The key, MIT study finds, is designing products that make money for the microentrepreneur.
Designing products for the developing world can be a hit-or-miss endeavor: While there may be a dire need for products addressing problems, such as access to clean water, sanitation and electricity, designing a product that consumers will actually buy is a complicated process. More often than not, such products — even those that are distributed at no charge — go unused due to poor quality, unreliability or differences in cultural expectations.
And yet, an increasing number of organizations, companies and startups are targeting products at developing countries for one very practical reason: money. Rising economies like China and India represent potentially massive emerging markets, a large portion of which are made up of small “microenterprises” — informal, mom-and-pop businesses of five or fewer people that generate limited income.
In a new MIT study (view PDF), researchers suggest that microentrepreneurs are a promising and largely untapped market. They say designers will have more success in developing countries by targeting products to microentrepreneurs, particularly if such products are designed to help make these small businesses money.
“If you can convince them you can make them money, you’re most of the way there to selling them your product,” says Jesse Austin-Breneman, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “It seems obvious, but if you look at a lot of products out there, they’re not really doing that.”
Austin-Breneman and Maria Yang, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Systems, combed through the literature on product design in emerging markets and identified four case studies in which products had documented success in developing countries: solar-lighting technology, cookstoves, drip irrigation, and a line of Nokia cellphones.
From their research, as well as interviews with product designers, the researchers drew up guidelines on how to design for emerging markets. In addition to designing products that can be profitable for consumers, the team advises designers to consider designing for reliability and service, as well as multifunctionality.
“We’re trying to refocus people’s design thinking,” Austin-Breneman says. “For example, rather than figuring out a clever way to fix sanitation, let’s come up with a clever way to make people money that’s perhaps in the sanitation sector.”
The team will present their results at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ (ASME) International Design Engineering Technical Conference in August.
One of the most successful products in emerging markets, the researchers found, was a line of entry-level cellphones manufactured and distributed in developing countries by Nokia. The company designed phones with a number of features that turned out to have wide appeal for microentrepreneurs: Multiple contact lists allowed cellphone owners to rent out their phones to others, and a time display marking the length of each call served as a method of metering — an easy way for cellphone owners to charge per call.
Nokia also provided reliability via dedicated service vans that traveled to rural Indian villages to fix broken phones. This combination of features that help to make customers money, along with a service plan that established a continuing relationship with the company, likely swayed customers toward Nokia’s phones.
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