Posts Tagged ‘perspective’

Key Competitive Advantage for Frontier and Emerging Markets

There’s a nuance, I’ve discovered, in the application of user centered design methods for entering the frontier and emerging markets of the developing world where a significant proportion of economic activity is confusingly labeled “informal”, rather than unformal as the case tends to be.

In more advanced consumer market contexts, where there are umpteen data flows, and decades of consumer research and insights to draw upon, the unquestioned assumption is that user research tends to level the playing field among contenders.

However, this doesn’t hold true, in my experience, in the emerging and frontier markets, such as those in East Africa. Simply basing one’s product development and market entry strategy on even the most rigorously designed user research program does not suffice. At the frontier, competitive advantage boils down to how well you interpret your data so gathered using design ethnography methods and quantitative surveys.

The biggest and best data collection in the world cannot help you if it’s not answering the right questions, nor the insights drive design if there are underlying biases filtering the inputs.

The key, as any trained anthropologist will inform you, is in being able to shift one’s perspective sideways, enough so as to perceive the landscape and the context from the viewpoint of the users being researched. And, perhaps, that is why increasing the diversity of experiences and perspectives of your team can make or break your new product introduction and/or your competitive strategy.

An amusing example of this kind of problem is one I discovered yesterday when poking around my twitter profile after the sudden change in UI that took place without warning. It seems that because I hadn’t input my real gender in the system, Twitter’s data analytics designated me “male” based on my tweeting behaviour.

Their age range is vast enough that they cannot go wrong, and besides, a lady never shares her real age. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I’m considered male or female in the system. What is of concern is the underlying assumptions that the designers of the system have made when assigning behavioural choices to one or the other gender.

Now, if we were to extrapolate this relationship between initial design settings in the system, and the inaccurate output – as clear a case of their assumptions being rooted in stereotypes as any that I’ve seen – imagine for a moment what would be the case if the same sort of unthinking, unquestioned stereotypes were applied to the interpretation of user research data collected from a geography or context vastly different from one’s own?

What if this same approach was used for the system of designating assumed behaviours and user needs meant to guide the design of solutions for the rural African market woman?

If the most modern and global social media messaging systems of Twitter are unable to distinguish something as basic as gender – they state based on your profile and activity – they’d do better by stating they are unable to distinguish gender based on these factors than to make gross assumptions on “What do women tweet?” in 20 foot pink letters.

I’d have more respect for them tbh instead of feeling I’ve been put in some fluffy fuschia box, as a woman, just because the stuff I do (my profile is professional) and the stuff I tweet about (business, trade, economics, and design strategy) flags me as a male?

Extrapolating this challenge further, in the context of frontier and emerging markets, where the markets are not crowded with competitors at this early stage, nor is your brand recognized, is this the first impression that you can risk making?

I’ve often said that these are some of the most challenging markets, and affordable connectivity is only making it harder – word of mouth now flies at the speed of silicon, and a new entrant must stand up to social media scrutiny.

Frankly, in my own discipline and field of focus, it only makes me more confident of my team’s ability to offer a distinct competitive advantage.

Old and New: Changing Perspectives on the Informal Economy

ChentableOld_newInformalMartha Alter Chen’s table summarizing the still prevalent yet now considered obsolete view of the informal economy, against the revised perspective currently held is worth showcasing in its own right. Further food for thought comes from this little snippet from Sparks and Barnett:

Gelb et al (2009) found that the “…productivity of informal firms is virtually indistinguishable from that of formal firms in East Africa…” (although that was not the case they found in southern Africa)

This implies that location, and thus, the context of the operating environment matter when it comes to productivity of the informal sector, or the viability of its business models.

Further research is required to unpack the generalization of the informal economy, by geography and culture, as well the specific operating environment.

“No Ordinary Disruption” – Africa’s Transformation

McKinsey consultants have released a new book – No Ordinary Disruption – looking at global mega trends and market forces that are forcing a rethink of the foundations of their intuitive knowledge. Assumptions are to be challenged and questioned, they say, as these changes impact a deeper transition in the way the world works. Even as all eyes are on Asia, the fastest growing region on the planet, it behooves us not to overlook the second fastest growing and often overlooked opportunities of the African continent.

“Well, there was a reason why: growth has moved elsewhere—to Asia, Latin America, the Middle East.”

B6vtjfTIYAAq1mfLet’s look at their key points and reflect upon Africa’s transformation.

McKOneThe first trend is the shifting of the locus of economic activity and dynamism to emerging markets like China and to cities within those markets. These emerging markets are going through simultaneous industrial and urban revolutions, shifting the center of the world economy east and south at a speed never before witnessed. […] Perhaps equally important, the locus of economic activity is shifting within these markets.

FG-Seizing-Africas-Retail-Opportunities-2Numerous reports are pointing out the immense potential inherent in African urbanization and population growth, for retail, for real estate and for opportunity. Not all 54 countries on the continent are seeing economic growth as its unevenly distributed, just like in Europe. Some points of note:

Nigeria became the largest economy last year, surpassing South Africa the traditional leader, after their economy was re-based. Kenya has just been ranked as the 3rd fastest growing economy. Rwanda is also expected to show similar growth – both are in the 6 to 7% range. Ethiopia is making strides in infrastructure and industrialization – attracting manufacturing as well as high street brands like H&M and Primark. China has been looking closer at the lower costs of labour on the African continent.

What is notable is that instead of the usual sources of wealth like oil or other natural resources, most of this emerging  economic growth is coming from modern sectors like telecom and services. Entirely new industries such as mobile gaming are gaining traction and e-commerce is another fast proliferating area. Cote D’Ivoire has gained visibility with its embrace of online marketplaces while the Nigerians’ penchant for shopping has captured attention at home and abroad.

All this urbanization means a boom in construction – transportation infrastructure, power plants, dams, houses and malls – cement magnate Dangote has already invested over a billion dollars across the entire continent while competition hasn’t dented LaFarge’s healthy profits.

mckTwoThe second disruptive force is the acceleration in the scope, scale, and economic impact of technology. Technology—from the printing press to the steam engine and the Internet—has always been a great force in overturning the status quo. The difference today is the sheer ubiquity of technology in our lives and the speed of change.
Processing power and connectivity are only part of the story. Their impact is multiplied by the concomitant data revolution, which places unprecedented amounts of information in the hands of consumers and businesses alike, and the proliferation of technology-enabled business models, from online retail platforms like Alibaba to car-hailing apps like Uber.[…]Entrepreneurs and start-ups now frequently enjoy advantages over large, established businesses.


Source VC4Africa

The impact of the democratization of technology has already made itself visible. Incubators and tech hubs are popping up across the African continent. New startups are emerging almost every other day. One of my favourites is Cladlight –  a safety jacket with indicator lights to be used by motorcycle taxis.

Whether its Uber or grocery delivery in Lagos and Kampala – apps that leapfrog the lack of adequate infrastructure and distribution systems are disrupting their local markets. Technology, both at the front end and the back is expected to change the face of retail and service delivery.


This is the Ethiopian capital’s new light rail system.

And its not just computers and smartphones – a variety of solar powered products, distinguishing themselves with payment methods and business model innovation, are lighting up the formerly dark continent, while China’s ambitions in high speed rail will soon connect the unconnected.

mck3The human population is getting older. Fertility is falling, and the world’s population is graying dramatically. While aging has been evident in developed economies for some time—Japan and Russia have seen their populations decline over the past few years—the demographic deficit is now spreading to China and soon will reach Latin America. For the first time in human history, aging could mean that the planet’s population will plateau in most of the world. […] But by 2013, about 60 percent of the world’s population lived in countries with fertility rates below the replacement rate. This is a sea change
Euromonitor-populationCall it the demographic dividend or the African youth bulge, but the cradle of mankind remains the youngest continent on earth. This is one of the reasons why Africa matters for the emerging future.
mck4The final disruptive force is the degree to which the world is much more connected through trade and through movements in capital, people, and information (data and communication)—what we call “flows.” […] “South–south” flows between emerging markets have doubled their share of global trade over the past decade. The volume of trade between China and Africa rose from $9 billion in 2000 to $211 billion in 2012. […]the links forged by technology have marched on uninterrupted and with increasing speed, ushering in a dynamic new phase of globalization, creating unmatched opportunities, and fomenting unexpected volatility.

aftzIncreasing regional integration for trade and commerce are changing the economic landscape of the continent. At the forefront is the East African Community, who have already issued a single tourist visa for Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda whilst pushing forward with infrastructural development and various trade related initiatives to tighten their financial and commercial links.

smdc-silkroad-21st-mapFlows of information mean increasingly connected consumers, as smartphone penetration and mobile subscription growth puts the internet in the hands of even the nomadic pastoralists. Social media use is moving beyond friends and family to become platforms for informal trade and banking. And mobile money’s ability to provide financial inclusion profitably is driving the continent’s telcos to overcome their competitive nature and join hands in interoperability.

