User-Centered Design: Applying lessons from successful product companies to development

By Angela Rastegar Campbell

The best consumer product companies employ rigorous user observations in order to design the most successful products. Increasingly, development organizations are employing the same tactic to develop the most suitable solutions for those in need.

What is user-centered design? Also known as human-centered design, it is a method of product development based on extensive observation, interviews, and testing with end users at each stage of the design process. A commonly cited example is Swiffer; Procter & Gamble researchers studied the entire cleaning experience – including the steps of buying, using, washing, storing, and discarding the cleaning product – to understand what consumers found difficult or inconvenient about floor cleaning. Based on these hours and hours of consumer observation – described by Continuum team leader (and current CEO) as “about the most boring footage you can imagine,” the researchers user-tested and developed a cleaning solution which now brings in about $500 million per year in annual sales.

Feast conferenceIn the social sector, user-centered design presents an alternative to relying on NGOs or academics to propose solutions. Instead, the process requires development practitioners to spend time with end beneficiaries to understand their needs and daily challenges before designing tailored solutions accordingly.

The Feast, a global social innovation conference in New York City focused on human-centered design, is a hub for those seeking to apply these tactics to the social sector. Last month, I attended the Feast on behalf of Dalberg to discuss some of the world’s most pressing problems in education, health, and veteran affairs.

The Feast was far from a typical development conference. Rather than presenting data or examples from experts in the vacuum of a conference center, The Feast organizers led diverse groups of practitioners through real time problem-solving in a series of “innovation challenges.” And we didn’t just learn about the challenges from posters or handouts – we heard from actual representatives of the challenges, including a group of sixth grade students for the education challenge and recent veterans for the veterans affairs challenge. In addition, attendees had the option to observe students and help teachers in a local school prior to returning to the conference room to design solutions and share with the group.

These working groups were quite successful, with three projects from this year’s Feast currently continuing forward. “User-centered design is key to success,” says Emily Chong, Feast Vice President and Head of Marketing and Partnerships. “We strive to rethink standard conferences by getting people to really relate with end users they try to serve. The attendees who get outside come up with the best solutions.”

While this level of user observation can be difficult to implement, some social innovators are already applying these tactics in the development sector. For example, social entrepreneurs developed Embrace, a low-cost infant incubator for use in rural areas, after carefully observing the most pressing health needs in Nepal. The founder of Driptech, an international water technologies company, spent time in Ethiopia observing why existing irrigation systems did not fulfill the needs of smallholder farmers. In response, he developed an innovative manufacturing process to produce high-quality, affordable drip irrigation systems that can increase crop yields for smallholders.

drip irrigation

A woman learns how to use a drip irrigation system like those developed by DripTech, a company driven by user-centered design.

As Steve Jobs famously asserted, true innovation comes from recognizing an unmet need and designing a creative way to fill it. But simple interviews or focus groups can’t solve that problem, because many consumers don’t know what they are missing. Observations, experimenting, and rigorous product testing have been proven time and time again as the most successful formula for product innovation. Some of the best development innovations have arisen through this process, but using these tactics is far from the norm in the development sector. Why? And what would the world look like if, instead of conducting research from a desk, more people simply got outside and spent time with the people they aim to serve?

Often, our approach at Dalberg is to build on existing research with our own visits and interviews. One project team, for example, is currently working with Frog design and a large commercial bank in Indonesia to create a new user-centered set of financial products for the bottom of the pyramid.

Having been a part of The Feast, I will certainly bring a keener eye of observation to my next project– and if you are looking for the next big solution in the social sector, my advice is to begin with ample observation.

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One Response to User-Centered Design: Applying lessons from successful product companies to development

  1. Pingback: Keeping your ears and eyes open | Pete Sparreboom

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