Posts Tagged ‘UCSD’

It’s way past the time to consider the Informal Economy as a distinct commercial environment

Brand stickers on avocados displayed for sale on a highway, Kenya. April 2013

Regardless of continent, it is now high time we accepted the informal economy (unformal or unrecognised or unorganized sectors) as a commercial operating environment in its own right.

The continued oversight is rapidly coalescing into a gaping void of hiccups and failures, by large companies, non profit institutions, and startups, alike. This issue goes far beyond “understanding the informal” or recognizing the fulltime professional status of the service providers that I’ve written about before.

It’s about the problems created by continuing to assume every individual is poverty stricken and struggling to make a livelihood simply because a significant portion of their commercial activity operates outside what is rarely defined but is assumed to be the formal, structured economy held up as the pinnacle of economic development.

It’s why academics can barely conceal their flabbergasted surprise that a person has a better quality of life, and a reasonably viable revenue stream in [gasp] informal market trading, or even agricultural work.

It’s why @pesa_africa questions the continued transplantation of e-commerce business models directly from Seattle to subSahara given that they’ve tended to wither on the vines.

It’s why market women and traders pay the price of daily harassment and abuse by those given authority over their peace of mind.

And, it’s also why the freshest produce gets to you first thing in the morning in Nairobi or Cotonou or Kinshasa.

This is not meant to be a paean to the hardworking women and men who keep the engines of commerce and trade humming in the harshest of environments with scarce resources and inadequate infrastructure.

It’s the first step in acknowledging yet another holdover from a colonial past that decades later still hampers and hinders the social and economic development that should have happened by now, by all rights.

It’s also the necessary counterpart to the recognition of agency required for design interventions to succeed once donor funding ends.

This theme is consistently covered in this blog in the category Biashara Economics and hashtag #biasharaeconomics

Takeaways from experiencing the human centered design process

Design adds greater value in the long term by being applied to the HOW of business (practices and process), whereas being applied to the WHAT of business (products) ends up having limited value as those products become commoditized. ~ paraphrasing Clement Mok, March 1st 2005

For an audience who will neither practise the design profession nor tend to apply the user centered design process in their day to day work, what could be the essential takeaway from a day spent immersed in the experience?

Call it experience design, but crafting a workshop for a multi-stakeholder group cannot begin without first identifying what it is we wish for them to experience. I’ve been mulling this over for the past couple of weeks, ever since the questions were first posed and here’s my attempt at articulating the essence of what I believe to be the most important “Aha!” from this exposure.

Human centered: To practise, one must become.

Permit me to circumlocute for a moment in order to articulate this concept with clarity. There are numerous terms that have been applied to the way the producer (the manufacturer or the organization, as the case may be) communicated about their products and services to their target audience – “top down” approach, “push marketing”, “mass communications”, and of course, advertising. The idea was that you made a widget which you then advertised and promoted heavily in order to sell it to your intended customer base. “The job of advertising is to create a desire”. Wants rapidly became confused with needs, and this can be seen everyday in the mainstream consumer culture we are all immersed in.

Begin with the users.

Don Norman wrote the book to advocate user-centered design – a philosophy that things should be designed with the needs and interests of the user in mind, making products that are easy to use and understand.

John Heskett once said that an invention is not an innovation until it is adopted by the users.

Taken together, we find the seeds of the reversal in thinking that leads to a more “bottom up” approach or “pull marketing”, to use the vocabulary of the preceding paragraph. That is, one isn’t attempting to create demand so much as to identify it and then satisfice it, in a manner that offers value to the end user, thus lowering the barriers to the adoption of  your product or service or program.

Value is contextual. 

What might make sense for the producers, however, becomes even more challenging to gauge when attempting to provide solutions for end users across the vast gulf of disparities – of income, of socio-economic strata, of geography and culture and language, of experience and mindset, and thus, of values.

Understanding the difference. 

