Design to make a difference

There are many ways that well-intentioned designs can go wrong, according to PhD candidate Annemarie Mink (Industrial Design Engineering). She is looking for ways to help designers better understand their target user when designing socially sustainable products in a context foreign to them, such as developing areas.

Mink has found that designs aiming to improve the quality of life in developing areas can be problematic. She refers to her own undergraduate design project, a silk reeling machine for women in eastern rural India.On paper it was a great success. However, later she realised that she had been so preoccupied with the technical aspects, that she had not fully taken into
account the user’s everyday life.

The old reeling machines were housed in a centre, with around 30 women working together, but the new portable reeling machine meant that work could be done from home, which took away one of the few opportunities for these women to socialise. The smaller and easier to use design also removed some of the prestige that is associated with working with one of the larger, complex silk reeling machines. The machines could now also be used by children; a dangerous prospect in areas already dealing with child labour. “All these kind of aspects are things I should have investigated more from the start.”
This is why as part of her PhD she has developed the Opportunity Detection Kit (ODK), which is an interview process allowing designers to learn about the daily lives of their target users in a more comprehensive way.

‘We need to know not only what they need, but also what they want’

Mink’s PhD and the ODK are based on the Capability Approach, a model that encompasses broader indicators of well-being, beyond goods or finance. It includes aspects that are important in human life such as mobility, health, family and dreams.
Perhaps when designing a cool new gadget the focus does not need to be so heavily on the user. However if designing for a context that is culturally, politically, religiously and economically different from your own, without a more comprehensive focus on all aspects of the user’s lives, most of the design will be based only on secondary sources, poorly founded cultural assumptions, and the designers own experience.

With the ODK, Mink hopes to place the emphasis on fully getting to know the user, what they need and also what they want. “From a capability approach perspective,” she said, “participatory design with the involvement of potential users is very important, it is not that we know what’s best for people in developing regions.”

The ODK is also intended to be adaptable for different countries and contexts. Its loose format, which is primarily visual, means that sensitive topics or taboo topics can be approached in different ways, that nuance that may not be conveyed by an interpreter is still understood. When Mink completes her PhD she intends to continue her work with the ODK, further adapting it, and turning it into a web tool so it will be available for designers around the world.

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