Social Design is Slower Than You Think

A doctor with the D-Rev Brilliance unit, photo from the D-Rev website.

By Joseph La Delfa.

Realistically, in the product design world there are any number of logistical concerns that can hamper a design. A designer will dodge, clear and sometimes run straight through these obstacles when taking an idea from design to production, all in the name of the coveted deadline. Be it for a trade show, an EOFY fancy dress party or above all Christmas, the good designer will roll with the punches to get their product finished as D-Day looms.

Some of the bigger spanners thrown in the works are often:

  • Marketing – the team upstairs is telling the public the new product will be 30% lighter that the last model, yet crammed with extra features.
  • Price point – the retailer wants a 100 percent mark-up, the wholesaler got wind of this and wants the same number, and you’re left with a part price that’s close to the material cost.
  • Distribution – your client tells you that you need to squeeze an extra 300 units into a pallet.

‘No problem’ you say. You make a concession here, reduce wall thickness there, and bang, you’ve met your deadline and the product is on the shelves ready for that event that’s going to inspire people to buy things.  Job done.

In developed countries these examples are commonplace, and the consequences of such poor products are no bigger than a wasted afternoon and a broken ALDI ironing board. However, a sprint to the finish line can do a lot more damage when designing for those who live close to the poverty line.

Photograph from an ALDI 2013 catalogue, for illustrative purposes only.

Photograph from an ALDI 2013 catalogue, for illustrative purposes only.

Design for the bottom billion brings with it a host of challenges, most of them stemming from the fact that the consumer simply does not have any disposable income. When you look at the cost of the products they buy as a percentage of their incomes, a lot changes. Suddenly the weight of the decision to purchase has gone from toaster to Tesla.

This means the product has to work, reliably and flawlessly. These customers are exchanging money for a product in an effort to genuinely improve their lives.  It is product design in its purest form.


Enter D-Rev, a non-profit organisation that is set on delivering medical products to “under-served” populations, particularly India. They do things more effectively, because distribution, marketing and price point mean entirely different things in their sphere of product design than they do in ours. Their challenges in delivering a product are in a different context.

  • Marketing – “improvements” on the last model will not win these customers over, you are selling them products they need, not what you tell them they want. If it doesn’t work, they won’t buy it. D-rev finds this market driven approach holds them more accountable for their work.
  • Price point – perhaps the common ground between the two worlds of product design. The customer needs to see value, D-Rev’s products are of high quality and affordable, not low quality and dirt cheap. True value is a function of quality and price, but many products in the western world achieve ‘value’ by dropping the latter through the floor.
  • Distribution – disjointed distribution networks produce challenges like unreliable freight companies, unmaintained roads, and corrupt border crossings. However these things can be overcome with time, and building good relationship with those involved.

Perhaps the biggest difference between a D-Rev product and an ALDI ironing board is the role of user centred design. For the majority of products in the developed world, comparatively little time and money is spent in understanding user needs. This is because our mass production techniques enable a product to hit the shelves at little cost to the consumer, and value is achieved through price and not through quality. D-Rev draws from their customers experiences at all stages of the design process. Even after production they conduct extensive “ground truthing” – long journeys undertaken by D-Rev staff to remote communities, to see their inventions in action and receive feedback from the hospital staff that use them to ensure customer satisfaction.

D-Rev also stresses the importance of their partner Phoenix (who manufactures and distributes the Brilliance range) in the process. Phoenix is an Indian company carefully chosen for their the local knowledge and capabilities to get Brilliance onto the market with the added benefits of helping to bridge cultures and lower transport costs than a company based internationally. Although D-Rev aims to have their employees taking trips every year to see how their devices are being used, they rely on Phoenix for feedback and repairs on the ground. As Brilliance Project Manager AJ Viola put it, Phoenix “won’t allow a (malfunctioning) device to languish in a ward”.

The process takes time – D-Rev has been operational for five years and has just four products. However, they can be sure that those four are as effective as they can be by focussing all their energies onto them, rather the aforementioned sprint to the finish line that a lot of product design turns into.

Brilliance devices ready to be used (photograph from the D-Rev website)

Brilliance devices ready to be used (photograph from the D-Rev website)

It is worth having a look at D-Rev’s Brilliance range, to see in finer detail the differences between designing for developed and developing countries. The restrictions in price point breed creativity and resourcefulness in design and the stark contrasts between a designers culture and their market’s culture makes you really listen to your customer’s needs. When you take your time to work around the obstacles, designing for the bottom billion creates lean and effective products with a clear focus on user experience, rather than the bottom line.

You can check out (and donate to!) D-Rev’s work on their website here.

E/N: Joseph’s title for this piece as a draft was “Slocial Design”, which I found too good to not include somewhere. 

Click here to read another post on medical tech (specifically baby incubators) built for developing countries.

2 Comments on “Social Design is Slower Than You Think

  1. Great article, I learned a lot. What would be good to have discussed further is the impact that extra time-to-market can have when designing for the bottom billion.

    Four products in five years is definitely slow, would ten products over the same time period with proportionally less time spent in design necessarily be a poor trade-off? What can we speed up to lessen any impact without reducing quality? Obviously lots of complicated factors at play.


    • Thanks for your comments Tim, I am looking into a second part to this blog post that explores these exact topics.

      Spending this extra time on these products ensures the products make it to their customers, are reliable and are culturally sensitive. Cultural sensitivity is a big issue as it is intrinsically linked to the uptake of the product. Probably the most famous example of cultural insensitivity was the PlayPump installed in African communities in 2005.
      With regards to the rate at which D-rev produces it products, the ability to do so is limited by the way in which D-rev measures is success compared to a traditional manufacturer. D-rev measures its impact, which includes metrics outside of sales alone.
      “In order to know that we are making the impact we intend, we strive to measure not just the number of products we sell, but how many people actually use and benefit from the product, and how we can do better. Tracking impact isn’t cheap, but it’s essential to keeping us focused on our goals, accountable to our donors and users, and constantly learning how to do better.” Taken From the D-Rev Website.

      Perhaps with only a small increase in product design staff D-Rev could have produced 10 products instead of 4 over the last 5 years. However, they would have thereby reduced their ability to track their progress, a very important part of their process. If you are familiar with the works of philosopher Peter Singer, you would be well aware that measuring the impact of your actions is the only way to know just how effective you are at reducing suffering. – Joe


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