Lisa Kienzle

Best of 2013: Product Development for the Poor: A crash course in human-centered design

Editor’s note: As part of our Most Influential Post of 2013 contest, we are re-publishing the articles that attracted the most reads, social media shares and comments of the year. This article was the most-viewed for October. To see the full list of the most popular posts in 2013 and to vote for your favorite, click here.

Emilia Klimiuk and Cara Kleid are the authors of the video below and also contributed to this post.

Editor’s note: This post is the first in a three-part series that will discuss designing products and services for the poor. This series discusses the use of human-centered design (HCD) and Grameen Foundation’s applications of HCD with the rural poor.The second blog in this series focuses on Grameen’s experiences in exploratory research with the rural poor in the early stages of designing new financial services products. The third reviews how to involve the user in the prototyping process to ensure a financial product that will truly serve their needs.

Up to 95 percent of new product launches fail every year. That’s 95 percent of the ideas that were considered pretty good by smart marketing executives in boardrooms who make decisions about what products to launch (that excludes the thousands of ideas that were already rejected before ever reaching the market). These product ideas withstood hundreds of hours of focus group testing and strategic planning sessions, and they represent millions of failed investment dollars.

So what’s going wrong?

Often business are great at understanding their business goals, and they know their technical capabilities well. It’s easy enough to develop products that fit these two objectives. However, knowing what the user will want is a lot harder than it might seem, and if a product isn’t desirable to the user, it won’t succeed.

Grameen Foundation has a history of developing solutions for the poor. Our MOTECH platform addresses challenges faced by pregnant women; our Community Knowledge Worker network of last-mile agents provides vital information to poor farmers; and savings products for microfinance institutions in the Philippines have brought unbanked individuals into the formal financial sector. We’re developing products that solve real problems for the poor.

We use human-centered design to solve these problems, as demonstrated in the following video:

As noted in the video, we consider four key human-centered design characteristics when developing our solutions:

It’s user-centered: Before we try to figure out what we think could help the poor, we spend time with them to understand their needs, goals, and attitudes. We opt for participatory research tools in one-on-one sessions to get to know a user intimately and to understand not just what they do, but why.

It’s collaborative: We create products for people with low levels of literacy and numeracy; with basic exposure to technology; and with scarce resources at their disposal. The challenge is complex, and it can’t be solved by one person or entity. We comprise an interdisciplinary team. Commercial, design, and technical thinkers work together and collaborate with all stakeholders — the company looking to scale, subject-matter experts, and of course, the end-user — from start to finish.

It’s visual: 30 percent of our brain is devoted to visual processing, but only 3 percent to hearing. We use visual tools to communicate complex ideas to the end-user during field research and to share findings back with different stakeholders. Visualizing the findings helps us disaggregate difficult problems and define new opportunities.

It’s iterative: We test ideas early and often, starting in simple paper formats and then increasing fidelity as we iterate. Sharing a new product idea in paper form— for example, an idea for a mobile data collection application— helps understand a) whether the idea is really relevant, and b) what features, language, and structures we’ll want to actually code. It’s far cheaper to spend a few hours developing and sharing a paper prototype versus spending weeks of man-hours and money programming an app only to find that the idea itself isn’t the least bit appealing to the user.

Human-centered design is not just about coming up with a new idea; it’s about incorporating the user as an active participant in design at every step. From research and concept development, to product testing and piloting, to final roll-out and scale, at each phase the end-user has a voice. This is the essence of human-centered design.

Lisa Kienzle is the Director of Grameen Foundation’s mobile financial services programs in Uganda.
Video authors:

Cara Kleid is product design Lead for the AppLab Money, a mobile money incubator at the Grameen Foundation’s AppLab in Kampala, Uganda.

Emilia Klimiuk is a Product Development Lead at Grameen Foundation AppLab in Uganda.
Note: This blog was made possible by Citi Foundation’s support of Grameen Foundation’s Influencing Financial Product Innovation and Design Initiative. The goal of the initiative is to influence financial service providers in order to drive adoption of a rapid, client-centered product design, thereby expanding the range and appropriateness of financial products offered to poor households.

Base of the Pyramid, product design