Selvan Thandapani

Urban Energy Labs: Researching BoP-Focused Energy Solutions for Rural, Urban Customers

To many, wood/biofuel-burning stoves (chulhas) are characteristic of rural areas. In fact, they are also used by a large percentage of urban households. Approximately 22 percent of urban households in India use firewood as their primary cooking fuel, according to the 61st round of the National Sample Survey (2004-05). As urbanization increases, more families are moving to the cities and bringing their traditional practices with them. Although fast urbanization is a nightmare for city planners and policy makers, it proves to be very useful for the designers and researchers who create products and services targeting the world’s Base of the Pyramid markets.

User-centered design (UCD) is a widely accepted research method to understand user needs, desires and limitations. However, carrying out extensive rural user testing is demanding for companies with limited time and budgets. Companies must locate rural test sites, target households that are willing to test products and provide user feedback, make multiple site visits to collect data and analye insights, modify prototypes and repeat the process several times in several locations.

In an attempt to leverage the effectiveness of the UCD method and to test our assumption, we came up with an idea. We explored whether engaging with BoP households in urban slums, who retain rural behaviors and practices, could result in actionable early-stage design insights for consumer energy products targeted to rural BoP markets.

We conducted three case studies in the slums of Chennai, Tamil Nadu in 2009 and 2010, using rural household energy products. The first case study began with user testing of a leading improved cookstove from Prakti Design. The second case study involved the design, creation and testing of a pollution-reducing regulator prototype made with local resources that inserts into local firewood burning chulha cookstoves[1]. The third case study involved testing a leading solar lantern from D.light design. Energy products for cooking and lighting were chosen because they are utilized in the same ways in rural and urban poor settings, they fulfill a need in urban areas unlike rural farming and irrigation products, and they are accessible and low-cost.

During each study, we frequently visited participants for six to seven weeks to gain user insights through visual observation and interviews, and to clarify any queries users had in regards to the products. Observations were used to record how the product was used and the evolution of modifications made by the users. Interviews with users provided significant feedback on user likes, dislikes and the incorporation of the products into daily routines. Findings were evaluated based on a user experience framework devised by L. Alben[2] that included the following criteria:

  1. Look and feel of the product;
  2. How well the user understands how to use the product;
  3. How the user feels about the product while using it;
  4. How well the product serves its purpose; and
  5. How well the product fits into the whole context in which the user is using it.

Evaluation of urban BoP user experience uncovered insights for improved product design, marketing and user education. Additionally, the urban testing results were verified with Prakti designers and D.light design to identify similarities and differences with their extensive rural field-testing.

While it always will be necessary to conduct BoP product testing with a rural target audience, the results from these studies were encouraging and provided strong qualitative evidence to warrant further research into urban testing for rural-targeted BoP products. These cases, which engaged urban BoP household users and even used local manufacturers for prototyping, suggest that rural-targeted energy products can be rapidly tested, designed and deployed while saving designers valuable time and resources during early-stage testing. As an initial design research method, urban testing alleviates many financial and logistical challenges researchers face in conducting rural testing and provides early-stage design feedback as rich as testing in rural areas. Urban spaces offer high density of potential test participants and facilitate the rapid prototyping process through the utilization of local resources. Close proximity to testers allows for more touches and tracking of user modification that might have gone unnoticed with less contact.

We are very excited about future applications for urban testing. Our successful pilot studies have caught the attention of BoP product designers and our urban testing methodology is adopted by GoScale, a product showcase and validation platform designed for Base of the Pyramid markets, to rate showcased products and by, Rural Energy Network Enterprise (RENE), a part of IFMR ventures, to evaluate products before entering new markets.

Editor’s Note: Selvan Thandapani and Richard Woodbridge are researchers with CDF’s Rural Market Insight team. To learn more about urban testing case studies and methodologies, check out the following three-part series of briefs and the academic publication:

Can Urban User Testing Reveal Relevant Insights for Rural BoP Consumer Energy Products?

Can Urban User Testing Inform Prototyping of Rural BoP Products?

Can Urban User Testing Labs Evaluate Rural Solar Lighting Solutions?

Assesing the Benefits of Early Stage Design Research of Rural BoP-Focused Energy Solutions in Urban Settings

[1] Regulators are metallic vents that fit within existing chulhas. They behave similar to the steel grates used in improved biofuel cookstoves to improve combustion efficiency.

[2] Alben, L,(1996) “Quality of Experience: Defining the Criteria for Effective Interaction Design”, interactions 3.3