May 24, 2012

Design for the next billion 2012: What's missing?

An upcoming project's requirements led to the realization that there is a huge gap in design for the next billion (and more). The subsequent domino effect has left a lack in tools, methods, frameworks and thus, disciplines themselves, from the perspective of addressing the challenge of serving the bottom of the pyramid (BoP) population segment. Here I will simply attempt to capture the questions raised in these four areas I've noticed:

1. Tools for the BoP Market

It all started yesterday when I was looking for a means to manage customer relationships with lower income customers in rural Kenya. Where were the CRM tools that could be effectively, affordably and easily used by a social enterprise or business whose primary target audience were the BoP? Examples of Customer Relationship Management apps proffered to me in response to this question in Twitter led to a series of design constraints coming to light as I attempted to explain why such and such or that and the other would not do for the operating environment in which it must work. It made me realize how few tools (if any at all) existed for the BoP market, that companies could utilize in order to build relationships and loyalty with their customers and offer them a well design user experience.

Why was there this gap when there was a plethora of such tools and applications for even the smallest startup to use in the developed world? Furthermore, given the years of investment by a vast variety of firms, large and small, attempting to improve the quality of life for the BoP yet still only partially succeeding in reaching out to these new customers and creating markets and demand, wouldn't there be a crying need for appropriate technology and cutting edge marketing and communication tools to help improve the success rate?

This thought led to the consideration that in order for such relevant and appropriate tools to be created, there needed to be appropriate and relevant methods for design and development in the first place.

2. Design methods for the BoP

So when Victor Lombardi posed a question to me during a recent skype conversation:
How do you visualize the long term experience of the BoP customer?
I realized I hadn't thought about it in quite that way before, and as Victor said, he'd not seen anything on this either. Whereas, these concepts and methods had emerged in response to the way increasingly sophisticated companies were engaging with their customer base. My attempts to grapple with this question uncovered such concepts as Customer Experience (and thus, customer experience design), User Experience and its design, and whole slew of information waiting out there among young and new design disciplines.

While their roots are in technology and the internet, their philosophy can be summed up as a holistic human centered strategy for sustainable customer engagement.

How different is it for those of us seeking to engage with the underserved and overlooked lower income customer base in the developing world? And due to the lack of market development and available information, was it not more critical that each actor focusing on the BoP market consider every single element of their business strategy rigorously in order to establish and maintain their enterprise sustainably? There are no specialized firms nor fragmentation of disciplines for BoP oriented enterprises, they must be the jack of all trades from inventor of new products and services and business models to figuring out how to reach these demanding customers who live in challenging environments.

Yet, all the conversations on "Design for the next billion/other 90%/social impact/poverty alleviation/BoP" revolves around the long established methods and approaches from traditional product design, development and engineering. There is a gap here that must be seriously considered if the tools and apps for reaching these customers, as mentioned in the first point above, are ever to be successfully developed for our use.

3. Frameworks for the BoP Market

And so, we need new frames of reference and ways of grasping the operating environment in order to create strategies and thus action points for this wholly different and new frontier market opportunity. Where is the Customer Experience lifecycle as it applies to a BoP customer, to go back to Victor's original question? And critically, can the existing frameworks and disciplines deal with the challenge of bridging the socio economic and infrastructural chasm as well as the attendant underlying assumptions? Obviously not, since those are the tools and methods and frames of reference which we've all been struggling to apply with little degree of success in the BoP context.

Or, as I said to Victor in response to his question, how can we assume that the long term experience of the BoP customer will follow the same path as that diagrammed or framed for the ToP customers?

After all, when the fundamental mission of a social enterprise is to alleviate poverty or improve quality of life, then the ideal long term outcome for a BoP customer is that he or she moves up and out of the equation. That is, the idea is not that they come back for the "BoP" focused product or service meant for the economically challenged but that their life has improved to the extent that their upward mobility implies more expensive product or a different value proposition all together.

This is diametrically opposite the fundamental assumption in conventional frameworks where the goal is to create customer loyalty and long term engagement. On the other hand, one could create great user experiences and loyalty that leads to word of mouth referrals and advocacy even as the successful customer upgrades to the next level.

4. Design disciplines oriented for BoP customer context and needs

This is an open ended question. Is it enough that the existing fields of design, particularly the nascent and emerging ones - like UX strategy for example - simply be focused on the challenges and constraints of the BoP customers environment, infrastructure and cash flow, or, is it that there is a space for an entirely new design discipline that holistically covers all elements of the user experience - whether a product like a cookstove or a user interface for a mobile app or service - and takes all these fundamental differences between the BoP customer and the first world one into account?

For the tools, the methods and frameworks themselves might need to be redesigned in order to be successfully applied for this customer base. From Brandon Schauer's writing:

UX managers are in a rare position where they can see both the business needs and user needs, and can find where they align to produce revenues from positive relationships, not from goading, entrapment, or annoyances.
Perhaps what is required is a new way to frame the problem solving approach, say for example, UX for the BoP and not simply use the term design as it is currently meant in the narrowest sense.

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