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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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