Your priority is our focus

Over the past few months I have been studying design approaches applied to sustainable development projects in agricultural value chains in developing countries through the lens of human centered design. Here’s a brief insight into my first experience of one of the principals of the human centered design process (exploring and understanding the problem first, before even starting to contemplate potential solutions) and a description of how it has enriched my own understanding of a thematic area in which I used to consider myself to be knowledgeable

What it takes to search for your problem

  • prioritize understanding before anything else. This means creating space (freedom to think, talk, play, and move around) for working on the prime objective of understanding
  • observe in a lateral sense to discover what significance a problem has, and how it is defined and expressed by the users in their own voice.
  • all discussion which takes place with your users has a topic in mind, but no explicit purpose. Voicing purpose in problem exploration will likely lead to crucial assumptions in your perceptions remaining undefined and thus unvalidated (expert’s bias)
  • refrain from doing any analysis on your observations. They will blind your inquiry into the problem. Only analyze after repetitive patterns start appearing in your observations.

The general feeling I got from this method of inquiry was that of being a total slacker, based on a self-invoked perception of not being productive. But the trick is to not let that feeling permit you to cut short the exploration of the problem area by attempting to nail things down too early. Explore until patterns start repeating and you’re likely to stumble on insights that your expertise has never revealed to you before.

The pains of staying away from describing or even conceiving the solution, whilst discovering the problem

Expertise encourages a tendency to look smart by exposing knowledge about a problem area, voiced in the form of solutions. But:

  • your conception of solutions is a mirage. Despite your knowledgeable background, solutions actually mean nothing until the user starts voicing tentative parameters for a solution herself.
  • signaling solutions instigates memes, and the problem definition starts leading its own life
  • voicing solutions is an implicit promise to deliver a specific solution. You are likely to commit to delivering something that in the end won’t address the real problem at hand, if any problem at all.

The challenge I faced here was to drop my fear of discrediting my skills and competencies by not prescribing what should be done. You need to realize that the pay-off for your efforts (recognition, fame, happy responses) lies further on in the innovation process when you are able to define actionable insights. As with the problem search, tendencies towards immediate gratification by proposing solutions will increase the likelihood of introducing concepts that will not lead to feasible, viable nor desirable outcomes.

The reward
The pains of feeling incompetent, and not playing the expertise card need to be seen as an investment. The leverage that this investment provides will allow you to wield a significant force of creativity: focus, as in

  • prototyping solutions with the right focus on a demarcated innovation space -> your users and their problems. This is where you can try out all your creative solution concepts
  • using all relevant capacities and resources to address the need of the user
  • users instantly understanding the intent of your solution, and intuitively tinkering and helping in your process of prototyping because they are empowered.
  • instant recognition of signals of adoption or rejection with users.

The human centered design process thus ensures that your priority remains our focus, throughout.

“Your focus is not my priority”

Together with Niti Bhan, I organized a workshop in November 2012, for a group of Dutch stakeholders (private sector, research, government, NGO’s), who contribute to and collaborate on sustainable development in agricultural value chains from developing countries. The workshop’s purpose was to provide for an opportunity where these stakeholders could come together and reflect on their work for their targeted groups of subsistence farmers. It was an opportunity provided by the Dutch Ministries of Economic Affairs and Foreign Affairs. Here’s my take of what went down.

The setup for the experience
To bring focus to the discussion that was to take place, Niti and I purposely put the farmer at the centre stage for the day; the farmer being the ‘user’ of the knowledge about and technology for innovations that can bring sustainable development. We developed several so called design challenges. In these challenges, break-out groups were anointed to be a specific actor in value chain. They were charged with the task of introducing several sustainable (or good) agricultural practices (GAP’s) to specific farmers (tea in Kenya, coffee in Cameroon, and cocoa in Ivory Coast), taking a set of specified constraints into consideration.

Design challenge

                                    Structure of the design challenge

We set the scene with a great introduction by Niti. Her work showed some of the patterns in the effects that uncertainty in cash income and in time, has on organizing life, work, and consumption in the informal rural economy. The intent of providing these insights was to invoke thinking on how closely and in what way stakeholders involve their users and user needs in the design of the actual value chain development programs they implement. We gave our groups full access to design support from the excellent JAM design studio (who also created all the presented visuals). The design sheet as shown above was simple enough, and the support competent enough to allow the group of non-designers to engage in a user-centered problem-solving exercise.