CDV_KdpWIAAiT23.jpg large

Afropolitan, Africapitalist, Afro futurism – all of these are ways to name the basic trend that Africans are finally reaching out to grab their turn on the global stage. Most recently Credit Suisse named Tidjane Thiam, originally from Ivory Coast as their new CEO. Africa’s future is being transformed by the global forces shaping the world and cannot afford to be overlooked.

As the authors conclude:

The fact that all four are happening at the same time means that our world is changing radically from the one in which many of us grew up, prospered, and formed the intuitions that are so vital to our decision making.[…] Yet we work in a world in which even, perhaps especially, professional forecasters are routinely caught unawares. That’s partly because intuition still underpins much of our decision making.[…] If we look at the world through a rearview mirror and make decisions on the basis of the intuition built on our experience, we could well be wrong. In the new world, executives, policy makers, and individuals all need to scrutinize their intuitions from first principles and boldly reset them if necessary. This is especially true for organizations that have enjoyed great success.

Pasteur’s Quadrant and Ethics: Research framing among lower income and rural people

Informal Economy, Market Analysis and Segmentation

Banglemaker, Rajasthan, Dec 2008 (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

When I forget myself, I come back to this photograph to remind me of whom I really work for and why. His name was never asked because he was much older, and thus respected. One could only call him aap (thou). He was my first interviewee for The Prepaid Economy project, more than 6 years ago, when I set out to find out more about those on irregular and unpredictable income streams managed their household finances in the rural context. Patriarch and Master Craftsman, he led his family in the hand crafting of lac bangles, which he and his son then took to the capital to sell.

I come back to him today because I never forgot the sharp  and sudden lesson I learnt from my experience in attempting to interview him for the project. Oh, he was all smiles and goodwill, welcoming and willing to helpfully share whatever he could. I’d been introduced to him before, as he was a wellknown craftsman in the region. And yet, till date, I could probably not tell you a single thing about the way this home based informal business managed their household finances.

I was dumbstruck once the tea had been drunk and the polite necessities out of the way.  I’d come prepared with a 10 page questionnaire on all kinds of things related to the informal economy, the unpredictability of cash flow, on savings and loans and emergencies, as well as why the prepaid business model work so well. Only when I faced him with this sheaf of paperwork did I realize that I could not bring myself to ask him any of these probing, nosy questions on something as personal as his income and spending habits.

Respect was the barrier to curiosity. Respect silenced me. And with deep regrets and much respect I made my farewells after a few half hearted and polite questions on the business of making and selling bangles and bracelets.

Respecting the researched

I was reminded of him today when I came across an extensive global survey of people’s financial habits. I cannot put my finger on what made me feel as though this survey didn’t care about seeking to understand people’s lives and challenges, the constraints and conditions in which they struggled to hold life and limb together. To dream about sending the youngest to university or aspire to owning a milch cow.

It seemed to feel more like a market research report meant for a profit seeking consumer product company attempting to identify opportunities to exploit and gaps to leverage, to grow market share and reach a new consumer segment. Yet, it was meant for the greater benefit of the target audience, unlike say, beer.

Solutions meant to improve quality of life must grapple with the tension between creating value and capturing it ~ Niti Bhan

Beer does not pretend that drinking it will improve the quality of your life and wellbeing. It knows its place and role in your life. The market research for beer has its own integrity. You don’t expect to understand the context and the operating environment of the excluded.

Why should this be an issue anyway?

For too long the excluded have also been the ignored. The informal economy, lumping together as it does the shadows and the greys, is perceived, for the most part, as a bad thing. The cash based rural and informal markets, the livelihood activities, the various ways  and means those ekeing out a living make do, all these end up tarnished by the same  brush.

And so, we have little or no knowledge of the way this operating environment works, what makes it tick, what are the larger patterns at play and the rhythms of its transactional flows. Its only now that this segment of the population is being taken seriously in their own right, as customers and as a demographic, not simply as passive beneficiaries.

Look at that man above. A much respected craftsman and artisan, part of the cash based rural economy of his home village, his return from the big city after selling his inventory only means an injection of capital for the entire community.

