The direct interactions between user and design often seem to dominate the focus when creating a new product. Some designers – specifically those concerned with socially sustainable design in developing areas - are taking a more holistic look at the lives of target users to develop products more likely to make a difference.
There are many ways that well-intention-ed designs can go wrong, according to TU Delft PhD candidate Annemarie Mink. One example of this is the Roundabout Playpump, a design that gained a lot of attention in the early 2000s. Touted as a solution to Africa‘s water problem, it was a children’s roundabout which, as children played on it, pumped water into a water tank for later use.
It received millions in investment, celebrity endorsements and was installed in a number of areas. However, some high-profile water NGOs, including Water Aid, criticised it as unsuitable and ineffective. The pumps were difficult to install and expensive to maintain, more so than the regular hand pumps most commonly used. In addition to this, according to calculations from The Sphere Project, to obtain the daily recommended amount of water, children would have to play with the pump for 27 hours each day making it less efficient than hand pumps.
Aside from being physically impossible, the sheer amount of playing that would have to be done to retrieve enough water would essentially make it child labour. It was, to use the technical term, a doozy.
The Playpump design has since been updated and been more discerningly installed. Mink emphasised that although the idea was certainly good and undoubtedly well-intentioned, the lack of proper research and swift implementation ultimately wasted investments and donations, designers time and, most significantly, it negatively affected the communities it was intended to help.
Better understandingMink, as part of the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, is looking for ways to help designers better understand their target user when designing socially sustainable products in a context foreign to them. Her thesis looks at socially sustainable design and ways to help designers ensure their products meet the actual needs and wants of their target users.
She has found that designs aiming to improve the quality of life in developing areas do not have to be as ineffective as the Playpump was to still be problematic. Mink refers to one of her own designs as an example. For her undergraduate design project, she designed a silk reeling machine for women in eastern rural India.
She received an NGO brief calling for a silk reeling machine that was smaller than the standard, so as to be usable in the home and reduce ergonomic problems. It also needed to produce more yarn of a
higher quality and be safe for small children to be around, as the machine the women used was very tall and had uncovered flying wheels and moving parts. Mink designed a more productive reeling machine that achieved all of these things.
On paper it was a great success. However, a few years later she realised that she had been so preoccupied with the technical aspects of the design, and meeting the formal requirements of the organisation, that she had not fully taken into account the user's everyday life.
The old reeling machines were housed in a centre, with around 30 women working together, but the new portable reeling machine
meant that work could be done from home, which took away one of the few opportunities for these women to socialise. The smaller and easier to use design also removed some of the prestige that is associated with working with one of the larger, complex silk reeling machines.
The machines could now also be used by children; a dangerous prospect in areas already dealing with child labour. "All these kind of aspects are things I should have investigated more from the start. When I first went there though, I was really focused on the product, and not sufficiently on the lives of the rural women."
Making design workAs Mink sees it, when designing for developing countries, rural areas and emerging markets, a design not working does not necessarily stem from technically poor design or bad intentions. Rather, it is often the case that designers simply do not have enough time to complete extensive ethnographic research, and this is not where the focus is placed.
Mink highlighted that designers, particularly design students, often only have a few weeks abroad before they return home to design their product after which they return to test it. This is why as part of her PhD she has developed the Opportunity Detection Kit (ODK), which is an interview process allowing designers to learn about the daily lives of their target users in a more comprehensive way.
Mink's PhD and the ODK are based on the Capability Approach, a model that encompasses broader indicators of well-being, beyond goods or finance. It includes aspects that are important in human life such as mobility, health, family and dreams.
Delta spoke to Mink, and several students who worked with project groups abroad, using the ODK as part of their research process, about why designs for developing countries often don‘t quite hit the mark. Mink supervises some of the graduating projects relevant to her field. She noted that "when I guide graduation or master’s students groups who go to a different country, a different culture, particularly developing countries, the focus is always on the product."
Perhaps when designing a cool new gadget the focus does not need to be so heavily on the user. However if designing for a context that is culturally, politically, religiously and economically different from your own, without a more comprehensive focus on all aspects of the user's lives, most of the design will be based only on secondary sources, poorly founded cultural assumptions, and the designers own experience.
Diapers for disabledMisja van Sitteren was part of a project group that worked on developing diapers for disabled adolescents, also in India. He noted that when you go to another country "you have all kinds of assumptions about how life is there" and before doing research with the ODK, it was difficult to tell whether their initial designs would be valuable.
When they first got to Bangladesh, the group hoped to make a diaper that could be made at home by the mothers. However, it became clear that women, in addition to other household tasks, simply didn't have the time to also make diapers regularly. There was also the matter of distribution; the idea that they could be sold in pharmacies turned out to be impractical, as the group learned that the men in the families are the ones who would purchase the product.
However, it was always the women who had to put the diapers on. As most women who were the intended buyers were also illiterate, it was difficult to imagine how to effectively communicate the instructions of how to use the product. Van Sitteren and his colleague's experience demonstrates how even the smallest assumption about a daily routine, like shopping habits, can limit the usefulness of a product.
Consumer behaviourThere is also the matter of consumer behaviour. As Mink pointed out, "consumer behaviour can be very odd, and in developing countries, it is no different." Many designers create products for developing countries with the best of intentions, but also with the assumption that they know what will help. However, what you consider important simply may not be a priority for others.
Owen Thijssen , a Design for Interaction master‘s student, was part of a project group working on a household water purification product for Bandung, Indonesia. He emphasised that "many 'western' designers, entrepreneurs and businessmen, they come to a different country and they apply their own knowledge of what they are working on, trying to help the local people, but if you don't understand what they find important then it doesn’t become a success."
This prescriptive, somewhat patronising approach to aiding developing countries‘ growth and helping to improve conditions is prevalent throughout much of the wider discourse, not only in design. With the ODK, Mink hopes to place the emphasis on fully getting to know the user, what they need and also what they want. "From a capability approach perspective," she said, "participatory design with the involvement of potential users is very important, it is not that we know what’s best for people in developing regions."
Changed preconceptionsA design for developing areas should encompass a broader idea of safety than just immediate physical safety, which would be difficult without a degree of research into the user's lives. Mink referenced the example of prosthetics in Jaipur.
There is a centre that provides free prosthetics for those in need where she learned about the very specific type of prosthetic being used. Due to the huge stigma of losing a limb, many people lose their jobs, families and even homes, and feel that it becomes unsafe for them to walk outside.
During an interview one man said at night he would not even leave the house in case of emergencies. So the limbs used are very realistic, as they have to be able to squat and sit cross-legged to blend in, "that‘s something that you can’t do with the prostheses we have over here in Europe." This knowledge is integral to designing prostheses that are not only functional but address the requirements of its users.
Both Thijssen and Van Sitteren affirmed that although using the ODK was time-consuming, it certainly changed their preconceptions and the way their groups designed the products. Using a broad range of themes, and an interview process involving drawing and pictures means, as Thijssen put it, "you can really get an honest opinion from people instead of getting answers that they think you want to hear."
The ODK is also intended to be adaptable for different countries and contexts. Its loose format, which is primarily visual, means that sensitive topics or taboo topics can be approached in different ways, that nuance that may not be conveyed by an interpreter is still understood. The kit is a new but useful tool for a designer making a foray into socially sustainable development. When Mink completes her PhD she intends to continue her work with the ODK, further adapting it, and turning it into a web tool so it will be available for designers around the world.