I enjoyed going to the recent Pop!Tech conference – the combination of bright minds, warm hearts and the Maine autumn is highly conducive to reflecting on what has been and imagining on what will be next.
During the event, I gave a talk to the audience about my research work, and in the panel session at the end of my talk I took two questions from a member of the audience relating to personal motivations of doing this kind of research and whether anyone has the moral right to extract knowledge from a community for corporate gain. Given the asker’s frustrated-politeness I’ll paraphrase what I (and a bunch of folks that came up to me after the talk) took as the intent of his questions:
Short answer is that I sleep just fine*.
Those with a desire to go beyond the 110 character headlines should draw a fresh mug of their favourite brew, find a comfy armchair and read on.
Download the related Pop!Tech presentation here [PDF, 12MB].
Before delving into a response some context here’s some context: my Pop!Tech talk wasn’t touchy-feely marketing fluff that corporate speakers tend to gravitate toward – consider Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi’s slick talk at this year’s TED Conference, and the debate that followed. Nor was it focused on the work that frog has done in the social innovation space which would have no-doubt resonated with the Pop!Tech audience. My talk focused on the social tension that occurs with the introduction of new technologies, including turn-of-the-second-to-last-century portable cameras, and could have applied equally to the Walkman (remember them?) and mobile phones. It touched on technology use and whether ‘adoption’ is pro-active, passive or even conscious: the consequences of near-time facial recognition; how DNA testing reveals parental discrepancy and will for many change the notion of “family”, how public displays are increasingly monitoring the world around us, and on what all this means for designers who are creating products, services and systems in which consumption, use, and adoption is sometimes conscious, sometimes not. A central tenet of the talk was that as more of what we design is jacked into our social network the option of whether to use, or opt-into a technology or service becomes one of opting into or out of society.
On the surface these questions are both a continuation of the design imperialism discussion that has preoccupied some in the design community, and a rally against globalisation (there’s a related interview with Fast Company here). In previous instances when I’ve been asked questions along these lines the motivation for asking was driven by an anger against the all-trampling BigCorps and me as an agent of the BigCorp, a fear/recognition of not being in sufficient control, and on occasion also guilt (where the person asking the question has trouble balancing their own consumption habits with the injustice of other people not having the same economic opportunities). Whereas the design imperialism debate honed in on local interventions, this essay will focus on my experiences working with multi-national corporations and organisations. I’m not suggesting that the lessons outlined here are the same as for more local initiatives, nor am I making a judgment on the pros or cons of local or global design solutions – that would need to be visited on a case by case basis – and yes I recognise that the international aid / donor community has for many years overlooked locally sustainable solutions often at the detriment of communities that they were there to serve – this imbalance has been a personal driver to understand for myself for much of my career. I do assume that the benefits of globalisation in the short term (~20 years) outweighs the costs and the opportunity costs.
First, for those that aren’t familiar with the practice I’ll start with a backgrounder on the role of design research / ethnography that was referred to in the talk and some of the nuances of the approach that I think make the process one that is rewarding for the individuals concerned, their communities, our teams that conduct the research and employer, and ultimately the client. After that I’ll tackle each question in turn.
Research for Design
The basic premise of design research is that spending time in the contexts where people do the things that they do can inform and inspire the design process with a nuanced understanding of what drives people’s behaviour – which can then be used as a foundation for understanding and exploring the opportunities for new products and services. More often than not the process leads to innovating on what already exists. The practice is mostly associated with up-front research at the beginning of the design process but in my experience it is valuable to think of it as a state of mind that can infuse, inform and inspire across and often beyond the project. Often researchers get ahead of themselves and like to talk about the opportunities they perceived after uncovering unmet needs. The fact is in many cases needs are being met, just not particularly well. The process assumes of course that the project is aligned to the client’s organisation and goals, and that the team knows how to apply the right mix of methods, understand how to make sense of what they are collecting and can articulate the opportunities that comes from this. Some people and/or agencies are good at parts of the process, far fewer can carry off the whole. Just as there are many different ways to design, there are many ways to run design research. For my clients design research is particularly effective when it explores the collision of people, technology, culture, and business models to inform what, when and how to make something and understand how best to get there.
Corporate research studies are often about a 2 month sprint: a week or two to ramp up; a week each in two or three research locations; two weeks of pure synthesis; and two weeks to write and deliver a report. Most projects have some form of hand-over workshop with the client, and for a larger consultancy like frog this is usually the bridge to a design phase – where the ideas/concepts are further explored and evaluated, before being refined with increasing levels of fidelity. A research + design project can run for 6+ months, but I’ll focus on the research phase here since it is most relevant to the questions. The client often wants the research yesterday and it is common for the team to be working 24/7 with only a couple of days break over the course of the research – stepping back only after its all done and dusted.
Common criticisms of this format of corporate research include: the time on the ground is so limited that the breadth and quality of the data is likely to be suspect; that the incoming team is insensitive to how things are done locally; that the broad range of locations and limited total time span doesn’t allow for building meaning relationships with local partners; that the team suffers burn-out; that engagements with participants and local partners is at best superficial and at worst disrespectful; and that the opportunity areas/concepts/ideas that come out of this process bear little or no acknowledgement to local needs.
All are valid concerns.
All can be mitigated.
Mitigation is not always the smartest move.
Many design research projects also include an element of what practitioners would broadly describe as participatory design – where participants are either brought in for some or all of the ideation, evaluation or design process. Using participatory design to create products to sell in the global marketplace is very different from designing with and for a specific community – something that I appreciate is important for some of you reading this – a good example of the latter is the approach espoused by fellow Pop!Tech speaker Milenko Matanovic’s work at the Pomegranate Center. Participatory design for corporate clients can lead to a moral and legal conundrum – ensuring that participants are adequately rewarded for their intellectual contribution while balancing the needs of the client to legally be able to use the outcomes of the sessions. For this reason, the participatory design sessions that I run are guided by the following principles:
Defining “equitable compensation” can sometimes be tricky for the simplest of design research activities (e.g. a home interview), but is especially problematic when researching highly financially constrained communities where the gulf between the wealth/power of the participants and the researchers can be considerable. The decision about whether to join the study can come down to being one of whether there will be food on the table at the end of the day. Equitable compensation is even more significant in participatory design – where the line between a participant’s “bright idea” contribution and a product/service on the market appears to the layman to be short – they assume it won’t take long before their idea will make the company billions. While it is not that common an occurrence, it is within this context that the ownership of ideas comes up, and from my experience this is more of a hot potato issue in some countries, e.g. India than others. Anyone who has tried to drive a concept, idea through an organisation will know how far removed from reality a rapid from-idea-to-market is. Each idea is reinforced, challenged and shaped with input from many different sources, including the team’s gestalt knowledge. Plus it takes a significant investment of tens if not hundreds or thousands of people to turn an idea into a product or service that people are willing and able to buy.
At some point the equitable compensation issue can create an relationship that is closer to “subcontractor-subcontractee” than “interviewer-interviewee” or “co-participants” with everything that that entails. As full-time employees of a consultancy and before that a BigCorp I and my colleagues are also bound by these contracts – when we are paid to apply our knowledge to a particular issue, our output belongs to our employer. Changing the relationship to be more transactional is not inherently a bad thing – except when the team doesn’t recognise the impact of that change. In communities and households with very low levels of income the opportunity to earn additional income is valued, as is having a customer base that for the time that they are on the ground, includes the research team.
There are other ways to structure participatory design sessions so that the outcomes are co-owned by the attendee stakeholders. These same BigCorps do invest in events where the attendees retain ownership of their ideas for example discussion might come under the Chatham House Rule but these are normally not suited to achieving a focused design. These events are also often run under the auspices of the marketing department which tells you something about their perceived value, and skills required internally.
As a side-note there are interesting issues related to international IP law, and what is considered equitable compensation for employees who create IP that lead’s their employer to make billions (or trillions if we’re talking Japanese Yen). The inventor of the Blue LED or anyone whose patents make it into the global standards specifications are prime examples, although most patents are likely to sit on the shelf until the patent attorney’s go to war.
