The term “product” refers to tangible, physical products as well as services. Talking to customers and conducting market research is critical in revealing consumer preferences and tailoring product design. Market research may reveal that there is a ready-made market for the type of product your business is planning on producing.

On the other hand, the research may also uncover significant markets, untapped by competitors, requiring a different type of product.  It is important to remember that markets are dynamic due to changing consumer preferences over time; regularly assessing the market will allow you to modify your products to remain competitive.

Human-Centered Design

Products fail when they are not based on customers’ needs and have not been tested to solicit feedback.

Even when market research is conducted, field consultants may enter with preconceived notions of what the needs and solutions are, or are biased towards the existing technology.

IDEO, a global innovation and design firm, has published a set of free toolkits and field guides to help social enterprises incorporate Human-Centered Design (HCD) into their work. HCD is a process and a set of techniques that starts by examining the needs, dreams, and behaviors of the target customer. HCD emphasizes listening and understanding what the customer wants to identify the right problem or opportunity followed by generating, developing, and testing the ideas with the customer. The kit is divided into four sections that bolster listening skills, running workshops, and implementing ideas.

To access the toolkit and download the exercises and worksheets, please visit IDEO’s website

Quality Design for the Poor

When companies create products and services for the poor, they often focus on making the product as low-cost as possible. But whether you are tapping a new market opportunity or addressing a social need, it is important to recognize that people living in poverty also value quality design.

For more about Quality Design for the Poor, click here.

Customized vs. Standardized

Human-Centered Design draws its strengths from its deep understanding of the cultural and societal environment of a specific group of users (often Extreme Users).  Solutions are relevant to the unique set of users, and while they often can be generalized to a larger population, it is important to recognize that the solution that works in one context may not be appropriate elsewhere.

Tension exists between customizing for specific populations and creating a “one-size-fits-all” product.

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. A customized product is practically guaranteed to be a success with the target market, as the customer was involved in the entire design process.  However, it may be difficult to achieve manufacturing economies of scale due to the size of the market and may prove challenging to scale outside that particular segment in the given country.  On the other hand, standardized products that are mass manufactured in one location and shipped around the world may not be well designed for any particular customer. To be successful, it is critical that sufficient product research is conducted in multiple geographic areas to ensure adoption and proper usage. This research should include ongoing customer tracking, as customers often use products immediately after purchase, but return to old habits over time.

There are currently more than 160 improved cookstove programs happening all over the world, each ranging in size, scope, type of stove disseminated, approach to technology design and dissemination, and financing mechanism. The following cases describe the product design approaches taken by two different organizations.

End Notes:

IDEOHuman Centered Design Toolkit.

Madsen, Sally and Colleen Cotter. Quality Design for the Poor.