Quality Design for the Poor Sally Madsen, Colleen Cotter

“Poor people can’t afford cheap things.”

When companies design products and services for the poor, they often think about making them as low-cost as possible. But whether you’re tapping a market opportunity or addressing a social need, it’s important to realize that people living in poverty value quality design. Quality design doesn’t mean that goods and services need to cost more. Quality experiences meet people where they are, acknowledging such important factors as status, aspiration, and dignity.

Designing for the poor is more important now than ever before. It is the future of business growth, as multinationals and local companies are increasingly developing products and experiences that serve not only the upper classes but also the “bottom of the pyramid” — the 4 billion people worldwide living on less than $2 per day.

How can companies serve the legitimate needs of the poor not just for price but also for status, aspiration, and dignity?

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

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Status: proud to be seen

Evidence of wealth is often important in the purchases people make. For the poor, status is often one of the most powerful motivators. A simple purchase of the right object or brand makes a strong statement of achievement.

This drive for status often results in surprising displays. On the streets of Moscow in 2003, thousands of young people were wearing cell phones around their necks as markers of social status. According to the mobile telephone industry, one-third of these “accessory” phones had no service.

At other times, products and packaging bring unexpected meaning. In Ghana, villagers don’t purchase many items but those they do buy are proudly displayed in otherwise sparsely decorated homes. One mother had dozens of bar soaps on display, arranged on a shelf bordered with lace. Another household displayed a large set of pots, representing the family’s savings and preparations for their daughters’ marriages.

How might we design experiences that are meaningful both to the individual and to the society around them?

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Aspiration: drive toward happiness

In India, the hierarchy of the road mirrors the hierarchy of society. From bicycle to scooter to motorcycle to car, wealth is expressed not only in a more comfortable experience, but by rules of the road that require smaller vehicles to yield to larger ones. Selling at around $2,000, the TATA nano promises to put middle-class families in the driver’s seat.

The nano certainly fills a market need, but is it aspirational? Some believe the nano has sacrificed quality for accessibility: “I know that I am not going to buy it… I think it wouldn’t work after 2 to 3 years.” Others feel that it is too “common” to serve as a status symbol: “It won’t be the same with nano because just about anyone around me would be able to afford it.” We’ll stay tuned to see how the story unfolds.

How might we create accessible moments that retain their aspirational quality?

How might we create a range of quality experiences for different milestones in life?

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Dignity: king for a day

Sarah has been working with Disney for 10 years and loves the way the company “makes people feel so special.” She knows that many people save for years to visit Disney World. Thus, she says, “Let’s make it as magical as we can.”

Disney is a master at conferring on people the feeling of dignity and privilege. Its customers range across demographics, and Disney recognizes that for many families a trip to Disney World is the vacation of a lifetime. Disney respects this audience, and designs an experience down to the smallest details.

Unlike mainstream restaurants, where servers are encouraged to recommend the second most expensive bottle of wine on the menu, Disney servers are encouraged to suggest lower-end bottles so that guests, irrespective of their means, can feel great about any choice they make. Disney proactively identifies moments when its customers can be made to feel like a kings and queens.

How might we elevate the dignity of the experience, across all moments?

Sustaining quality

Uniject is a single-use injection device with fewer materials and less complexity than a traditional syringe. By simplifying the design, the Uniject syringe has reduced its environmental footprint, as well as its cost. Durable, reusable water bottles — common throughout India — replace countless plastic bottles produced by the beverage industry. By increasing the quality of the object they allow for reuse and thereby reduce the money spent purchasing water. Whether reducing complexity or increasing durability, sustainable solutions provide value to the customer.

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Vanity for the poor

VisionSpring sells low-cost reading glasses to the working poor in India at prices ranging from $2 to $4. They enable a tailor, a weaver, or a jeweler to continue working after the age of 40. Although customers may save for a month or two before they are able to purchase the glasses, only 5% choose the “Ushas,” the least expensive and least attractive option. As Jordan Kassalow, founder and CEO of VisionSpring says, “Vanity isn’t monopolized by the rich.”