Thus, if we’re to design and develop products or services or even, programmes, meant for him and his family (and all the others like him, who make their livelihoods in these humble traditional ways), we’re better able to succeed if we can contextualize our concepts and anchor them to the conditions and constraints of the operating environment.

That is, we need to understand the ecosystem in which we seek to introduce the new. We need insights to understand not only his aspirations and goals and needs, but also his challenges, patterns of cash flow and buyer behaviour.

Pasteur’s Quadrant and Ethics

Simply counting heads or the “What” or “How” is not enough, in my opinion. We must also seek out the “Why” without which there is always the danger of exploitation or over emphasis on the profit angle. Consumer insights for those with disposable incomes are not the same as understanding the conditions of those without. Solutions meant to improve quality of life or wellbeing for the under served must grapple with the tension between creating value and capturing it.

pasteurThis diagram, better known as Pasteur’s Quadrant, captures this inherent tension between consumer marketing driven research (Applied) and social sciences (Pure basic) to offer a middle path. One that fits the context of the lower income demographic, or those who manage outside of the formal institutions and services. I’m not using the word “Bottom of the Pyramid” anymore because the more I’ve gone into the field to talk to people the less I think of them as the bottom of anything. That’s a top down label that lumps billions of people into an undifferentiated mass rather than acknowledging their agency and aspirations.

The Ethics of Use-inspired basic research

This validates the paucity of knowledge and understanding of the informal sectors of trade and business, even as it seeks to identify opportunities and synthesize insights that can inform solution design.

Ethics in research is not simply how personal data is anonymized etc but also integral to the framing of the lens through which we choose to study the target audience.

Do we see them as an untapped resource to be exploited for profit or do we seek knowledge that can better enable us to provide for their needs?

This is a choice that researchers must make as their frame of reference, their biases and assumptions, and the goals of their intended audience all come through clearly in the manner in which the reports are written and the material shared.

Design’s future is a global perspective and an inclusive mindset

Matthew Milan’s thoughtful piece reflecting on the turmoil engulfing the design industry is definitely worth reading. There’s been a lot published on the topic ever since Adaptive Path was bought out by Capital One, a bank. Most of it has been either hand wringing over the death knell of the independent design industry, or rebuttals on the future of the agency model. Matt’s piece makes us think about future of design itself, both as a practice as well as a discipline.

A caveat here is that the design being referred to in most of the articles is broadly related to technology – software, user interfaces, websites, interaction, user experience, applications and possibly, all things smartphones. Wholly new areas of practice that have emerged in our lifetimes, and for some of us, since the days we were in design school.

This is what makes this conversation so interesting. In the past decade since I started pondering and writing about trends in the global design industry, the patterns once seen as weak signals of an emerging future are now showing up quite clearly.

“If you don’t know where you are coming from, you don’t know where you are going.” ~ African Proverb

A look back at what was said in 2006

Dirk Knemeyer, who calls himself a social futurist, set the tone for conversations on both Design Futures and Design Globalization. Keep in mind this was written by him back in July 2006!

Over the last few years, conversations here in the U.S. about the future of digital product design typically have an undertone of fear because of the perception that India and – especially– China are presenting a critical long-term threat to U.S. business and design hegemony.

One of the typical threads in this conversation is a belief that, while the lower value and more production-oriented jobs might be in danger, the more creative and higher thinking jobs remain safe. That is an incredibly shortsighted – not to mention condescending – view. The reality is that emerging markets such as China, India, Eastern Europe and others represent a broad and total future for our industry. The long-standing dominance enjoyed here in the United States is going to diffuse and result in far more global balance. Ultimately that is a good thing, even though we might expect the standard of living for average, middle class families here to suffer a bit in the years ahead. Obviously that is the result of myriad factors, only one of which is the impact of emerging centers of digital product design leadership. ~ Dirk Knemeyer Design Futures 2006

And a few months later,

While the offshoring of jobs from the U.S. continues to get most of the press, the reality and impact of globalization is so much more nuanced and complex. At the most basic level, globalization is:

  • Creating a dramatically larger knowledge workforce
  • Creating a culturally and geographically diverse knowledge workforce
  • Creating new, emerging consumer markets
  • Extending the capitalist paradigm into heretofore “underdeveloped” cultures
  • Creating new cross-culture complexity (and opportunities) for expansion-minded companies and products
  • Creating myriad new companies, originating in new cultures and with different mindsets, vision and strategies

And this is just for starters. But what I hope this list clearly communicates is the real breadth and impact of globalization: for designers, business, culture, governments – everyone in the developed or developing world. ~ Dirk Knemeyer, Design Globalization 2006

Where are we at in 2015?

