhere, beyond the obvious brought up in most articles of “its the banking regulations” or “its the distribution network”.

Much credit of the fundamental thinking that will underlie this post’s premise must go to Wambura Kimunyu with whom I’ve discussed these issues on Twitter.  Furthermore, I believe that if we can frame the problem (and thus the potential solution) correctly, we may be onto something that could in fact make a big difference to the many ways  we attempt to enable and support social and economic development.

Some background

The topic today is the mobile phone (which I’ll also refer to as the mobile platform, since the phone aspect is but a feature of this handheld device) and its role among what is popularly known as the BoP or those at the Base or Bottom of the Pyramid, yet when I think about the very many pilot programs and attempts to spur development via the mobile platform or, as in the case of MPesa, to launch game changing mobile money transfer et al systems elsewhere, what immediately comes to my mind is a reflection on the issues that plagued the analysis of the success of Asus’ eeePC when it was first launched back in late 2007.

We take very affordable and very portable netbooks for granted today but back then in time, the category did not exist until Asus launched their 7″ linux based, open source, rugged and durable beauty for around USD 400.  It was referred to as a “subnotebook” back then and caused much head scratching among the developed world’s leading lights, even as it spurred all manner of competitors to focus on the two most obvious elements of its perceived success criteria – “price” and “form factor”.  Whereas I argued, that what made the Asus eeePC so successful was its fundamental premise – to be an easy to use affordable device squarely aimed at emerging markets and how it was this positioning that drove every other element, including its form factor and price. By focusing only on the obvious, without taking the holistic thinking and underlying value proposition into consideration, competitors were overlooking many of the details that supported its initial success.

Some framing

I see something similar happening with one of the most obvious success stories in the “Mobile as a platform for economic development of the BoP” bandwagon.  MPesa shows up in most analyses of “Business models or mobile thingies that are helping the poor” reports churned out so faithfully by researchers everywhere, yet the question arises, should it be even considered in that sandbox of things that help the poor in the first place? And by doing so, are we overlooking some of the factors of what makes it work so well in Kenya as well as misinterpreting that it was meant to be used only by the poor?

When the first reports of MPesa’s hiccups in South Africa came to light, it was then that Wambura first tweeted about the lack of the banked that were critical to spur the unbanked and thus the overall uptake of the service.  That is, if the MPesa ecosystem did not have enough banked people with money to circulate, then there wouldn’t be enough unbanked nor would there be enough money to circulate etc etc leading to the challenges that they are facing in South Africa now.  You needed the banked to bank the unbanked.  It sounded counter intuitive to me back then but over time as I observed many different facets of this activity across different strata in Kenya it came to me just how much sense this made and also how relevant this aspect was for the success of anything that should be considered as a means to improve incomes among the BoP when using the mobile platform (or otherwise, to be honest).

Why so?

Some systems thinking

That is, for any solution designed to enable the flow of wealth – mobile money transfer for example – or improve wealth creation at the BoP – it was not enough to simply target the poor alone. It would not work as a “Solution for the BoP” primarily because the BoP do not have any liquidity,  even if they do indeed have assets especially in rural areas, or they do not have the cash for it to flow through the system in the first place. Thus solutions aimed at improving economic activity for the poor needed ‘non poor’ actors in the ecosystem in order to inject cash into the system and thus make it flow (and one hopes, grow).

Taking this thought one step further, MPesa – assessed as a holistic ecosystem for financial transactions – has been so very obviously successful in the Kenyan context primarily because it is used by everyone, regardless of their economic standing or bankedness (if I may coin a non word).  In fact I believe that the number of banked actually surpasses the number of the unbanked – there is a link there that right now is not in the scope of this post but we can look at it later.

And thus, when ‘Solutions on the mobile to help the BoP or poor’ are considered, they should be looked at in terms of the complete ecosystem including the critical question of Where will the money come from into the system in the first place?  Without which, they will limp along as a cash poor system with little wealth to circulate, achieving nothing for the BoP in question. Look at this article on MPesa repositioning itself in South Africa towards higher income brackets and away from the original target audience of poor rural women. QED.

Solutions meant to improve economic conditions for the BoP cannot be focused only on the BoP.

Rather the focus needs to shift to complete ecosystems that fill a vacuum of need – usually in infrastructure or services – that include actors from differing socio economic strata in order to make a viable difference to larger population involved.  Not only is MPesa a clear example of this framing – it filled the vacuum of “how to securely and affordably send money” – but it did so for everyone and anyone who wanted to do so.

Similarly, when I consider my favourite example of the Mumias Sugar Company and their payroll management pilot program for their daily wage sugar cane cutters, I see the same potential for a greater impact on social and economic development for the lower income demographic involved in this system. The solution is one that is win win for all stake holders – from the company who doesn’t need to send armed guards with cash into the fields to the workers who now not only have savings accounts but don’t need to carry lumpsums of cash around with them on payday.

I also hear that real time inventory management and other enterprise level solutions for supply chain management are also moving onto the MPesa/mobile platform in Kenya – again involving the tiniest duka as well as the big name manufacturers or distributors.  Again we can see the potential impact on inventory management and thus, cash flow, even at the bottom of the retail pyramid, where its most critically needed and we can project the potential that it will improve the economic standing or at least help smoothen the variability of income streams that these smallest players in the informal economy require.