The discerning farmer

Farming is risky everywhere, and farmers in Myanmar, whose survival hangs in the balance, have learned to scrutinize every investment and to demand evidence of reliability. U Hla Thein, a farmer in Maubin township, had seen demonstrations of a water pump sold by the NGO, Proximity Designs, but it wasn’t until his son reported on seeing them in use in other villages that he felt confident that this was a “name brand” he could trust. While cost is the constraint, quality is often the top concern.

Discussion

Chet Roaman

February 22, 2010

Thought-provoking and cogent.

There’s an area to be studied between the nano car everyone-has-one-is-no-status-symbol and the Nyanmar farmer who won’t buy a pump without evidence that others have already. Just where do the areas of aspiration and utility diverge?

Phasing out planned obsolescence is an area where more intelligent design can bridge the gap between have’s and not’s.  Designing for quality will lessen the importance of aspiration which has made the first world so unhappily superficial.

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Woodear Z. Wang

February 24, 2010

http://patterns.ideo.com/issue/shanzai/

Shanzai is actually the exact “quality design for the poor” in China. It’s fun to read these 2 patterns together.

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Andy

March 8, 2010

I think this is very very true. On my trip to a very, very small village in a third-world country last summer, It was very interesting to see how much they valued a plain, white Tommy Hilfiger brand T-shirt over a similar shirt of a local brand. To me, vanity seems to exist in a greater magnitude in poorer regions.

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Rahul Alex Panicker

March 24, 2010

Colleen, Sally, great piece. Totally agree with how many products also represent aspiration. The challenge for a designer, or at least the one that we are facing, is finding that sweet spot between aspirational and low-cost when you actually hit that boundary where there has to be a trade-off. One could prototype and try and gauge. But I suspect that some of this learning will come only by going to market, like Vision Spring did. But things are complicated by the fact that we are a medical device.

Btw, good examples that you give. There’s a similar story from one of our field visits in the heart of a tiger reserve that I’d blogged about earlier this week:
http://blog.embraceglobal.org//2010/03/22/Tiger-Reserves-AC-DC

Cheers
Rahul

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Woodear Z. Wang

April 18, 2010

Founder of the concept of Base-of-the-Pyramid (BoP, also known as Base-of-the-Pyramid ) Prof. C. K. Prahalad passed away 16 April.

R.I.P.

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raymond prucher

July 21, 2010

i’m sorry, but why is designing for the poor important? so we can expand our base and put product into the hands of everyone, especially the poor, who far outnumber everyone else on the planet and therefore represent an enormous market that we can bilk? you touch on human nature and the coveting of prestige items but you don’t tread on why this is important to capitalism and the need for exponential market growth to feed the machine. shameful.

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Evangelina Guerra

August 19, 2010

...why not to start with quality proposals for development for everyone? And why not to start first of all by rewriting this article?

e.

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Sally Madsen

August 30, 2010

Hi Raymond,
I believe that quality design has a positive role in countering the ill effects of capitalism—providing solutions to real needs with lasting value, rather than importing inappropriate or cheap solutions.

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Campbell Frey

September 1, 2010

perhaps vanity is more prevalent in poor regions. or any region for that matter because common sense should conclude that the pricier the item, the better quality and longer lasting of said product.  Unfortunately, like Raymond says, capitalism can’t be ignored.  Im hopeful that capitalistic agendas can take a closer look at consumer behavior and instead of hijacking the process and product preaching, listen to the consumer with a more acute ear.

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travesti

September 17, 2010

Phasing out planned obsolescence is an area where more intelligent design can bridge the gap between have’s and not’s.  Designing for quality will lessen the importance of aspiration which has made the first world so unhappily superficial.

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Spike Bachman

September 24, 2010

“Poor people can’t afford cheap things.” contains a deeper and more relevant truth not considered in this article. More importantly than ‘status, aspiration and dignity’, quality products simply cost less to own [don’t confuse ‘own’ with ‘purchase’].

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Tony

September 28, 2010

I think most people, whether they be poor or rich, would love to have a product that is going to last them. They don’t want to pay a few bucks less for something that might break a week later.

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Campbell Frey

September 29, 2010

What are the qualities that make a product last?  Aside from material durability, opportunity for personification, what other terms describe sentimental adhesion to certain products/ or items?  Heirlooms are perhaps more sustainable than the equivalent biodegradable, so what makes it last…

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Spike Bachman

September 29, 2010

@Frey - I might not say that an heirloom ‘lasts’ as much as it persists.

