International Development Planning Review 40.3 Featured Article

The editors of International Development Planning Review have selected ‘Comprehensive user insight to improve technologies for development’ by Annemarie Mink, Jan Carel Diehl and Prabhu Kandachar, as the Featured Article for the latest issue.

It will be free to access for a limited time here.

When asked to describe the paper, and highlight its importance, Prabhu Kandachar stated the following:

The most cited definition of Design is attributed to Herbert Simon, an American political scientist (1916-2001): “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Design is a multi-disciplinary activity requiring the knowledge domains of both natural sciences and humanities. During the design process, designers seek solutions for problems and challenges, which can be very simple to extremely complex ones. International Development falls into the last category with wicked and interrelated challenges, reaching new heights in the complexity ladder. Persistent challenges include poverty alleviation, income inequalities, climate change, provision of energy & safe drinking water for the poor and underserved, as listed in the Millennium- and Sustainable Development Goals.

A research and education activity at the School of Industrial Design Engineering (IDE) at Delft University of Technology was started in the 1980’s to explore whether the design domain could contribute to solutions in this direction. Many questions had to be faced: Is it possible to morph Design’s relevance to the growing aspiration of the world’s marginalized and disadvantaged population? How to improve the Quality of Life in every sphere of their: Living conditions, Food, Water, Energy, Health, Education, Governance, Mobility, among others? More than 100 projects embodying human centered innovations were executed at Delft involving students and business enterprises to identify opportunities as well as to design & prototype products and services for the target group. This part of the population in various developing countries around the world, with its low resource settings, provided opportunities to search for solutions for them.

Meanwhile, hundreds of new technologies, products and services have been thought of to help meet their needs and aspirations. Nevertheless, few have found their way into the hands of those that need them most. There is a real struggle when it comes to developing products that are accessible, affordable, acceptable and adaptable by their intended users. The Design for Development outcomes which are often unsuited to the users and their environment are based on poorly understood needs and preferences.

This experience led to the need for a fundamental exploration of bridging Design with Development at Delft by means of a research project. Is C. P. Snow’s (1905-1980) description of the mutual lack of sympathy and appreciation between the two cultures of science and the humanities a major hindrance? Product designers are trained to take the user perspective into account, but they are not specifically trained to conduct ethnographic research. Thereby, they have limited time and resources to explore the user context. A systemic approach that efficiently guides designers to develop a social needs inventory would therefore be valuable.

Amartya Sen’s capability approach seemed to have the potential to provide the required analytic guidance for guiding comprehensive user context research. He was of the opinion that it is not the goods or products that are ultimately important, but what they allow us to do and to be, the kind of lives they enable us to live. Giving everyone a laptop or some other piece of technology is no good by itself, according to Sen’s approach. Some people will be able to make good use of it and increase their level of functioning, but others who are illiterate, or do not have access to reliable power supply or are restricted to use the laptop, cannot possibly convert their possession of the technology into new opportunities in their lives. As Sen’s approach focuses on the richness of human lives rather than simply on the richness of economies, design outcomes with this framework can be expected to be much closer to improving the quality of life relating to people’s values, aspirations and well-being.

The research project at Delft focused on development of the Capability Driven Design (CDD) approach, supported by the analytic guidance derived from Sen’s ‘Capability Approach’ (CA). Practical guidance was derived from the domains of Human-Centered Design, Design for Development and Rapid Ethnography. From these domains, methods, techniques and tools were selected which are considered to fit designers’ behaviour and to enable them to rigorously explore people’s well-being in their own context. Financial support by the Dutch Science Council helped the research group at Delft to appoint 3 researchers (2 at Delft at The Netherlands and one at Bangalore, India) in this project.

This publication is based on the PhD thesis of one of these researchers. The outcomes are the result of desktop research in The Netherlands, extensive field research in India, expert consultations as well as iterative field-testing by eight teams executing actual design projects in various counties in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The result is a systemic approach that urges designers to move beyond the investigation of product–user interaction and supports them to rigorously explore their potential users’ context and their valued beings and doings. Designers are guided to take a comprehensive view of the well-being of their potential users leading to products and services with better accessibility, affordability, acceptance and adaptability.