Is it our Job to Tell the Poor What they Want?

By Gordon Adomdza, Ph.D

Steve Jobs was known to give a standard answer to the question of how much market research went into new product designs: None. He would add “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want”.  Further, one of the common quotes attributed to him is “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” These quotes particularly resonate with designers who utilize the human centered design framework.  They will often argue that users are often unable to articulate their needs for new innovations because such innovations lie outside of their socio-cultural realms. This leaves the onus on designers to empathize with users to reach deep into their aspirations and draw out unmet needs – even if they weren’t acutely aware of them—before a solution was presented.

One could argue that users couldn’t have articulated the need for an iPad, a device found between the iPhone and the Macbook.  Yet it has proved to be extremely successful in the market. Using a social enterprise lens, Muhammad Yunus once remarked “I have put the whole banking system upside down because it was standing on its head. So I had to fix it. Now the banking system is standing on its feet.” By implication one could assert, from a designers perspective, that poor Bangladeshi women couldn’t have articulated the need for a well-crafted scalable upright-standing lending model that relied on peer pressure to ensure a high repayment rate.

While for-profit designers could boast of being able to figure out what users want by virtue of instant growth in sales, the challenge for designers in the social space is time. The social designer may be hesitant to celebrate success at figuring out what users want until a clear and holistic social impact has been made overtime. The designer can keep the user at heart so as not to design anything that does not preserve the well-being of the user in the long-term. But without immediate feedback, social designers will need some kind of social impact moral compass to filter through ideas in hopes of a positive long-term impact. Such a compass could come in the form of a strong and defensible point of view (POV).

For illustration, in the summer of 2013, myself, along with students enrolled in the Social Enterprise Institute’s microfinance-themed field study program to the Dominican Republic, set out to discover potential solutions to problems in a bateye in the Monte Plata area. Bateyes, which are rural housing on former sugar cane plantations with few economic opportunities, represent the painful legacies of the Haitian and Dominican sugar trade, thus making it an optimal place to implement a microfinance solution in order to improve the livelihood of inhabitants there.  After the first day of tours, the students learned about problems facing the community, as well as the personal problems facing the tour conductors, town committee members, who were mostly older women. At the end of the second day, after empathizing, running the variety of information collected through analysis frameworks, the students had developed a point of view.

This point of view seemed to be different from what the older women were identifying as the potential solution to the ills of their community. The students wondered whether there were hidden needs and wants that these women couldn’t articulate because they operated from within their socio-cultural bubbles. On the third day, the student designers met with the older women in the committee and made a proclamation of their point of view. “The young women of this bateye need a revenue generating activity that will enable them participate in a savings program so as to realize a decent livelihood”. The research had led the team to shift focus from the older women to their daughters and the team was really worried about upsetting the older women.

However, as it turned out, focusing on the younger generation met the aspirations of the older women as they wanted to see their daughters be financially self-sufficient. Yes, the older women had focused on the leaks in their roofs and the high price of land for farming, among others, but their aspirations, discovered through empathy, pointed elsewhere. In line with designer’s belief, the older women couldn’t have easily articulated the need for a sewing center and savings program for their daughters as a way to lessen the financial burden on themselves.

Is it our job to tell the poor what they want? There might be some truth in that. However, especially in the social space, knowing for certain that a solution was the right design decision will require a social impact compass. We are implementing parts of the project with sewing machines donated by Pedals for Progress and starting the savings program this summer. While success might not be immediate, the point of view as the social impact compass will guide us through the process overtime. It will keep us grounded and help filter solutions that are in the best interest of the beneficiaries.  We may even be able to say that it was our job to tell these women what they wanted, but only after we’ve seen some impact.