@Tony - I used to think things were the way you describe. But what I’ve found to be the case is that not many American consumers are as discerning as you might hope.

Wal-Mart has made it’s fortune by proving that 2¢ less makes a difference to consumers - much less than the 2$ you suppose.

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Chris Brown

October 4, 2010

This subject reminded me of an interview I read awhile back. The article was promoting a book by a photographer but the subject matter was that of poverty in south africa. The bit that stuck with me was the idea that self expression could be as important as food… Here’s an excerpt that really stuck in my head:

“Why do you think that fashion and style are so important in the townships?

Mlamli: Fashion in black culture is something that has been there for a very long time. Even generations ago when people were scarcely dressed, they would still compare their skin (who has the most beautiful, smoothest, silkiest skin?) or they would compare their spears (whose spear shines the most?). Maybe that is not ‘fashion’ but ’style’ that has always been there.

Fashion now means wearing different brands and a unique way of putting things together. An expensive shirt or new shoes make you believe that you actually made it, that you are free and it makes you feel a little different to what you have to face everyday, what the reality might be.

I think this might be hard for people outside to understand, but fashion can be really motivational and is sometimes more important than food. We all have problems, but you cannot face them all at once. This way it is like putting your problem in your pocket, keeping it there and not carrying it outside. You know it is there, you deal with it in your way and move on gradually - with a little more hope, comfort and motivation.”

http://pingmag.jp/2007/03/26/lifestyle-and-fashion/

Vanity serves a purpose, it expresses social value. Some may view it as unrefined and tactless: “hey check out these rims.” But we are all continually demonstrating value in one way or another. Vanity is just an ugly word for blunt self expression: “hey admire me, I am important.” The real reason for all the show is to prove that we have something to offer, the more value we can create the higher our social status. Maybe as designers, or more importantly as design thinkers we should be asking the question: How can we empower the poor and impoverish to create value for themselves and society as a whole?

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raymond prucher

October 5, 2010

when fashion becomes more important than food, i will eat my hat. designers are empowering the poor and impoverished through fashion? do you think that anyone is empowering the poor through design? let’s look at one org that i’m involved in… designers without borders. we have done mentoring projects with students in kampala, uganda. i can attest that the young man i worked with has gone on to working in the print industry there. we were working on a campaign to sell milk to young mothers. not eyeglasses, not sneakers, milk. i think it is important to acknowledge what is truly important to the people we are serving, and even more important to ask THEM if they want to be served. I said served and not ‘helped’ on purpose here, because i believe that people don’t need our help, guidance or intervention. they were in fact managing fine long before we came bopping along with our ipods dangling from our ears. who are we to guide anyone? the nuclear enabled. the landfill feeders. the manufactured chemical dependents. really. let us please find purpose first in the denouncement of war and armaments that are being used to manufacture the poor, the pillaging of resources, the stockpiling of wealth, food and land… then feed our own citizenry, then reach beyond our borders to feed the world by one percent of the weapons budget. when the dust settles and we stop blowing the chaff from our grain silos onto the plates of the world, let us then and only then sell them eyeglasses. or rather do what toms shoes does and hand them out for free.

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chris brown

October 6, 2010

Hati is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, for decades getting poorer and poorer despite foreign aid, despite that before the earthquake there were approximately 10,000 non government aid organizations trying to do good in the country. Feeding the world is not an option, I agree we need to find what is TRULY important so… lets get back on track here… the premise is to apply the creative though process i.e. lateral thinking to the topic of poverty. I’ll reiterate the main question stated:
How can companies serve the legitimate needs of the poor not just for price but also for status, aspiration, and dignity?

My point was to illustrate the underlying context of fashion, what is fashion from a status aspect? What is the underlying psychological function from a societal standpoint? I never said fashion was more important than food and neither did the photographer in the article. The idea was that DESPITE the impoverish conditions fashion STILL existed… why? Obviously food, water and shelter are fundamental necessities. But are there other unseen psychological needs that we can address?

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Bevin Hernandez

December 29, 2010

These articles are insightful as to the nature of human motivation - particularly in poverty-stricken areas. I don’t feel that they are meant to capitalize on, or prey upon, people whose primary basic needs are not being met, but rather to understand those motivations so that the needs can be met.

For instance, if you gave away shoes, but they were ugly (for that region) or somehow conferred that a person was poor, my guess would be that fewer people - even if they had nothing else - would wear them. Far better to understand the region and understand that seeking status is a compelling human motivation - and ensure that the shoes that you provide enable people to feel as though they also have status by wearing them. Still better would be to make the shoes affordable, because one of the worst things that you can do for a poor person is make them feel more poor by making things “donations” or “free”. That strips those people of the essential human dignity of having provided for themselves, or their family.

Not understanding these things puts us still further in a position of…how was it said…blowing more chaff from our grain silos into the world?

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Kari

December 29, 2010

Chris - This thought provoking topic got me to thinking about the “teach them to fish rather than giving them the fish” parable. I appreciated your insight when you wrote:
“Maybe as designers, or more importantly as design thinkers we should be asking the question: How can we empower the poor and impoverish to create value for themselves and society as a whole? ”

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chris brown

December 30, 2010

The crazy thing is that it is such an old and fundamental concept yet we continue to dump aid into poverty stricken countries and wonder why they aren’t improving. This is straying slightly off topic from the design brief but from what I can recall off the top of my head there are three “ideas” that in my opinion have grown into possible world changing solutions:
OLPC (of course) http://laptop.org/en/
Micro-financing
AIMS schools in Africa http://www.ted.com/talks/neil_turok_makes_his_ted_prize_wish.html

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chris brown

December 30, 2010

I have some thoughts under the “sustaining quality” topic. I stop and really notice/admire packaging every now and again, usually with a twinge of pain and reluctance as I throw it into the trash or recycling bin. I recently have begun collecting some glass jars to drink out of, some of them even have measurement markings etched or cast into the sides, a $2 jar of tomato sauce is now a drinking glass and measuring cup… I’ve sketched up a few ideas for packaging to double as different products (mostly kitchen stuff) but considered it a novel concept, however in a developing nation where people do not have a great deal this could have some potential.

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Lu

January 20, 2011

Have you been around the younger generation lately? Sure there are some that look for products that ‘lasts’, especially if they fork out the money they have earned themselves, but most will still pay the big dollars they don’t have (today’s mindset: got to have it) & are really not very attached to it for too long when the newest trend/design comes around. They don’t even wait for it to break…somehow money always shows up. Many still don’t even compute the concept of long lasting.

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Bevin Hernandez

January 20, 2011

While I agree with you that right now that’s how many young people are, I suspect with the economic downturn that *some* young people may not have that same attitude towards money that many currently do.

Even that said, I don’t think I would couch it in the terms of “quality” and “long-lasting” if I were the maker of a product with long-lastingness in mind. Instead I’d market it as “sustainable”, “reusable” and somehow better than recyclable…to our young people that *still* makes a difference and will continue to resonate as our earth’s resources continue to diminish each and every day. They hear that message loud and clear in our schools (and indeed, the only project my homeschooled teen has shown ANY interest in was one of environmentalism).

So, I think the market is there, I just think we need to better understand young people in order to market sustainable long-lasting not-crappy products, be they rich, poor or otherwise.

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Mahesh Sriram

June 15, 2011

Regardless wether poor or rich people always live a dignified life on their own right. 4 billion poor people of the world cannot be made to live a dignified life through a benevolent design.  People are poor because   home,  health, food and education are not available at their expected price / performance point. If it does meet PP then the   functionality goes wrong. Functionality is wrong because needs are not understood by the designer team. Needs go past the designers because he / she   is unable differentiating between “frugality” and “poverty”.  Frugal living is the conviction that living with less is the right / just / commonsense attitude to life. Whereas “poverty” is the life in insecurity, destitution, pauper, low in morale and lost. If we are developing products that poor people have to pay for then it better address the basic, fundamental requirements.

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m ik

November 28, 2011

The gap between price & quality will start closing (because the reasons why we buy will change) once human vulnerabilities such as insecurity, selfishness, ego &  covetousness are acknowledged and personal responsibility taken for dealing with them. Unfortunately, no amount of ‘good design’ will change this, it is a spiritual problem not an object problem.

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