Back then we were just entering the age of the internetworked society, barely scraping the surface of its global reach and scale. Social media had not been transformed into the Facebooks and Twitters of today; blogging was the way to go if you wanted to connect and communicate.

Digital product design had not yet met the iPhone. And sending an SMS from your Nokia would only get you so far, in Africa, in Asia and the rest of the erstwhile developing world.

“If you want to understand what society is becoming and why it’s becoming that way, look at how people communicate. Look at their technology.” ~ McLuhan’s spirit

Today, as social networks like Facebook claim a user base counted in billions, we have the globalization Dirk foresaw. Applications and utilities designed in Boston, Toronto and Palo Alto are in use by netizens in Ghana, in Brazil, in Papua New Guinea. Design’s reach, and thus, the power to shape and influence, has never been so vast nor so ubiquitous.

“When an entire design industry follows a single mindset, commoditization quickly sets in.” ~ Matthew Milan

Yet the industry and its conversations seem to imply a self perception that feels parochial and inbred. The very same technology that the design industry had a hand in creating has now placed them in the global spotlight. As originators and creators of the future that is now, their ideas and concepts are followed by lakhs of emerging designers from app studios in Lagos and Nairobi to enterprise developers in Bangalore, not to mention the OS tweakers in Shenzen and Seoul.

 “To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master.” ~ Milton Glaser

The future of design and globalization is now

But nowhere in these conversations about the “future of design” is the acknowledgement that a far more global and diverse audience of practitioners is emerging, who must now use these very same methods and tools to develop solutions for their own local context and operating environment. Instead, when the noobs seek to learn through the eons old practice of following the hand of the master, they’re mocked and shamed for imitation.

And nowhere do I see any acknowledgement of the challenges of designing apps and solutions for the frontier markets, nor any new methods or tools or processes to help emergent designers create for their own context. Experience is clutched tightly and conversations are held in huddles.

“What is design? It’s where you stand with a foot in two worlds – the world of technology and the world of people and human purposes – and you try to bring the two together.” ~ Mitchell Kapor

Matthew points out that design will compete on mindset. I wrote recently on the value creator’s mindset, one that doesn’t think its a zero sum game. There is an irony inherent in the manner of an industry whose life work is in the craft of creating delightful human experience while communicating, connecting and collaborating across timezones and geographies. The so called sharing economy means that a taxi driver in Nairobi is using your Uber app.

You can’t compete on a platform of cooperation.

“Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” ~ Charles Eames

And its distribution has never been faster, cheaper and easier than getting online to Facebook.  China has just opened a Bauhaus Museum. The products of Indian design schools are writing these words you read. There is greater value in shifting the mindset of design to be open to the external influences and new perspectives the industry claims to offer their clients.

Design has a future, its global and inclusive

Your future success depends on it.

“Under Construction”


Dear Readers,

I know its frustrating to hit my “Page not Found” message as you try to access a blog post on my website. We’re working double time to fix things as the site undergoes its first major redesign in 10 years!

Tip: If you remove the .html from the end of the specific blog post’s URL you’ll reach the same post on the new site.

In the meantime, contact me for anything in particular that you can’t find on the new site.

Thank you for your patience,



Human centered design for financial inclusion: Lessons from fieldwork in rural India, The Phillipines and Kenya


Financial inclusion has become mainstream thinking in economic development. The vast majority of the unbanked live in the developing world, and a significant proportion of this population are rural residents. One can easily surmise, without recourse to statistics, that the bulk of the target audience for institutions seeking to offer them affordable and accessible financial services are part of the rural economy.

Now, the role of human centered design and its toolbox of methods and processes is being recognized as mission critical for successfully enabling these initiatives. So little is understood about the rural economy, particularly that of the developing world, that without the insights that design ethnography (also known as user research or more broadly, exploratory user research) among the end users can provide, barriers to adoption will remain unaddressed.

With this in mind, I thought to share lessons learnt during the past 6 years of experience in the application of human centered design processes in order to observe and understand household financial management behaviour in rural Africa and Asia.