Will all stakeholders benefit? Yes. And will the members of the ecosystem who happen to fall into the so called BoP category benefit? Most likely. And more likely than if only the lowest segment was involved in a system of this sort rather than participating in the larger ecosystem of buyers and sellers.

Bottom line

Bringing all this back to the framing of the solution space or rather, the analysis of the success factors, I believe that a simple shift away from seeing only the obvious – mobiles! money! BoP! –  system level solutions that fill critical infrastructural and service gaps in locales where there are few or inadequate alternates and that serve many including the BoP can and will do far better to improve the economic wellbeing across the board of society that those that focus on one demographic alone.

Note: This was the original post that inspired the editor’s version published on Afrinnovator.

Human centered systems design: Navigating complexity through flexibility

Drawing credit: JAM visualdenken

Systems designed for use by communities tend to operate differently from back end or operational processes. Its only natural given the unpredictable nature of crowds. I’m sure there are a lot of people looking into this field, with greater experience and knowledge than I.

However, I bring this up due to a recent event in an online community in which I have been participating actively since early 2007. And this experience made me reflect upon some of the issues that had emerged from the workshop we conducted late in November 2012 on sustainable agriculture value chain development for the lower income demographic in the developing world.

That trust is the key to success for any programme meant for a human population is unarguable.

The challenge is to establish the foundations for gaining, building and maintaining trust, that too with a large community or groups of peoples rather than individuals on a one on one basis. When technology is added to the mix as a mediator for communication flow, then one further layer of abstraction is added to the challenge, that of lack of nuance and meaning that body language and tone of voice, among a myriad other things, add to face to face communication.

Complicating this is also the difference in contextual knowledge – exposure and experience – between segments of the global population. The OECD world and its ilk, aka mainstream consumer culture, have been exposed to and immersed in a far more technological environment full of touch screens, apps, software and the ubiquitious Internet. While mobile phones are increasingly bringing the world to every human’s fingertips, one can hazard a reasonably accurate guess that the majority of the world’s lower income demographic residing in rural regions of the developing world probably will not possess the same or similar level of experience.

Thus, any human interaction system meant to reach this population must embody flexibility and responsiveness, in a consistent, close to realtime way, in order to build and maintain trust with the community. And one way would be to clearly establish the boundaries of the flexibility of the system, that is, the negotiable and the non negotiable. Feedback mechanisms are without value if the system itself is too rigid in its originating design or the responses too random or reactive.

Systems design lessons from challenging and demanding environments

The most common question posed by designers (at the Design Factory, in Finland) has been “What is different about designing for the BoP from the way I already design for mainstream consumers?”

Its a good question to ask, because it takes a systemic view of the user centered design process and methods being taught to them rather than focusing only on differences in features and attributes of tangible artifacts. This post is an attempt to grapple with developing a possible answer to their question and  starts with CK Prahalad’s framing of the traditional MNC approach vs his suggestions for the BoP approach.

The quality, efficacy, potency, and usability of solutions developed for the BOP markets are very attractive for the top of the pyramid. The traditional MNC approach and the approach suggested here—top of the pyramid to BOP and from the BOP to the top of the pyramid—are shown (above)

As the (foregoing) examples illustrate, the demands of the BOP markets can lead MNCs to focus on next practices. The BOP can be a source of innovations for not only products and processes, but business models as well. Let us start with the growth opportunities in local, stand-alone BOP markets first. ~ CK Prahalad via

Interpreting this in the context of design:

1. Consider the design of the entire ecosystem in a holistic manner rather than the product alone

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. Products designed in isolation may win awards but may never quite impact the quality of life in the manner they were designed to do so if their business model, pricing or payment plans, much less distribution or usage do not reflect the conditions of the operating environment.

2. Price as a rigorous design constraint, not simply a data point or the sole criteria for reverse engineering

The issue of pricing then, becomes mission critical in the design brief but not as a reason to compromise the design. That is, if the traditional MNC approach is top down, stripping features and degrading quality and lifespan achieve no purpose except risking the brand’s reputation. Instead, maximizing the constraints while minimizing utilized resources can be seen as a way to innovate for this demanding consumer segment by providing value through elegant design solutions that appeal yet offer a return on their investment.

3. Being aware of and questioning assumptions made

Whether its as basic as availability of electricity and running water or as subtle as the design interpretation of such underlying value propositions as “convenience”, the assumptions made about consumer buying behaviour, purchasing patterns and decision making or choice of brand or product cannot go undebated or unquestioned. A challenging environment, conditions of uncertainty or scarcity and the hardships of daily life managed on irregular incomes all serve to influence the value system and mindset of the target audience in ways we are not always able to immediately discern if we don’t flag our implicit assumptions as a potential stumbling point.

4. Nuances of local culture and society matter

These markets are not the already saturated mature ones of the “global village” with a blase attitude towards such throwaway things as the use of religious iconography on lunchboxes and t-shirts, still preferring to stand on their dignity and self respect over the sophisticated acceptance of perceived disrespect. Thus, nuances observed during user research that may be overlooked when considering different regions within the developed world may in fact be far more important in the context of BoP consumer markets and influence the user acceptance and adoption rate of the product or service. Choice of colours, features, tone and style of communication are some of the design elements so affected. Choosing to tread as delicately as a newcomer never hurts.

5. Think of them as your most demanding customer, not the helpless poor in need

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