Human centered design took the premise that if we were to begin first by understanding our target audience, their environment and challenges, their lives and hopes and wishes and desires, we could identify “unmet needs”, or gaps in the system, which offered an opportunity for innovation. New products could be designed to meet these needs, thus offering a value to the customer and differentiating themselves from the competition, considered to be inadequate. This is the central premise of the user centered design approach to solution development.

Respect, empathy, humility. 
Thus, we could proffer that the human centered approach puts the intended target audience (the user) as the focal point or the frame of reference by which to assess and evaluate the design, from their perspective. What are their aspirations, dreams, hopes and challenges? What do they want to do? What is the benefit of your product or service or program, in the context of their daily life? Why should they adopt your invention?

You, sir.

We hope to enable a shift from the top down, “we know best for you” approach that characterised the past and closer towards our common humanity where we work together to solve our closely interconnected world’s problems.

Yeah, that last is a bit of a stretch but our aspirations must always be just a tad out of our reach no?

Mapping the path to prototyping an adaptable user centered design process

We’ve all seen the classic User Centered Design (UCD) process diagrams, mostly linear, that attempt to communicate the steps yet unable to capture the iterative nature of the activity simply due to the limitations on how many circular arrows one can add without losing clarity. When I first began exploring the process deeply for application in emerging markets, this is the one we naturally used during a brainstorming experience with David Kelley back in April 2006:

But those of you familiar with the application in the practice of user centred design will recognize that this section applies to the design planning phase, prior to the design and development of the first prototype, boxed up here as “implementation”. You’ll also note that “User research” or rather, “Immersion” in the field, is left implicit, although one can say that it is represented by the green circle. Exploring as I was, back then, the intersection of where design met business, I felt this diagram was limited in its ability to communicate what really happened, much less why or how.

[Illustration of the Process of Design from a great height]

Shortly thereafter, in May 2006,  Damien Newman put the now famous “squiggle” up on his blog in response to a contemplative post of mine. Aha! I said, when I read what Damien had to share about his illustration:

So I decided to consider how to frame design activities in all disciplines, to discover which ones were worthy of placing on my map, could be the process one takes to set about producing a designed solution. I think in its most basic and fundamental form, the process of design that one embarks upon, can be seen in three steps/stages/phases (whatever): Abstract, Concept & Design.

At first there is a sort of theoretical, not yet in existence, essence of a thought, state or problem solution. As designers, we set about to bring that abstract state into a concept, something that can be communicated, perhaps visualized, definitely discusses and shaped. The final stage is the design of the concept, into the form, solution or final presentation of the concept.

I’m not sure if you were to have stood at Fort Point in San Francisco at around 1827, and said “We need a bridge to get over there” if that is a fair description of the Abstract, phase – but its about the time a typographer decides to start their first sketches of a typeface that it shifts from being abstract into a concept.

At a firm like IDEO, all design starts with a healthy amount of messing around in the abstract. Human Factors leads their approach to framing a design concept and problem – and they clearly (like others too) excel at bridging any gaps between these three phases, and at including the client, their customers and designers in the process.

This squiggle was in response to this post of mine from August 2005, Design vs Design thinking where I’d first attempted to distinguish between the tangible role of a human centered designer and those who were inspired by the human centered design process for business strategy and planning. But, as experienced practitioners and thinkers on the messy, chaotic, non linear creativity inherent in these activities will recognize immediately, the squiggle is too implicit to help communicate the process with clarity to audiences without exposure to the process, such as your typical client organization or institution. Linear, structured thinkers need to feel confident they understand what you are planning to do and how you’ll go about it before they’ll sign a check.

And so, we finally arrive at early 2008, where the first attempt to crudely diagram the evolving process for emerging markets and bottom of the pyramid (BoP) customers as articulated in my previous post from 7th November 2012, was prototyped so:

Quite a few circular arrows are missing from the How? and Next? phases here as it attempted to frame the bullet points from process description into a visual format. Now I hope that with the help of excellent visual thinkers involved in our current project, there is a chance that this process can be greatly improved.

Developing a user centered methodology for emerging markets and the bottom of the pyramid

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.

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.
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.