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When Value Identification is More Important Than Ever

February 16, 2009

As I laid out in this essay, the ultimate ethical purpose of design must be the promotion of the life of the customer.  This is never more important to keep in mind when designing than when the product being considered will be a tool which is of life and death importance to the customer.

It is a tragic fact that an astonishing percentage of the people on this planet live in grinding poverty.  As one way of quantifying this, the world population is about 6.8 billion people and fully 1.8 billion of them only have access to water within 1 kilometer of their home–not in their yard or house.  That is over a fourth of the world’s population which is wasting quite a bit of time walking about  in order to get water every day. 

Many see this as unmitigated tragedy.  When I see a large group of people with a set of very large problems, I see a place for boundless opportunity–for the improvement of human life. 

Many people earnestly are attempting to correct the unfortunate circumstances of these people’s lives through philanthropic endeavors.  This may assist some people on a small scale, but it will never correct things on a large scale.  No amount of charitable foundations can get problems solved like modern production techniques can.  With such an enormous market, the economies of scale are tantalizingly attractive and the potential product designs are intense endeavors in minimizing cost.  This is right where a Henry Ford, mass production type model is needed.

The reason I bring this topic up is an Economist article which I was forwarded by a friend.  It addresses the previosuly unsuccessful attempts which designers have made at creating stoves for the impoverished.  Previous attempts were successful exercises in context dropping.  Designers (from the first world) didn’t understand how these devices were going to be used (by people in the third world), so they didn’t think about how these devices should be properly made.  One example was the following:

After an initial wave of stove design that sought to reduce deforestation through improved efficiency, scientists and engineers have turned their attention to stoves that minimise the levels of noxious emissions to which stove users—mainly women and children—are exposed. Crucially, they have also recognised the need to take account of the way in which stoves are actually used… In the refugee camps of Darfur, the dough for the staple food, assida, requires vigorous stirring of the cooking pot. “None of the stoves we tested had been built with this in mind,” says Ashok Gadgil, the head of the Darfur Stoves Project. Only after the stoves were seen to tip over during cooking did Dr Gadgil and his researchers go back to the drawing board and refine the design.

As designers, it is imperative to get inside the heads of your consumer and think about the hassles they face, the values which are relevant to them (particularly given their cultural norms and income level), how they are going to use the product (not how you would use the product), and then design features which answer their specific needs–it is, in essence, the art of identifying the consumer’s context.

One company which seems to be off and running in the business of stove making, featured in that economist article:

Their stoves, to me, appear to be far too flashy for what these potential customers would value.  To really maximize profit–which is what will really help these people the most by attracting investors who are able to sell cheap, functional stoves to a large number of people who demand them–it would seem to me that designs are needed which are far more utilitarian.

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