Human Centered Design

Human centered design traditionally applies the insights from user research to inform and inspire the design of a product or service. At the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago, there were scores of methods and frameworks for every step of the entire process. In particular, the analysis and synthesis phase after fieldwork was completed was considered critical in identifying the actionable insights that would drive the conceptual design and subsequent development of solutions. All of this required that we frame the problem correctly at the very beginning, in order to ensure that our findings would be relevant and appropriate. Here’s a diagram that captures the entire concept:

Adapting human centered design for understanding rural household financial behaviour

Back in late 2008, when I first began framing the original problem statement for the iBoP Asia Project’s first Small Grants Competition, I quickly realized that the methods and tools as developed and disseminated in Chicago, could not be directly applied without adaptation to the distinctly different operating environment, and, the then unusual objectives of business model design.

Firstly, the tools and techniques for user research developed and refined in a first world sophisticated consumer market accustomed to decades of market research, telemarketing and surveys of all stripes wouldn’t work among lower income rural residents in a developing world context. They had little or no exposure to market research or design research of any sort, and surveys and questionnaires tended to imply government census takers or some kind of social study by an NGO. After all, it is only now that we are taking the “financially excluded” seriously as potential customers with wants and needs in their own right.

Secondly, back then, nobody had yet applied human centered design methods for intangible outcomes such as insights on household financial behaviour or the conceptual design of a payment plan for a community. User research conducted as part of the human centered design process was for consumer facing client companies looking to improve existing products or develop new ones i.e. very tangible outcomes. My research question was:

What insights can we derive from observing and understanding how those at the BoP currently manage their household budgets to inspire new transaction models or pricing strategies for businesses wishing to serve the poor more effectively, yet profitably?

Thus, I found myself not only having to adapt the methods and tools available to me, but also develop frameworks to sample a representative segment of the rural economy given the conditions and criteria of the operating environment. This I will share now for everyone else who will now be using the human centered design  approach for financial inclusion.

Framing the problem correctly

This was the most important element in ensuring the successful outcome. Tina Seelig has written on how REframing a problem can unlock innovation, a valuable insight when you’re already immersed in your own environment like a fish in water. But when we step outside of our accustomed operating environment to one which is dramatically different – a poor rural region for example, we can so often be overwhelmed by the sensory overload that we are unable to contextualize the challenge from the end user’s perspective. We’re too busy noticing all the differences and unable to distinguish the important from the mundane or identify macro patterns of behaviour because we are distracted by the minutiae of daily life.

The impetus for this line of research came from observing the success of the prepaid business model as mobile phone sales took off across the developing world. So my initial problem statement had been “What makes prepaid mobile airtime work so well for this demographic and what can we learn from this successful adoption to inspire business models and payment plans for other products and services?”

That emphasis on the mobile phone and its attendant business model would have narrowed the focus of my research and thus, influenced my questionnaire and observations. On the other hand, by shifting the focus away from what interested me, and broadening it to encompass the challenges of daily life, I would be able to perceive the entire context within which any particular business model or payment plan worked. That is, I took a step back from just the mobile phone or any one particular payment plan to understand the rhythm and the patterns of the rural economy. I framed the research as follows:

The focus of our exploratory and user research in the field will be to understand the challenge of planning household expenses and budgeting when incomes are mostly irregular and unpredictable.

This allowed me look at the larger patterns at play in the rural economy and as I was find out later, provided a foundation for understanding the cash based informal sector prevalent in both urban and rural regions of the developing world. That is, it formed the basis for understanding what makes the informal economy tick, something that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I’d kept the original focus as narrow as why prepaid airtime enabled the rapid adoption of mobile phones among the lower income demographic.

Takeaway for framing the design research problem statement

When you approach your client’s particular interest area in the broad space of financial inclusion, don’t just focus on their specific interests without considering the entire ecosystem within which the intended produce or service will reside.*

Rapid prototyping to test research protocol and questionnaire

The beauty of the human centered design is that nothing is expected to work the first time its built. Prototyping and refining the design based on user feedback and observation is embedded in the iterative nature of the process. This is also part of design thinking – the willingness to experiment to see what works, usually with the participation of the end users.

Thus, when I first set out to use design methods in this wholly new way (seeking to understand household financial management among the rural poor), I insisted on a ‘prototype’ location first. This allowed me to test the questionnaire – it was completely thrown out right after the very first attempt to interview someone – as well as develop the framework for sampling uncertainty in the informal sector.

