Designing for a better life
Toilets that are used as a shed, hydraulic pumps that rust away, unused … A ‘toolbox’ helps design products that really do improve the well-being of people in developing countries.
More and more companies are recognising the potential of designing products specifically for developing countries. After all, making a profit while fighting poverty is an attractive prospect. However, things turn out to be a little more difficult in reality, as many products do not succeed, or they contribute very little to improved well-being. In this project, a method (the opportunity detection kit) was developed to help designers understand more about the local context and people’s aspirations.
For a deeper understanding of what poverty, development and well-being really are, the researchers made use of the “capability approach”, which focuses on what people are actually able to do and be. Examples are being healthy, following education, making art and music, travelling, or being a part of a social community. This helps designers to look further than the immediate interaction of the user with the product or service that they are going to design. What is lacking, is a consideration of the broader application context and insight into the lives of people and their wishes for the future. You then run the risk of designing products such as those toilets and hydraulic pumps that never get used: products that never really helped people in developing countries and ultimately did not result in sustainable change.
Design under time pressure
An important consideration in the project was that a designer always works under the dual pressures of restricted time and budget. The four-step approach developed by the researchers (capability-driven design) and the corresponding toolbox (the opportunity detection kit) help the designer make a quick assessment of the lives of potential users. There is also a focus on the broader application context and the aspirations that people have for their own futures. The toolbox includes:
- a timeline showing what a normal day looks like for a user;
- cards with images (pictograms) to get people talking about various capability dimensions, such as ‘mobility’ and ‘housing and environment’;
- a visual aid to help the user decide on the relative importance of different capabilities and personal aspirations.
Well-considered design decisions
An earlier version of the approach (including the toolbox) was tested and refined by eight design teams, who applied the approach in several countries and consulted experts. The researchers established that the opportunity detection kit results in several suggestions for a better design and helps designers made well-considered design decisions.
One example is the design of a nappy for mentally disabled children in Bangladesh. Thanks to this approach, a new design was developed: nappy pants with an inlay. This design was chosen because people are too ashamed to use nappies. The cheap fastening using laces was also replaced with a more expensive solution using Velcro, because being able to change the pants quickly was found to be more important than the cost.
When the research project began in 2009, the application of the capability approach to technology and product design was still largely uncharted territory. Meanwhile, however, other researchers from all over the world have started working on it, in part inspired by this project. In the Netherlands, for example, TNO has begun applying the capability approach to design projects that focus on well-being. These could also be projects that focus on Dutch society - the applicability of the capability approach is not restricted to the developing world. Other researchers, for example, have used the capability approach to reflect on the use of robots in Western healthcare.
The capability approach was developed by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the economist Amartya Sen. Creating these capabilities (for example to learn new things) requires a focus on creating a good match between external circumstances (for example the availability of a public library) and internal capacities (for example the ability to read). More about the capability approach and its application in technology can be found in the book published as part of this project: Technology and Human Development.Official project title: