When I first began strategic design planning and concept development specifically focusing on low income customers back in late 2007, it was a learning experience in more ways than expected. The key challenge, which I’d identified back then and tend to refer to as the “values gap” between mainstream consumer culture and what used to be called the Bottom of the Pyramid or BoP market, can be articulated so:
The biggest hurdle to success in the BoP market has been a lack of understanding that this market is very different from the mainstream consumer culture prevalent in the developed world. Producers immersed in mainstream consumer culture (elements of which include easy credit, buy now/pay later terms, and style obsolescence) tend to consider those at the base of the social and economic pyramid as having a very similar or same worldview and value system as their existing consumers; that they simply have less disposable income.
So the value propositions of the products, services, and programs introduced for lower income markets—particularly in the developing world—are still based on elements of the value system prevalent in global consumer culture. There is a gap here, and its most obvious in the marketing messages, advertising and communications which tend to emphasize product benefits or value that may not be relevant—much less contextually appropriate—to the BoP customer’s life. When the value proposition of the seller has little or no resonance with the value system of the target market, it will most likely be ignored.
But this gap was not just in the findings from the fieldwork, I discovered. It was also there in the user centered design (UCD) research process; in the approach and methodology; and, in the underlying assumptions of the methods and frameworks. After all, UCD has emerged from the same operating environment as that of the majority of the producers and most certainly has been part of, if not partially the creator of, the global mainstream consumer culture in which we’re all immersed. Therein lies the rub. The process is not divorced from its context and thus, we found, it needed to be far more flexible as it evolved and was adapted to the challenge of conducting exploratory user research in slums and villages and townships across the developing world. For the human centered designer, more likely to have been trained in the heart of the most sophisticated consumer markets in the world, there were additional challenges when considering the new and emerging consumer markets at the BoP. Almost 3 years ago, I framed it thus:
The majority of industrial designers in studios and corporate departments around the world are tasked with the design of a specific product or application, isolated contextually, for the most part, from the larger ecosystem of the market primarily due to their experience of, and immersion in the existing sophisticated marketing infrastructure. They have the luxury of access to information flows – on packaging, distribution, supply chains and retail outlets as well as competing designs – and this lets them focus on refining a particular product, package or UI.
This situation is almost reversed when it comes to the BoP consumer and the BoP markets. The paucity of information does not only hamper the BoP themselves but also those who seek to serve them. Furthermore, much of the market infrastructure is non existent or of a vastly different quality than that experienced in richer markets. Factors such as income streams that are irregular and lack of financial tools such as consumer credit available for outright purchase are issues rarely considered during the design process but can and do influence the final outcome.
And so, when Emerging Futures Lab was born and marketing material crafted, I framed our methodology and approach towards the immersion phase that initiates user centered design and innovation planning for a wholly different marketing, operating and economic environment and geography. The BoP were the great unknown and design could not begin without understanding. Subsequent projects in the field in the years since have refined the nuance a wee bit but here is the original basis:
We begin at the end.
Our first task is to clarify and understand the goals of user research. Why are we looking at this market? Whom do we seek to understand? What are the questions that need to be answered? What do we want to do?
Our destination drives our planning.
Profiles are carefully selected to not only meet the requirements of the research agenda but also to best reflect the demographics of the emerging consumer market. We use our extensive online and personal networks to identify and recruit our potential users in rural Kenya or Philippines or India etc
We listen for meaning and value
Identifying key concerns, purchasing patterns, core values, behaviour and mindset that relate to our goals ensures the results will be relevant and usable. These values and key concerns are used to filter the ideas before a second round of refinement in order to ensure that all recommendations made are based on the results of observations and actionable insights from the field.
We question your assumptions
We identify and challenge your existing assumptions on consumer behavior, quality of life and environmental conditions faced by the BoP consumer in their in daily lives.
We maximise constraints and minimize complexity
Only after the selection of the most important user concerns and criteria against which future design concepts can be filtered does the conceptual process begin. Maximizing the design constraints before the brainstorming process sets the boundaries for the solution space.
We recommend exceeding expectations
Rigorously evaluated design directions and concepts that resonate with our userʼs values and fit comfortably within their budgets and lifestyles can help ensure sustainable success. Insights also provide the touch points and guidelines for developing programs and communicating effectively with your audience lowering the barriers to user acceptance and decreasing the rate of dropouts.
We aim to understand and over deliver.