Insights on the multi-stakeholder working process
When the break-out groups re-convened after their design exercises, we asked each group to present their ideas, and discuss their assumptions and constraints with the audience. Across all presentations we discovered an interesting pattern. Participants found themselves to be confronted with an inability to associate with the user, deeming that area of the value chain apprehensive for conjecture about farmers’ needs, and too far removed in terms of values. In our attempt to lower the barriers to applying the user-centered approach through a free-form exercise, we apparently raised an inherently imbedded barrier to consider the user. Rather, participants insisted to direct their problem-solving attention to a more abstract, distant level of thinking (the value chain), or a particular part of the value chain that is more closely associated with Western values (working from the perspective of Nespresso, rather than the coffee farmer).  

Distance from the user

Distance to the user (drawn in synthesis of workshop findings)

This inability to associate with the users had impactful implications for ways in which the groups constructed design solutions. The approaches used were vertical in nature, thinking only within the bounds of what would directly associate with production of a particular agricultural commodity. In their thinking on solutions, people diverted to general principles (tea production provides for income, and thus makes the farmers happy), and then divided the relevant principles into disciplinary segments (like finance, training, agronomy, trade, etc).

The solution for the cocoa farmer in Ivory Coast

A solution to the cocoa problem, but does the cocoa farmer want it? (workshop output)

Our groups’ working assumption appeared to be that creation of a conducive environment around the user (relating to the group’s particular focus area) would convince the user to adopt sustainable farming practices. Our working groups would define the elements of this conducive environment by using expert statements about the needs of the users. Expert opinion was thus applied as a substitute for direct understanding of the user. It provided the working groups with the sense of control they needed to make design decisions, relieving them from the uncertainty of the exercise. The upshot was that our groups created a logical construct for their solutions which circumvented the farmer, working around their own design constraint of not holding applicable user insights. 

Sustainable Value Chain 6

Experts say… (drawn in synthesis of workshop findings)

How would these insights translate to adoption of solutions?
Though it may seem a sensible way of working, the dependency on expert input actually creates a marketing problem for transferring innovations for sustainable development to farmers. Expert insight appears to displace the use of actual user-related insight to influence design. On top of that, the negotiation process underlying the solution which is provided, conducted by stakeholders here, leaves no control to the user to adapt it to her priorities.

Negotiating and trust creation

The proposition as it is currently made (drawn in synthesis of workshop findings)

Such approach would thus preclude any method for calibrating a solution configuration to match to the priorities that are part of the mindset of the user. In fact the project’s offer could even be considered as a potential liability from the perspective of the user, who has to find (negotiable) ways to control for uncertainties like available time and money. “Your focus is not my priority” would be the mode of cooperation with farmers, likely causing mounting problems with trust, and adoption.

Perspective for bridging the values gap with the user
The value chain could in potential be used to achieve development results. But the workshop exercise has shown that we need to pay more attention to creating suitable interfaces for the exchange of values. This entails consideration of the following aspects:

  • First of all, it’s important to take segmentation of the targeted users into account. For instance, there is a world of difference between subsistence and below subsistence smallholder farming. Who do we want to target, and not to target?
  • Related to the first point, decision makers for value chain programs will need to obtain a higher sense-level about the user. This need not require an extensive profiling, but just enough up to date information containing a minimum level of scope and detail about the target user persona’s. This will support a more lateral perspective in decision making for solution development.

 Sustainable Value Chain 8Sampling and segmenting your users

  • Uncertainty is inherent to the challenge of value chain development in the informal economy. Experimentation is a far more likely management approach to deal with that constraint, than expert opinion. Before rolling out large programs, decision makers should at least have tested the smallest number of core features of the idea in their most minimal form with targeted users. Experiments could invite smart and small feedback loops to validate the concept, and inform decision making.

These points are a challenge to development. Allocation decisions by donors are not aligned to such approaches. Also, I have focussed much on insights that could help in increasing the likelihood of success. But in fact, in innovation practice, it is actually more common to learn from failure. In the way development is currently organized there are incentives to rather obscure failure than obtain traction in learnings from it. This is another barrier that needs to be overcome. Ultimately we need a vision on how we further our learning in development. We need to come to a discussion level of ideas where N.G.O.s are able to say to donors, ‘Don’t fund this, it doesn’t work.’ – should that apply.

This is the fourth piece in a continuing series of posts (starting here) on what the role of human-centered design could be in development work. I’m working on this together with Niti Bhan, who will also be posting her observations at her Perspective blog. Posts are categorized as VCD