The trickle-up influence of design for the bottom of the pyramid

The most common question posed by designers (at the Design Factory, in Finland) has been “What is different about designing for the BoP from the way I already design for mainstream consumers?”

Its a good question to ask, because it takes a systemic view of the user centered design process and methods being taught to them rather than focusing only on differences in features and attributes of tangible artifacts. This post is an attempt to grapple with developing a possible answer to their question and  starts with CK Prahalad’s framing of the traditional MNC approach vs his suggestions for the BoP approach.

The quality, efficacy, potency, and usability of solutions
developed for the BOP markets are very attractive for the top of the
pyramid. The traditional MNC approach and the approach suggested
here—top of the pyramid to BOP and from the BOP to the top of the
pyramid—are shown (above)

As the (foregoing) examples illustrate, the demands of the BOP markets can lead MNCs to focus on next practices. The BOP can be a source of innovations for not only products and processes, but business models as well. Let us start with the growth opportunities in local, stand-alone BOP markets first. ~ CK Prahalad via

Interpreting this in the context of design:

1. Consider the design of the entire ecosystem in a holistic manner rather than the product alone

The majority of industrial designers in studios and corporate departments around the world are tasked with the design of a specific product or application, isolated contextually, for the most part, from the larger ecosystem of the market primarily due to their experience of and immersion in the existing sophisticated marketing infrastructure. They have the luxury of access to information flows on packaging, distribution, supply chains and retail outlets as well as competing designs and this lets them focus on refining a particular product, package or UI.

This situation is almost reversed when it comes to the BoP consumer and the BoP markets. The paucity of information does not only hamper the BoP themselves but also those who seek to serve them. Furthermore, much of the market infrastructure is non existent or of a vastly different quality than that experienced in richer markets.  Factors such as income streams that are irregular and lack of financial
tools such as consumer credit available for outright purchase are
issues rarely considered during the design process but can and do influence
the final outcome. Products designed in isolation may win awards but may never quite
impact the quality of life in the manner they were designed to do so if
their business model, pricing or payment plans, much less distribution
or usage do not reflect the conditions of the operating environment.

2. Price as a rigorous design constraint, not simply a data point or the sole criteria for reverse engineering

The issue of pricing then, becomes mission critical in the design brief but not as a reason to compromise the design. That is, if the traditional MNC approach is top down, stripping features and degrading quality and lifespan achieve no purpose except risking the brand’s reputation. Instead, maximizing the constraints while minimizing utilized resources can be seen as a way to innovate for this demanding consumer segment by providing value through elegant design solutions that appeal yet offer a return on their investment.

3. Being aware of and questioning assumptions made

Whether its as basic as availability of electricity and running water or as subtle as the design interpretation of such underlying value propositions as “convenience”, the assumptions made about consumer buying behaviour, purchasing patterns and decision making or choice of brand or product cannot go undebated or unquestioned. A challenging environment, conditions of uncertainty or scarcity and the hardships of daily life managed on irregular incomes all serve to influence the value system and mindset of the target audience in ways we are not always able to immediately discern if we don’t flag our implicit assumptions as a potential stumbling point.

4. Nuances of local culture and society matter

These markets are not the already saturated mature ones of the “global village” with a blase attitude towards such throwaway things as the use of religious iconography on lunchboxes and t-shirts, still preferring to stand on their dignity and self respect over the sophisticated acceptance of perceived disrespect. Thus, nuances observed during user research that may be overlooked when
considering different regions within the developed world may in fact be far more important in the context
of BoP consumer markets and influence the user acceptance and adoption
rate of the product or service. Choice of colours, features, tone and style of communication are some of the design elements so affected. Choosing to tread as delicately as a newcomer never hurts.

5. Think of them as your most demanding customer, not the helpless poor in need

This entry was posted in Bottom of the pyramid/Poverty, Business, Culture & research, Design, Ecodesign, Environment, Marketing, pay as you go economy, Strategy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The trickle-up influence of design for the bottom of the pyramid

  1. Ken Gillgren says:

    At first I thought “next practices” was a typo, but even if so, I think it’s probably far more on target than “best practices,” since this is clearly a pioneering domain in which creative design solutions are required. And I like the perspective of “the most demanding customer.” Thanks!

  2. Have you ever explored the intersections and amplifiers between these “design rules” and those of biomimicry, eg,
    Nature runs on sunlight;
    Nature uses only the energy it needs;
    Nature fits form to function;
    Nature recycles everything;
    Nature rewards cooperation;
    Nature banks on diversity;
    Nature demands local expertise;
    Nature curbs excess from within;
    Nature taps the power of limits.
    Benyus’ case studies were primarily in big research institutes in the developed world, but as rules of thumb these have fascinating implications for communities and businesses as well: flexibility, redundancy, self-powering, parsimony, elegance.

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