The challenge for researchers in setting up a more transactional relationship with a participant is that setting the wrong level of compensation sets the wrong tone and can bias the responses. In my experience too many researchers over-compensate – preferring to spend too much money rather than figure out what the ‘right’ amount is. Throwing money at a problem, any problem leads to bigger headaches later on, and overpaying in communities where finances are tight creates significant distortions that can be difficult to recover from.
There are a numerous additional “soft” benefits to conducting design research, that are oft-overlooked:
While everyone likes to focus on the tangible outcomes – things that were made as a result of the research, design research is also good at helping organisations understand the folly of going in a particular direction at the expense of others. The opportunity cost of bringing product A to market is that products B, C and D are less likely to get a look in.
In ~2005 while at Nokia I was asked whether the company should design a mobile phone for illiterate consumers – many illiterate people were already buying Nokia’s products that were designed for people who could read and write – and the current experience was recognised as being suboptimal. After a few rounds of design research my answer was that it was better to sell another half a billion phones of the models that were already being sold to literate consumers (with a few subtle but important user interface tweaks) than to develop something fully optimised but new. There are many reasons why a dedicated product for illiterate consumers was not appropriate at that time: the social stigma associated with buying a device that was seen as being for “disadvantaged” consumers would be a disincentive to purchase — they wanted a device like “everyone else” because they aspired to be treated like “everyone else”; the cost of a new device, versus the economies of scale of selling a few hundred million more of those that were already on the market; the challenge of designing something that made a genuine difference to illiterate consumers is non-trivial — I liked to think of illiterate consumers as ‘just like the rest of us, only more so'; and something I refer to as proximate literacy – that it is better for illiterate consumers to be able to turn to their neighbour and ask them for help because they own the same or similar device, than to struggle with a new interface that needs to be learned (there are many types of illiteracy – the classic definition refers to textual illiteracy, but it might be technical, mobile, financial, numerical — all of which impact use). Whilst the outcome sticks in the craw of the purists and ideologues — a notionally sub-optimal device is better than good enough one that is engineered/designed better but misses the bigger picture. An obvious example? I’m writing this on a suboptimal QWERTY keyboard, but do benefit from the standardisation of suboptimal QWERTY keyboards on many of the laptops I come in contact with. My recommendation then was that a dedicated device for illiterate consumers was the suboptimal choice.
It’s worth pointing out that my answer today would be different for a number of reasons. Many of these illiterate consumers are now on their 3rd, 4th or 5th phone; connectivity is both more reliable and faster — which makes the learning experience easier. The cost of devices is significantly lower. And because touch screen technology — which Huawei and Nokia are increasingly putting into the hands of lower income consumers in emerging markets enables far more direct manipulation (something that makes more complex tasks easier for an illiterate person to accomplish). My research on designing for illiteracy is a few years old but the fundamentals are still sound — you can read it here.
You might think that conducting research in a country half way around the world, in languages and dialects that the core team doesn’t speak would present the biggest challenge. Or that pulling a project together at a week’s notice, gathering sufficiently meaningful data in the a few days the team is on the ground or perhaps you might struggle with having a life outside work when you spend half the time on the road/in the skies/on hi-alt mountain trails are the biggest tests. But the real challenge is setting the right tone for the relationship between the team that is going in, and the people they are going to be interacting with.
There are four things that I’ve found consistently set the “right” tone for the research:
I could write a chapter on each of these (in fact I have, to be published in due course) but I’ll give a quick example on the last point. Beyond getting the normal data-consent we encourage in-depth participants to review and delete any or all the data we have on them before we leave. Also we offer them a copy of their data – at least in a manner that is practical for them to consume – it could be anything from a printed photo through to a copy of every digital file. I understand why someone reading this would get angsty about privacy issues (it is a topic that has consumed a lot of my energy over the years), but I consider our teams to be working toward finding workable solutions that meet our legal responsibilities as well as our moral sense of doing the right thing — they are more informed than most.
This does of course assume that the research is “done right”, when in many instances it isn’t. There are teams that take a “lets see what we can get away with” approach. Some are overly motivated by money and not more experiential aspects of the project goals. Others don’t recognise that they are experiencing culture shock. Some teams subcontract out the most important relationships and those are then primarily based on financial reward. And there are instances when the team hired in to do the job doesn’t have the necessary experience. After a decade of doing this research I continue to learn – but it still surprises me the rudimentary mistakes that people make.
Aside from my employer frog there are a number of companies that to operate in the design + innovation space — IDEO is probably the most well known and is a strong competitor on certain projects, Continuum has just opened a studio in Shanghai (welcome, hope you are enjoying the weather), and Method has recently been bought and are seeking to extend their offering to encompass more design and build. Also many ad agencies and suit-and-tie consultancies are trying their hand with varying degrees of success. And of course there are many, many more regional and local players. Local agencies/studios in countries such as India and China are evolving and are becoming stronger (even if their websites sometimes seem to cut-and-paste the offerings from the international players), but are still a long way away from adequately and consistently serving multinational clients – staff turnover is a bitch in high-growth economies and talent tends to gravitate to the better paid, and less frenetically paced multi-nationals. Of course this is not the whole picture, and yes there are some stunning local agencies out there – but for now I’ll stick with the thread of working with multi-national clients on complex multi-national projects.
Can local design companies come up with ideas that are more relevant to their locale? All things being equal their nuanced understanding of the local market should give them the edge. But all things are not equal – in the global marketplace it is rare for a single product to be designed for that one country – it needs to work across territories, and the agency needs a understanding of the big picture – the client’s corporate strategy, the culture of the decision makers, how innovations are brought to market, and the multiple other cogs in what is a massive machine. I’ve also seen time and again that bringing fresh-eyes to a market helps reveal things that natives have long since taken for granted.
For the sake of argument lets assume that the label of “design imperialism” doesn’t fit if the solutions are proposed by a local design agency. There are multi-nationals that are looking for combination of local insights and opportunities that leverage these insights and help in building these out. Why would a multi-national corporation agree to pay a premium to a global (or regional non-local) design consultancy when a local company can do the “same” job for less? Because in most cases it’s a long way from being the same. The premium comes from offering something unique such as deep experience in analogous industries and a breadth of offering — from research to design to build to support. It also comes from the fact that multi-nationals are tapped into what is happening globally in this space. They also have a track-record of delivering. The smart non-local agency doesn’t pitch for work where there is a strong local player that could do the same (most likely more narrowly-defined) project for considerably less — and takes a medium to long term view of the agency-client relationship rather than short-term gain. And yes sometimes they pitch and are beaten by local agencies who are simply more focused and better at that particular niche. The challenge is that there are few products and services that are truly designed for a single market (basic localisation aside).
Which makes a decent enough segue to the globalisation debate.
The Real Design Imperialism
It doesn’t take much effort to find something about globalisation to be incensed about: Starbucks pricing your favourite coffee shop out of the neighbourhood; riots in Indonesia triggered by Asian financial crisis; Apple imposing its corporate values to the worldwide availability of adult content on their application platform**; Coke and Pepsi logos being painted onto remote pristine mountain ranges.
Or perhaps you prefer to take the profit-at-any-cost argument to the next level: Nestle’s aggressive sale of milk-powder in markets where doing so is likely to inhibit the lactation of mothers; Facebook and Google endlessly exploring and redefining privacy in their race to monetise you through new services; Monsanto’s development and apparent halting of sterile seeds to force farmers to make repeat purchases every year; the very visible suicide rate of Foxconn factories in China (most likely some of you will be reading this on a Foxconn assembled device); companies that are benefitting from the sale of monitoring equipment in countries like Syria or Egypt; and accusations of racism in the advertising of Unilever’s Fair & Lovely Skin Whitening creams – for a good background on the latter read this this paper. Make no mistake — governments***, BigCorps, organisations, agencies need watching, need to be held to account, and in many markets there are players that hold a disproportionate amount of power.
But as consumers, employers and employees I, you, we, they are complicit in this relationship in the products we make and consume; as well as the lifestyles we aspire to and the moment to moment decisions we make in how the products we buy are used. Sure, we demand privacy but we are willing to let personal ethics slide when a photo worthy situation presents itself. We have grown used to free email, but (momentarily) rally against our email being read by an algorithm so that Google can serve us more contextualised advertising. We roll up to a remote mountain village and mutter expletives at being woken by a ringtone — but get the jitters at the mere thought of giving up our own connectivity. We complain of global warming and then jet-off to another conference that espouses amongst other things sustainable living. We are highly vocal about the price of new electronics but vote with our wallets when it comes to disposing of them in an slightly-more-costly but environmentally less impactful manner. Or, to loop back to the asker of the original question — we fly half-way around the world to conduct business but not track every source of income that enables that business to occur, the many different players in global network that allows us to get there, stay there, communicate with collaborators and loved ones while we are there.