Don’t imagine that your carefully prepared questionnaire and the rest of your research protocol will hold up in the field. Be prepared to evolve it in order to see what works. That’s why its so important to frame the problem statement first so that you know what you’re trying to understand. We’re talking about sensitive topics when researching for financial inclusion, and our goal should be tread respectfully towards greater understanding rather than rigidly following research protocol.

User profile identification matrix for sampling a representative pool

Design ethnography aims to gather an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such behavior. The qualitative method investigates the why and how of decision making, not just what, where, when. Hence, smaller but focused and representative samples are more often needed, rather than large random samples.

Since the object was to understand how those on irregular incomes planned and managed their household expenses, a variety of claimed income sources such as farming, shopkeeping, job or minicab driving was deemed important to be identified in each location.

In order to ensure that the sample best represented the local context and situation, a qualifying chart was developed ad hoc in the prototype location (India) as a method to approximately evaluate an individual’s ability to predict the timing and amount of their income, and thus plan their expenses.

This found to be useful in ensuring that the widest possible variety of local influences on cash flow were represented in the sample pool, not merely the majority of the population who were farmers, all of whose fields of wheat or rice would tend to ripen for harvest around the same time.

For example, in the Philippines, the representative sample pool, by primary stated source of income, included a rice farmer, a minicab owner/operator, a sari sari shop owner, a door to door frozen food seller and a furniture craftsman with his own workshop.

It was also ensured that the range of remittances (from zero to only for savings) received by the individuals was also varied. Individuals with full-time jobs were not considered nor were those whose sole source of income was remittence from abroad.

Takeaway for developing your own matrix for sampling the local populace

This chart formed the basis for sampling across various income streams. The employed have a regular salary, they are able to say with accuracy exactly how much money to expect and on which day. The odd jobs labourer, at the other end of the spectrum, cannot predict if he will get work on any particular day nor how much work. The farmer (generalized here) is able to estimate approximately when the harvest will be ready for sale and its value, though naturally not as accurately as a regular paycheck.

If you are only looking at farmers’ incomes then consider a spread across cash crops, size of harvest, crop mix and produce sales patterns. There are high potential farms and low potential ones.  The idea is not to end up with your entire pool of people with similar patterns of cash flow. If you’re looking at a village or rural population cluster, consider agribusiness services such as shopkeepers and transporters, as well as other service providers such as water delivery, small kiosk, market traders etc.

The reason for this is due to the variance in people’s ability to plan for savings, loans, mortgages, credit or other financial products based on their ability to predict their cash flow. The more uncertain your income stream, the more risk averse you’re likely to be.

Locations in country

Choosing locations to sample depends on the aim of the design research study – are you looking at the  entire country? Or just one particular region? Based on geography, different parts of the country may have more or less food security, so again it makes sense to sample from at least two if not three distinctly different areas based on their economic standing.

From the perspective of financial inclusion, it doesn’t make  sense to only look at two similar economic regions with cash crops, unless your study’s focus is a middle or higher income level demographic.You may also wish to consider a spread of profiles based on their distance to the nearest market town or financial services institution. Patterns of behaviour will differ based on time and money it takes to travel. For instance, even if your income streams gave you the confidence to consider a loan, the cost of travel may not make it worth the effort.

Final thoughts

The informal and rural economies are far more sophisticated in their financial management than we are able to perceive in the first instance. Designing solutions that work with the rhythms of the natural seasonality are more likely to be adopted than those which impose calender schedules. Negotiable flexibility and trust based webs of cooperation are part and parcel of the hyper local rural economies. How can we retain these pillars of community life and resilience in the face of adversity and uncertainty even as we seek to include the marginalized with our modern tools and technologies?

* See the problems with introducing Google’s Beba Pay design without taking entire ecosystem into consideration

On the science of niti

Therefore, with an eye to the public good, I shall speak that which, when understood, will lead to an understanding of things in their proper perspective. ~ Chanakya, Niti Shastra, Chapter 1, Verse 2

Although many great savants of the science of niti, such as Brihaspati, Shukracharya, Bhartrhari and Vishnusharma, have echoed many of these instructions in their own celebrated works, it is perhaps the way that Chanakya applied his teachings of Niti-shastra that has made him stand out as a significant historical figure.

