Unconventional Opportunities for UX: The BRICS and Beyond

Map showing Kyrgyzstan

Figure 1. Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic, is a landlocked and mountainous country located in Central Asia.

While news stories often profile fast-growing parts of developing countries, these stories are exceptions. In reality, the pace of life in developing countries is typically slow. Anecdotes abound of locals sitting before teacups, joking about the frenetic pace of life in New York or London. Sitting and laughing along with these people, there is a palpable temptation to really reevaluate one’s priorities. As it may appear, this pace of life isn’t a product of some tropical mindset; very often there are huge impediments to getting things done quickly at all. In developing countries, incomplete information consistently leads to misinformed decisions, products ill-suited to their environments function poorly and break, and inadequate sanitation makes people sick.

User experience professionals can help solve common problems experienced by citizens of developing countries. Here are a few examples that demonstrate how user research not only made profitable products in the world’s poorest communities, but in doing so made great steps towards poverty reduction.

Planting Fruit Trees Where the Apple Evolved

In what can at times seem like a different life, I worked for the U.S. government in the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan—a mountainous state once part of the Soviet Union, surrounded by Kazakhstan, China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan (see Figure 1). In this country, between the barriers of language and culture, just understanding local services was hard. I was tasked with alleviating obstructions to development in different sectors of the local economy in order to stimulate future markets. To do this, I moved in with rural families, studied their language and customs, and took lots of notes while watching the way things worked.

During one project, I worked with small and far-flung villages on issues of malnutrition. I found that when food was available residents ate well, enjoying fruits like apples and apricots. Due to an extreme climate and poor infrastructure, however, they did not have access to fruit year-round. As an outsider, I was struck by what appeared to be appropriate resources for both cultivation and storage. Still, these subsistence farmers rarely grew the trees that would allow them to consume and sell their own fruit.

When asked for an explanation, residents would make a common assertion, “The weather is no good for trees here!” One of the major bottlenecks in this economy was incomplete information, and this was a classic example. After pressing some locals, I was told that the Soviets had long ago identified their region as appropriate for livestock and wheat production. “It gets down to minus forty degrees here,” they’d say, “and the altitude is very high.” These explanations did not hold water in light of the few residents who actually did keep fruit trees. “Our trees are not as productive as in other areas,” these lonely cultivators would say, “but they will grow.” When I asked why so few of their neighbors also kept trees, they’d invariably answer, “Because they are all lazy! Lazy!” But I knew this was unlikely to be the case.

In order to understand this discrepancy, I framed the local fruit tree market as an opportunity for service design and identified each of the pain points involved. After subject-matter expert interviews with merchants, local farmers, and fruit tree growers, it became clear that there were two primary problems: access to quality product and a lack of accurate information.

During Soviet times, people had been  told what to grow in their soil. So today there is limited information regarding improved farming practices. Without a memory of successful cultivation, local residents simply do what has worked in the past. And with little access to agriculture schools or other programs to teach them what will grow, there is little opportunity for these subsistence farmers to rationally experiment. Consequently, with reasonable explanations around to explain why fruit trees wouldn’t grow, residents easily wrote off the few trees that did as simply “special.”

The second major issue was the unavailability of quality fruit tree saplings. In regions where there was a history of fruit tree cultivation, even only a hundred miles away, the markets were mature. There were large nurseries where farmers had access to multiple varietals of freshly prepared saplings. In the regions where I worked, however, whatever saplings did appear were purchased cheaply and shipped in from the hot lowlands of Uzbekistan, with roots dried out in transit on the tops of trucks. For a rural farmer to acquire one of these young trees, he’d have to spend at least half a day in transit to a nearby city, at a cost double that of the tree itself.

In this context, my team and I were tasked with turning these problems into opportunities. We needed farmers to confidently invest in saplings and salesmen who would cater to this market. We decided that in order to catalyze proper merchant services, we had to first build a critical mass of demand that would entice the salesmen to show up. We set out to show residents that their climate was suitable and then to teach them the skills. This not only took experts who could teach them, but also healthy trees to try and grow.

Photo: a woman walking on a dirt road, with mountains in the background

Figure 2. The matriarch of a family walks her apple and apricot saplings back home down the main road of her 1,200-person town. The At-Bashy mountains tower ahead of her, aiding to the particular climate patterns that had so long convinced the people of this region that fruit trees would not grow in their area.

We went to a town school during a school celebration day and held a meeting with the local teachers. In Kyrgyzstan, schools anchor the villages and the teachers are held in high esteem. We knew that if we got teachers on board, they would get the message of our project out to families with children. During the meeting, we told the teachers, in their language, that the trees would actually grow. We also said we’d bring experts who would train people on how to grow the trees, and that we would provide locally grown training trees at subsidized prices for residents to practice their new skills on. With the teachers convinced, they agreed to tell their students, who in turn spread the news village-wide.

Days later, with the trees and trainers together, we returned to the school and sold trees to people who would otherwise never have bought them (see Figures 2 through 5). Our trainers showed them how to plant the trees and how to care for them over the winter. The following spring we returned to teach the residents how to care for their trees in the second year.

Photo of trainer with family

Figure 3. A young girl accepts the family’s trees from me. She attended the tree-growing training with her mother.