I conduct a fair amount of community facing activities – from spending time in universities to doing talks around the world, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share and learn from the intellect in the room. But on occasion the assumptions behind the questions miss the mark to the point where a step back is necessary — the questions from Pop!Tech were such an occasion. There are a number of misconceptions about consumers in highly income/resource constrained (poor) communities that seem to repeat themselves with a depressing regularity and is often directed from passionate minds with a particular, accusatory venom:
Lets go through each in turn:
I would argue that these are, through necessity – some of the world’s most critical consumers. Not having to think about every single thing you spend your money on, the trade-offs, the social debts you might be calling in, is a luxury that relatively few can afford. Consumers on very low levels of income are consistently pushed to make more rational choices than their wealthier counterparts because the issue of how to spend their limited income is consistently more present in their day to day decision-making processes. Like their wealthier counterparts they also have rich strategies for coping with limited and variable formal and informal forms of income and credit – Portfolios of the Poor is a good read to get started on this topic, and a minor contribution to this can be found in this research in Afghanistan. Predictably Irrational, Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist all do an entertaining job of exploring the notion of the ‘rationality’ and “rational consumer behaviour”.
Consumer literacy (knowing what you are buying and its value, and understanding the trade-offs in the choices you make) and the broader textual literacy/numeracy issue is a fascinating topic, and there are certainly consumers everywhere that don’t make, what most of us consider to be rational choices. Don’t worry — if you talk to very low income consumers they often consider the purchase decisions of relatively wealthier people to also be irrational — it’s all relative. The people making the poor-must-behave-rationally argument seem to mix up formal education levels and peoples’ ability to read and write with intelligence and street smarts (most adult illiteracy is a result of a lack of opportunity to learn or apply what is learned, not a lack of intelligence). I’m not trying to gloss over very real issues of consumer literacy, and the Marketplace Literacy Project is a good place to start in understanding the benefits of education and training in this area. Financial literacy presents a particularly interesting challenge — and both the IMTFI and CGAP, or even my own research in this area are good starting points if you want to explore more.
Is saving three months salary and on occasionally going without food to be able to afford a basic Nokia branded mobile phone irrational? What if it’s used to enable a business? Or play games? Or chat with loved ones? Or browse porn? Is spending one month’s salary on a unknown-branded device any more rational? Just how rational is your purchase of your iPhone? That pair of Nike sneakers? Those red high heels? Who is to define what is rational? What was the opportunity cost of your last large purchase? What is the opportunity cost of buying that branded phone versus one where the manufacturer is unknown? And who is to decide what the viable opportunity costs are? Or to loop it around to the design community — are low income consumers duty bound to ignore aesthetics and more superficial elements over more functional choices? And to loop once more — are designers duty bound to make products for these markets aesthetically displeasing? Because that’s where this argument is heading.
In a country where lighter skin is commonly associated with not having to work in the field, and where people aspire to work in white-collar jobs is it rational to want to lighten your skin? And if for some consumers the answer is yes, what are the local options for doing so? How safe, reliable and effective are they? If a multinational comes in and offers a product that lightens your skin, and is (by local metrics) consistently safe, reliable and effective are they a pariah or a saviour? Is it the designers duty to work on such a product. Or their duty not to? If a multinational company aggressively markets their products by appealing to people’s aspiration to have lighter skin, does it inherently make them racist? What if a local company does the same thing? what if a local company does the same thing, but makes even more outlandish claims? Race is understandably a polarising issue, and some companies shoot themselves in the face with poorly thought out marketing campaigns that justifiably triggers a strong backlash. But I suspect some of you will have realised over the course of this paragraph that the issue is more complex than you first thought. How can you listen and talk to people on the ground, whose agenda you can understand before reaching a conclusion? What do you need to do to move beyond headlines and trending topics?
