Designing for or designing with the poor?

As microfinance expands beyond loans to include products like microinsurance and commitment saving accounts, study after study show that simply offering something new is not enough to expand financial inclusion –the design of the product matters.  But how do financial institutions and practitioners start the process of creating products that are both profitable and meet the needs of the poor?

One method is human-centered design (HCD). HCD and “design thinking” were made famous by Ideo, the international design firm responsible for Apple’s first mouse. Ideo defines HDC as a “process [that] begins by examining the needs, dreams, and behaviors of the people we want to affect with our solutions.” These solutions emerge at the intersection of what people desire, is technologically feasible, and financially viable. The process has three main phases – researching, creating prototypes, and testing those prototypes (and possibly revising them based on user feedback). 

Fans of HCD often promote it as a technique that focuses on the end user, putting her needs on top of the priority list. Indeed, a common critique of “top-down” development methods is that the needs of the poor are ignored. Techniques such as observing users in their day-to-day lives, conducting in-depth interviews, or using strategies like financial diaries no doubt provide incredible insights into both the financial realities and household management strategies of the poor. However, the design team only interacts with the user in early research and testing phases.

Design thinking is often paired with the concept of interdisciplinary project teams – bringing experts from different fields together to holistically address a challenge. The unbanked poor are experts in their local needs, culture, and systems. One method employed in human-centered design is to create “character profiles” for brainstorming sessions to remind design team members to ask questions like “what would a rural farmer think of this savings product?” Perhaps a more efficient model would be having the rural farmer as an actual team member so that his opinions would not be guesswork and the resulting prototype might fare better in testing.

HCD in financial services shows some promise. SEWA and Women’s World Banking released a report on how client-centric methods, including intensive monitoring and feedback systems, help to improve savings rates among members. The customer information helped to inform product design changes in real time. Also, CGAP and Ideo’s work on savings products in Mexico led them to develop a category of unbanked consumer called the “debanked” - those who previously held an account but closed it, often due to cost prohibitive fee structures.

Human-centered design is still a relatively new approach and as it continues to trickle into the financial services sector, it will be interesting to see how (and if) it changes the customer/provider relationship. Then we can begin designing with, instead of designing for, the poor