How Thoughtful Product Design Can Make or Break Tech for Development Programs

Why tech for development programs require a lot more than a good idea to make impact.

human centred design


Two women engaged in a card sorting exercise for design research purposes. One is facilitating and one is participating.

In recent years, the global development sector has begun to recognise the full potential of thoughtful tech and the ways it can contribute to achieving development outcomes.

This is a welcome shift in our view.

Yet ‘great ideas on paper’ often create much hype that can lead to losing perspective of how tech will actually be used in context, and whether this will lead to social impact.

While it is a shame for tech companies in the private sector when poorly thought out design leads to a product failing, it is another story when the cost of failure comes out of limited aid budgets rather than the pockets of wealthy investors.

As found in our research in the Pacific, people in developing countries may experience “pilot fatigue” as a result of unharmonised technology projects designed without a long-term sustainability lens and poor product design principles.

Allowing time for the design process to take place is not just a nice feature of our programs, rather it is something we consider essential to their success.

So, should we ‘move fast and break things’?

You might have heard Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg’s motto of ‘Move fast, break things’. It’s a common trope in the tech and start up communities, embracing the idea that not all products developed are going to be winners, and failed projects are an inevitable by-product of advancing innovation.

But what about when the things you are breaking include promises for an improved quality of life and people’s trust in development programs?

We have a greater responsibility when creating technology for social change, and thoughtful design is the way to give programs the greatest chance of success.

Two women sitting at a table filling out a storyboard for user design research purposes

Human-Centred Design, welcome to the world of development

Many in the development community have been pushing for organisations to be more accountable to the people impacted by development programs, not just to their donors.

Human-Centred Design is a way to focus products or programs around what will benefit the individuals involved, based on their needs and motivations. It is the type of design we practice at Catalpa and involves a participatory process that uncovers what these needs and motivations are before co-designing a solution. In short, it means we design products with people, not for them.

What distinguishes Human-Centred Design from other problem-solving approaches is its obsessive focus on understanding the perspective of the person who experiences a problem - will the proposed solution and its design truly meet their needs or not?

At its most effective, the people who experience a problem the most are heavily involved in the design process and, when possible, become part of the design team themselves.

After all, people living in developing countries are creating new solutions to old problems all the time - with less resources and often more complicated challenges. When given the agency and opportunity, they are best placed to solve their own problems.

People drawing on storyboards of mobile screens to assist with design research as to what the user interface should look like

What does designing with people look like?

When we start a program we take time to learn a lot about people's real needs, rather than assuming what these are. We do this by putting a number of principles into practice:

Taking a people-first approach

A key framing design principle is that we put people first. Empathising with the people who will use (and hopefully adopt) the products and services we are designing is critical.

For this to work, it is necessary to bring people into the design process early, long before the product testing stages, and to take a highly flexible and iterative approach.

At Catalpa, we borrow and adapt a number of practices from human-centered design and apply these with a global development mindset. Techniques we use include design discovery workshops, stakeholder interviews, relationship mapping, card sorting, ethnographic research, surveys, persona development, and use case mapping.

Valuing critical feedback over validation

A key element of getting the design right is removing ego from the design process. Often a designer's desire for validation can get in the way of soliciting meaningful feedback, so designers must adopt a mindset that the user is always right.

It certainly helps if those carrying out the research understand the culture and language of the people they are designing with, and the ways in which people tend to give feedback in that culture. It also helps when there are high levels of trust built between users and those they are designing with.

Placing importance on user-experience

We believe in the simple logic that people choose things that create value for them, and that they like and enjoy.

Those designing products should ask themselves, “Is this a product people might use because of the user experience, or a product that people might use in spite of the user experience?” If the latter, it is time to revisit your design.

Women smiling during a card sorting exercise done for design research purposes

Challenges for designing in global development contexts

We’d be lying if we said designing tech for social impact was easy. Tech for development programs often present unique design challenges due to factors like lack of access to technology, limited digital literacy, and managing expectations of what technology can and can't do.

It is not unusual in some of the environments we work in, for example, for people in our programs to be using a smartphone for the first time in their lives. This creates both a challenge and opportunity for those carrying out human-centred design activities to get the experience right for users.

On the challenging side, it can be hard to get constructive criticism from people testing a piece of technology who do not have a standard in mind from using similar products. It would be all too easy to design something functional that ticks the boxes for donors, receive mostly positive or neutral feedback from those testing it, and call it a day.

On the other hand, this lack of prior experience can be an opportunity when it is reframed as a fresh perspective. It creates space for a product to be truly tailored to those using it, meaning that it does not necessarily need to fit into conventional models of technology or into the donor’s original vision for the product.

Two women engaged in a card sort activity for design research purposes. One is facilitating and the other is participating.

At Catalpa, we know that the best chance we have of people using our apps to do things like report financial data on government spending in Papua New Guinea, take future-ready job skills courses in Solomon Islands, or seek help for domestic violence in Timor-Leste is if we consistently build products that create a good experience for the user.

Finally, creating good experiences for users is a mark of respect. By making products that people will enjoy using, and acting on their feedback, you’re showing them that they’ve been heard and that they matter.

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