Product Design for Social Good

Picture by Wonderlane

I came across this article on the Ashoka Tech page highlighting the 6 common pitfalls in product design for social good. Yep, good intentions don’t always lead to a successful outcome. The one that stuck out to me most?

“Pitfall #3: Failing to understand the user context. According to a study conducted by Duke University, up to 98% of donated medical equipment in developing countries is broken within five years. One major culprit? Power surges. Most donated equipment is designed for developed countries, where constant, reliable electricity supply is the norm. But in developing countries (particularly in rural areas), hospitals frequently face blackouts or brownouts, which end up frying their medical devices. While touring Pathan Hospital in Nepal, Tim’s design team discovered a cheap and simple solution; adding surge protectors to medical devices could prevent breakdowns and allow rural hospitals to save money on equipment. From this experience, Tim learned that context is king. Understanding situational nuances (especially in base-of-pyramid markets) allows entrepreneurs to better tailor their products and solve specific problems.”

Click here for the full list.

No one understands a challenge better than the locals. Seeing ourselves as the all-knowing being coming to “save” the poor and implementing blanket solutions to a situations we have not lived with or fully understood may lead to more harm than good.

Imagine this. You send a team of experts to a developing country to build wells for the locals. The completed wells is successfully bringing them fresh, clean water. Your work is done and you move on. 5 years later, a part of the mechanism in the well breaks. None of the locals have the knowledge or the needed materials to repair it, leaving them no choice but to abandon it. Not quite the solution you imagined, is it?

What might have worked better? Collaborating with the local craftsmen and engineers to fuse your knowledge with theirs, and construct the well with materials available locally. Train the locals on how each well works, so they’ll have the knowledge to keep the wells running long after you’re gone.

They brought up a great example of technology that’s been designed and implemented successfully… the Kinkajou Projector. Though it’ll take me a little more research to understand how they worked with the locals to develop the product, this video gives a great overview of a low-cost, low-powered device that is changing lives.


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