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.