Or an example that leans the other way. Something that the micro-finance industry is currently grappling with the consequences of an oversupply of easy-credit into markets where consumer financial literacy is relatively low, and where personal effects of that oversupply is medium to long term (lifetime) debt. What are the acceptable costs of trying to service financially constrained consumers with something that, if done right can have a significant positive impact? For which real world products and services does precautionary principle kick in? And before you start to tut, pause a moment to reflect on your own situation and that of your community – how much of what you spend is on credit? What is your level of debt? When will that be repaid?
There are companies out there that given the opportunity will exploit the communities in which they work and put financial profit seemingly before everything else — just as there are countries in which government/agency oversight is minimal and where lobbyists hold sway. But to assume that every company is that way is putting passion before logic. My assumption is that driven by necessity and constraints, these are the most critical consumers on the planet and that to create a commercially sustainable product or service that can meet their needs at a price point they are willing to pay is quite simply a remarkable achievement, especially considering how nuanced local alternatives can be. Your and my appreciation of whether those products or services are rational choices for those consumers are largely irrelevant, as irrelevant as your purchasing decisions are to them.
To paraphrase something I wrote a few years ago that I think still stands: “Pushing technologies on society without thinking through their consequences is at the very least naive, and at worst dangerous, though typically it, and the people that do it are just boring. This site is a pause for reflection in our planet’s seemingly headlong rush to churn out more, faster, smaller and cheaper”. For me, my employer, our clients, understanding what drives people, users, constituents and consumers is the first step in creating meaningful products and services and eventually creating a sustainable business. That a single financially constrained consumer gives up some of his or her very limited income to purchase that product is quite possibly the highest accolade.
The poor can least afford to purchase poorly designed products and services, and they can least afford to investment in those that fail to deliver. The real design imperialism comes from those people who assume that the world’s poor are not worthy of the attention.
This essay started with a question from Pop!Tech, so it seems only fair to end it with something from the same event. It’s all good and well to want to think in terms of heroes and villains if that’s your thing, or to buy into the media-amplified “debate” (yes, this includes many of the media organisations that have covered my research) and critique always has a role to play even if at times it appears endless, and occasionally self-serving (and me having just penned a 6,000 word essay on the topic). Far, far more interesting are people who peel themselves away from their screens, get off their butt, and put something of themselves on the line in order to change the world out there.
There are three people, that I had the good fortune to understand a little better through the Pop!Tech fellows program, who I think exemplify innovative thinking with a personal commitment to make a difference in the financially constrained communities covered in this essay – Sameer Kalwani of Sarvajal Water, Paul Needham of Simpa Networks, and Rose Goslinga of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.
Find yourself, allow yourself to be inspired and then create your own.
The views expressed here are my own.
* Give or take permaphuck, the onset of altitude sickness, when there’s midnight interviews to run or data to synthesize, when malarial mosquitos are biting, or its Saturday night and we’re holed up next to drunken, arguing lovers in a Seoul love hotel.
** Humans do have a penchant for watching other humans do things to one another and Apple takes the position that watching porn through Apple sanctioned apps will dilute their platform. Their argument that any web content can be viewed through their devices is hollow given that any designer worth their sweaty palms knows the experiential difference between dedicated app and a web page offering the same content (Although, yes this distinction too is changing).
*** If you wanted to push the argument the Chinese government funded building of new apartment blocks in Lhasa is right there on the edge of the design imperialism debate – combining both economic development and ‘better’ housing conditions, with the wholesale change, some would say destruction of more traditional communities as part of the broader issue of pacifying Tibet by encouraging ‘mainland’ Chinese migration. For many local Lhasan families the options are a modern apartment with indoor plumbing, hot running water, stable electricity versus more traditional dwelling. I know which I prefer to experience as a visitor. I also have enough humility to know that my preference is irrelevant compared to the families that are being asked to move, and the urban planners that are tasked with supporting a growing urban center. Not to skirt the broader issues around Tibet and China, freedom of expression, rural versus urban child malnutrition, or geopolitical concerns, but the level of knee-jerk naiveté around some of the conversations, especially by people that haven’t spent time on the ground still startles.
Photo: 3 gents in Tokyo.