Scott Anderson

Weekly Roundup (3/2/13) When Design Fails, Transparency Helps

Her trepidation was unmistakable.

“I just do not have confidence with the program,” said Semakula, a Community Health Promoter (CHP) with Living Goods during a training session last year in Uganda.

Semakula was one member of a sales force comprised of 250 women, mostly over the age of 40, some 60 percent of whom had never used an SMS-enabled device before. Living Goods, the BoP business that sells anything from cooking stoves to solar lanterns and health care products in a door-to-door Avon-like business model, was trying to help its agents both improve their sales and their profits while connecting with clients through automated text-messages.

As chronicled in a pair of posts, Using Mobile to Reach Scale and Overcoming the Challenges in Mobile by Josh Cleveland, the company’s team of CHPs were tasked with using their mobile phones as the lynchpin of a customer data and sales network. The CHPs were asked to submit data on clients’ treatments and field visits to Living Goods headquarters, and the company’s cloud-based platform would then deliver both CHPs and clients targeted text messages. Those texts included prescription drug reminders, health education for pregnant women, age-appropriate child development information for newborn children, agent performance feedback, product promotions, agent performance tracking, clinic referral reminders, and client follow-up reminders.

At least that was how it was supposed to work.

In the article Scaling Mobile Health Solutions the Hard Way published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Living Goods CEO Chuck Slaughter opened on how the project quickly got away from managers. There were a host of technical problems, such as network outages and the logistical snafus of charging the cell phones, as many employees simply didn’t have regular access to a power source. And then there were user comprehension issues. Some workers didn’t know how to store contacts on their phones, carrying paper lists of client information along with their mobiles.

“Naturally, we assumed that our agents would share our enthusiasm for this transformative technology,” Slaughter wrote. “Wake up call—what we saw as an enormous opportunity to improve impact and sustainability, the agents saw as more work. To ensure the continuity and accuracy of data, we asked them to log their client interaction via SMS while still keeping paper records. Two times the work.”

Slaughter says the company has rushed to adapt the program to the technical and personnel problems that plagued the project. This includes “selling a decent-quality, low-price phone—more than 40 percent of agents bought one,” and a helping them to buy a solar charger, he wrote in the article, which is part of an interesting series on mobile health through a partnership between Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, Johnson & Johnson and Stanford Social Innovation Review.

As it happens, NextBillion published two articles this week that might have helped Living Goods at the start of its project. Heather Esper dug into a recent policy paper from the Center for Global Development, Behavioral Design: A New Approach for Development Policy, Saugato Datta, that incorporated insights from behavioral economics into the design of development programs – lessons that can apply to BoP businesses as well.

Earlier in the week, Cleveland looked at how enterprises are shifting from a “we know best” posture of development agency thinking of years past, to one that better recognizes a poor person’s motivations and taps into their desires, not just their perceived needs.

“If we follow each of these trends to their logical conclusion, the future brings more effective solutions. Fewer bednets used as wedding decorations, fewer efficient cookstoves turned into flower pots, less things that the poor “need.” More programs and organizations designed to dismantle a particular barrier to income generation and then get out of the way,” Cleveland concluded.

It’s rare to have see a case study like Living Goods SMS unfold in semi-real time. Most companies still would prefer their missteps to remain closely held secrets. It’s also easy to say, well, I would have designed this project better, or they should have known X, Y or Z.

The fact is, there will always be known unknowns in a project of such scale, but there are also “unknown unknowns” as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pointedly quipped, when training a workforce and/or trying to reach a new market with unfamiliar technology.

But learning from its early mistakes , Living Goods is now pressing ahead on its mobile platform. It plans to start testing new products using the SMS system, such mobile money, consumer finance and social selling, Slaughter writes.

“After three months of attacking these practical problems, Living Goods increased user adoption from 25 percent to more than 60 percent—remarkable growth, but still short of our ambition of universal adoption,” Slaughter wrote.

The company may have failed to sell its staff on the importance of the new technology, but by admitting mistakes and fixing them, it’s much more likely to sell its customers on its product line.

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Ennovent, University Impact Fund Reveal New Research on the Business of Health Care in India: The industry will reach $280 billion by 2020 By Perzen Patel

Changing Our Priorities: When we don’t actually want what we ‘need’ By Josh Cleveland

The Other NCDs: What’s being done about the global mental health crisis? By Grant Tudor

Off-Grid Electrification: A key to Myanmar’s promising growth By Andy Schroeter

Made to Measure? Understanding Investor Challenges with Social Impact Measurement: Two new publications explore the upsides and downsides of metrics platforms By Hilary Best

Stories from the Field: Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes discusses polio, vaccines and family planning in Nigeria and Kenya By Jeff Raikes

Extreme By Design: Film tracks the world’s biggest little ideas By Madhu Viswanathan

Bi-Weekly Checkup – 3/1/13: What you may have missed and what we’re working on at NB Health Care By James MilitzerWDI

Why We Need to Leverage Behavioral Design Early and Often By Heather Esper

Base of the Pyramid, product design