Posts Tagged ‘systems design’

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

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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