The great Pandit teaches us that lofty ideals can become a certain reality if we intelligently work towards achieving our goal in a determined, progressive and practical manner. ~ Niti Shastra, as translated by Miles Davis & V. Badarayana Murthy

25 years of interacting with a computer

I’m still surprised that I’m the closing speaker at the 25th anniversary of the computer human interaction society’s conference in San Jose this year on May 3rd 2007. Personally, I don’t have a clue about how one goes about all this technical stuff, I’m just a user and probably classify as an internet addict. Though that’s an odd thing to say about those of us whose work day begins in front the screen and includes coordinating with and connecting to people all around the world who may just be waking up. Are you an iPod addict?

I entered the 12th grade in the Fall semester of 1982 and my choice of classes included Computer 1 and later in the Spring, Computer 2. Twenty five years ago, I first sat down in front of a computer monitor, a cpu and a keyboard. There were two 5 and a quarter inch disk drives – one to load DOS 1.0 with and the other to hold our homework. Oh yes, remember those vivid fuschia Verbatim floppy covers? Remember when leaving floppies in the back seat of the car was guaranteed to give you a gooey mess? I just bought a Pentium 4 a couple of years ago and paid extra for a 3.5″ drive. I was mocked and laughed at but at least I can access all my old data, sometimes.

On my 26th birthday, I asked for and received an incomparable birthday gift from my father [who complained to my mom about the price and mom said “well who asked you to say yes to her?”]. It was an IPC laptop – black & white, 486 DSX [that meant it didn’t need a math co-processor], 120 MB HDD and 20MB Ram. Wow! And it still WORKS! I have it at home right now, it runs Windows 3.1 and file manager and I don’t need to turn on Windows to run Pagemaker on it. My how times have changed!

At 29, I bought a grey market built to order 486 loaded games machine, I’d recently launched the Multimedia Kit from Creative Labs in India as their local distributor was my client at Result:McCann and through that hard work was able to purchase a kit at cost price for my machine. I bought it with my savings and paid cash Rupees 80,000 [my monthly salary at that time was Rs 6,000 and then doubled by McCann to Rs 12000 a month] for this machine – it was purely to play games on. I am to this day an inverterate gamer. After all, once you’ve played Galaxian, Frogger, Space Invaders, PacMan or even Prince of Persia, Doom, Castle Wolfenstien, graduating along with the evolution of the games themselves upto Age of Empires and Civilization, you can see the history of the games industry flash right before your eyes. Any one remember Chip? the 64 levels of chip picking torture using the four arrow keys driving you to distraction?

At 30, I was introduced to the internet – almost simultaneously dad got a Pine internet account – the entry level offered by VSNL with only text based browsing and I joined Hewlett Packard India where we had our own satellite broadband bandwidth to surf the tcp/ip universe. Talk about experiencing the evolution and growth of the internet. I still remind Stu Constantine at Core77 that I first stumbled onto Core77 in 1996 or 1997 from India. Core77 was launched in 1995. Stu and I recently came reluctantly to the conclusion that we may not be wholly in tune with was current in popular culture online amongst undergraduate students. Very reluctantly.

Next saturday I will be 41 – ideally while sampling suitable single malt scotch in Scotland – nice alliteration that! ;p and what is my experience as a human interacting with the computer?

And more importantly, when I look up from my screen, and my eyes lose focus and soften into that dreamy look that accompanies deep pondering thoughts, what do I see when I look ahead to the next 25 years?

Human interaction, I recently read on a blog somewhere. I wish I could find it. The concept was important, it said, it isn’t human computer interaction or computer human interaction. It was human interaction. Do we have phone human interaction? No, we assume the phone is tool to facilitate communication between two or more human beings. Yes?

So is not this blog post but one minute example of a tool that facilitates communication between two or more humans? Is not flickr? What about gmail and chat? Skype – phone, video, chat or files? What about all of them – then we begin to see the limitations. Perhaps that is why we yearn for the iPhone or Jeff Han’s intuitive powerful full handed movements that allow him to feel as though he is truly delving the depths of cybermedia and cyberspace?

I was saying to someone just yesterday that it won’t be any one single computer that will be the most powerful computer in the world but in fact this was already there – the cyberbrain. Here’s an example, call it a back cpu or massively parallel processing or whatever – but the combination of human beings interacting with each other using the tools of the connectivity that broadband gives us gave rise to the social web. the rise of the missing sense of community that we as social beings, as human animals need. And the more we connect and see and share the more we realize that people all over the world have the same hopes and dreams and aspirations as we do, they just look a bit funny. But so what, don’t we, in our own mirrors, each day?

Now I must reach beyond and see what lies yonder…

First published 17th March 2007 on a blog called Jugaad