When we showed up for class the second year, we found a palpable excitement. There were two groups of people in attendance. The first were those who had bought trees the year before, saying that nine out of ten had survived the winter. The other group consisted of the first group’s friends and neighbors who hadn’t bought trees, but were now considering purchasing them. We saw the demand for the fruit trees spark before our very eyes.

Photo showing school and workers

Figure 4. Three female teachers from the local school (in the background) head home with their trees as young men stand by with pitchforks in hand, ready to help.

Photo of two girls holding saplings

Figure 5. Two young girls show off the saplings they took home to help plant. The scrubby vegetation and snowcapped mountains are indicative of the early spring.

Building a Cell Phone for the Illiterate Poor

The incredible popularity of cell phones in developing economies opened the possibility for all kinds of specialty products, and Motorola recognized that there was a potential niche market among illiterate consumers. Employing a team that included Gabriel White of Frog Design (who detailed much of the process in Interactions volume XV.I), Motorola identified that mobile phones did indeed have the potential to address the needs of illiterate users, and that the opportunity was expansive.

Phones at the time gave text messaging undue prominence, featured backlit screens that drew heavily on battery life yet provided only limited visibility in the bright, outdoor conditions typical of rural farms, and offered complex menus with features that went unused, obscuring the benefits of others. In response to these factors, Motorola neither stripped down an existing phone, nor heavily marketed an expensive one. Instead, their UX experts went deep into the field to identify relevant design concepts for a brand new phone.

White describes finding ethnographic insights related to both the behavioral patterns of the user, as well as the most desired functions required for the phone. For these illiterate users, text messages were used primarily for checking remaining cell phone minutes and thus needed only limited functionality. While these users could recognize a limited number of symbols, they relied primarily on spatial patterns to determine how they would engage a digital interface. Context-sensitive or “soft” buttons consequently lost significance when the context around them changed. Finally, in terms of functionality, features like calendars and calculators were found to go unused in favor of the address book and alarm clock.

Research findings led to a dramatically streamlined phone, with some surprisingly high-end features (see Figure 6).

Photo of the phone

Figure 6. Released in 2006, Motorola Motofone was designed to appeal to the low-end market and developing countries

Upon activation, Motofone greeted its users audibly, first asking them to select a phone language from a group specific to their region. Motofone also became an early adopter of Liquid Paper technology, allowing superior visibility in high- and low-light environments, while maintaining a twelve-day battery life. The screen text was given only a single line to work with, while battery life and reception gauges had large, dedicated screen real estate that never moved. The phone’s features were pared down to calling, text messaging, an address book, and an alarm clock. For illiterate users, the clarity of limited functionality effectively increased usability.

This model of product development can seem risky, and is, unfortunately, evidenced by even Motorola’s reluctance to continue with it. Despite heavy rollout in India and Indonesia, plus elevation to levels of ubiquity in other countries like Mexico and Brazil, heightened interest in text messaging appeared to have caught the Motofone off-guard. Rather than develop an updated version that met these demands, Motorola passed on consumers, who switched to other inexpensive mobile devices. However, Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne is presently taking up the charge, attempting to build a text messaging function specifically for illiterate users. They identify their target market as 800 million strong.

Home Appliances for Those Without Houses

The story of Hindustan Unilever’s (HUL) Pureit water filter follows a familiar narrative of latent demand. The need for filtration in India is immense. While the wealthiest of residents can procure pure drinking water the way many do in the West, Indians living in more modest conditions face serious challenges (see Figure 7).


Figure 7. A man collects drinking water from street-side water tap in Patna, Bihar, India. (Photo by rupa / Shutterstock.com)

With the introduction of the Pureit water filter (see Figure 8), HUL sought to address the aforesaid problem and more. In doing so, it scored a great coup in the water filtration market. The product boasts unique features that allow it to cater specifically to bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers. Recognizing that many in their target market would not have consistent access to electricity or water, HUL devised a filter technology that did not need water pressure to function and could dry out completely between uses.

Photo of the filter and container, showing indicator panel

Figure 8. The Pureit water filter

HUL also identified that many likely customers would be illiterate, so when the filter cartridge is no longer effective, it automatically stops the flow of water. Furthermore, HUL researched existing solutions and identified their target price point per filtered liter comparable to the cost of the wood used to boil water. Each of these decisions speaks directly to the target market and draws on insights gleaned from direct and highly empathetic interaction with potential users.

Just as the Motofone and the fruit tree project saw success, so has the Pureit filter. Today it holds 60 percent of the water filtration market share in India and is available in a broad swath of developing countries worldwide.

UX in the World at Large

In each of the examples above I have sought to articulate the immense potential for design researchers in markets traditionally outside of our core mission. In all of these cases, the clients were large and well financed. The projects they asked for included both product and service design, and drew on our methods of applied empathy to build the insights that eventually made them successful.

While poverty reduction was not the central goal in any of these cases, it was still a tangible result. As our culture increasingly values socially minded ventures, embracing these types of projects will help us attract the kind of impassioned talent that will help the industry grow. We have incredible potential here as ux professionals; all that is left for us to do is grab it.

Beien, C. (2013). Unconventional Opportunities for UX: The BRICS and Beyond. User Experience Magazine, 13(3).
Retrieved from https://uxpamagazine.org/unconventional-opportunities/

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