Field Research Can Be Rough, but It's the Only Way to Design for the Developing World

Design consultancy Artefact specializes in developing products for the developing world—and they're happy to share their hard-won expertise.

field research

Entrepreneurs are increasingly turning their eyes to developing markets—because if you can provide places like Africa with products that are vital to the population, you can ignite economic and social development and profit at the same time. Everybody wins.

But how do you design a product that the developing world needs? Artefact, a Seattle-based design consultancy, specializes in that problem. Tomorrow they'll be holding an online seminar at My Design Shop about what they've learned, and the detailed steps involved in planning overseas field research.

In advance of the talk, we spoke with Martijn van Tilburg and Masuma Henry the designer and UX researcher who'll be leading the seminar.

Van Tilburg says the main challenge is simply knowing what people in the developing world might want or need, given how vastly different their daily lives are from our own—and that's why Artefact views the research period as the most critical design stage. "A designer in the field will always do better work," he says. "You can't sit at home and imagine these problems."

Henry offers an example about how surprising the actual ground-situation might be. Recently, Artefact was hired to develop ringtones for the South African market, which is dominated by poor, black South Africans. During their research, they discovered that in the rougher neighborhoods where those South Africans live, most people turn off their ringers: Cell phone robbery is so pervasive that they're afraid of alerting burglars.

It's not that those South Africans don't want novelty ringtones—but they might also have more urgent, un-met needs. So Artefact devised a service for remotely storing the pictures and music on a phone, which otherwise might be lost if the cell phone is stolen.

The research itself can be grueling, and local conditions can be maddeningly unfamiliar. As a result, Artefact advocates meticulous advance planning—the more you know up front, the more focused you can be on the ground. Without that, the researchers themselves become an impediment. For example, they tend to document what's unusual, rather than what's typical. That doesn't help you design what people need. "You get back and you start analyzing, and you find you don't have the right stuff," explains van Tilburg. "Instead, you just have a bunch of pictures of goats."

For more, check out the online seminar, which airs tomorrow at 4 p.m. EST.

Add New Comment


  • Chitra Vishwanath

    Agreed that you have to be on the ground .No offense meant it is a bit short sighted of western designers to assume that developing world does not have designers who can come up with contextual ideas.Best would be to team up and share resources-financial and new technology from west and contextual knowledge and ingenuity from the developing world. Otherwise what is happening especially in the field of architecture is that local knowledge and ideas are being surpassed and new technology and aesthetics imposed which do not suit the climate as well as lifestyles.

  • Deborah Elzie

    I agree that one should be on the ground with users when designing. Of course, this is just good design no matter where your users are. Being in the context is the only way to understand how people use or want to use technologies.

  • Aly-Khan Satchu

    You simply have to be on the Ground especially in Africa. The Key to unlocking the African Consumer Puzzle is this and with nearly a Billion Souls it certainly is piquing a great deal of interest. Many look at Africa and see what they can dig out of the ground but the real Value is in the Feet and the Folk who walk upon the Ground.

    Its as simple as the difference between Needs and Wants. Focus on the basic Needs because that is the mass Market. And then slice and dice real fine because You need to sell bite sized.

    Aly-Khan Satchu
    Twitter alykhansatchu