In our consumer-crazy western world we are increasingly influenced and attracted by good design. Whether we like to be seen tapping away on the latest Apple computer or tidying up with James Dyson’s clever cleaner, products that look good and make our lives easier are must-have grown up toys.
However for every Apple or Dyson there are many other makes that, although the may look good, fail in some way to fulfill their original goal.
And many times it’s because the designer has failed to consult the end user, and has simply designed a product they think will work on their terms, in their environment.
Here’s a good example:
In an area outside Hyderabad, India, between the suburbs and the countryside, a young woman—we’ll call her Shanti—fetches water daily from the always-open local borehole that is about 300 feet from her home. She uses a 3-gallon plastic container that she can easily carry on her head. Shanti and her husband rely on the free water for their drinking and washing, and though they’ve heard that it’s not as safe as water from the Naandi Foundation-run community treatment plant, they still use it. Shanti’s family has been drinking the local water for generations, and although it periodically makes her and her family sick, she has no plans to stop using it.
Shanti has many reasons not to use the water from the Naandi treatment centre, but they’re not the reasons one might think. The centre is within easy walking distance of her home—roughly a third of a mile. It is also well known and affordable (roughly 10 rupees, or 20 cents, for 5 gallons). Being able to pay the small fee has even become a status symbol for some villagers. Habit isn’t a factor, either. Shanti is forgoing the safer water because of a series of flaws in the overall design of the system.
Although Shanti can walk to the facility, she can’t carry the 5-gallon jerrican that the facility requires her to use. When filled with water, the plastic rectangular container is simply too heavy. The container isn’t designed to be held on the hip or the head, where she likes to carry heavy objects. Shanti’s husband can’t help carry it, either. He works in the city and doesn’t return home until after the water treatment centre is closed. The treatment center also requires them to buy a monthly punch card for 5 gallons a day, far more than they need. “Why would I buy more than I need and waste money?” asks Shanti, adding she’d be more likely to purchase the Naandi water if the centre allowed her to buy less.
The community treatment centre was designed to produce clean and potable water, and it succeeded very well at doing just that. In fact, it works well for many people living in the community, particularly families with husbands or older sons who own bikes and can visit the treatment plant during working hours. The designers of the centre, however, missed the opportunity to design an even better system because they failed to consider the culture and needs of all of the people living in the community.
This missed opportunity, although an obvious omission in hindsight, is all too common. Time and again, initiatives falter because they are not based on the client’s or customer’s needs and have never been prototyped to solicit feedback. Even when people do go into the field, they may enter with preconceived notions of what the needs and solutions are. This flawed approach remains the norm in both the business and social sectors.
As Shanti’s situation shows, social challenges require systemic solutions that are grounded in the client’s or customer’s needs. This is where many approaches founder, but it is where design thinking—a new approach to creating solutions—excels.
Traditionally, designers focused their attention on improving the look and functionality of products. Classic examples of this type of design work are Apple Computer’s iPod and Herman Miller’s Aeron chair. In recent years designers have broadened their approach, creating entire systems to deliver products and services.
Design thinking incorporates constituent or consumer insights in depth and rapid prototyping, all aimed at getting beyond the assumptions that block effective solutions. Design thinking—inherently optimistic, constructive, and experiential—addresses the needs of the people who will consume a product or service and the infrastructure that enables it.
Businesses are embracing design thinking because it helps them be more innovative, better differentiate their brands, and bring their products and services to market faster. Nonprofits are beginning to use design thinking as well to develop better solutions to social problems. Design thinking crosses the traditional boundaries between public, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors. By working closely with the clients and consumers, design thinking allows high-impact solutions to bubble up from below rather than being imposed from the top.
Design Thinking at Work
Jerry Sternin, founder of the Positive Deviance Initiative and an associate professor at Tufts University until he died last year, was skilled at identifying what and critical of what he called outsider solutions to local problems. Sternin’s preferred approach to social innovation is an example of design thinking in action. In 1990, Sternin and his wife, Monique, were invited by the government of Vietnam to develop a model to decrease in a sustainable manner high levels of malnutrition among children in 10,000 villages. At the time, 65 percent of Vietnamese children under age 5 suffered from malnutrition, and most solutions relied on government and UN agencies donations of nutritional supplements. But the supplements—the outsider solution—never delivered the hoped-for results. As an alternative, the Sternins used an approach called positive deviance, which looks for existing solutions (hence sustainable) among individuals and families in the community who are already doing well.
The Sternins and colleagues from Save the Children surveyed four local Quong Xuong communities in the province of Than Hoa and asked for examples of “very, very poor” families whose children were healthy. They then observed the food preparation, cooking, and serving behaviors of these six families, called “positive deviants,” and found a few consistent yet rare behaviors. Parents of well-nourished children collected tiny shrimps, crabs, and snails from rice paddies and added them to the food, along with the greens from sweet potatoes. Although these foods were readily available, they were typically not eaten because they were considered unsafe for children. The positive deviants also fed their children multiple smaller meals, which allowed small stomachs to hold and digest more food each day.
The Sternins and the rest of their group worked with the positive deviants to offer cooking classes to the families of children suffering from malnutrition. By the end of the programme’s first year, 80 percent of the 1,000 children enrolled in the programme were adequately nourished. In addition, the effort had been replicated within 14 villages across Vietnam.
The Sternins’ work is a good example of how positive deviance and design thinking relies on local expertise to uncover local solutions. Design thinkers look for work-arounds and improvise solutions—like the shrimps, crabs, and snails—and they find ways to incorporate those into the offerings they create. They consider what we call the edges, the places where “extreme” people live differently, think differently, and consume differently. As Monique Sternin, now director of the Positive Deviance Initiative, explains: “Both positive deviance and design thinking are human-centered approaches. Their solutions are relevant to a unique cultural context and will not necessarily work outside that specific situation.”
Story lead: The Daily Good