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Design Thinking Meets Social Business

04.15.2013
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By the time I was ten, before household scanners existed, I was done typing my reports on school computers after spending hours etching them on paper. My handwriting wasn’t terrible, but it took real effort to make it “final product worthy” and so I wanted a shortcut. I asked my older brother to gather samples of handwriting from everyone in his class (as I did the same), and we’d create a catalog of variations of each letter that we could “teach” to a camera with some kind of computer attached. From there we could just take pictures of our handwritten work and have the camera interpret it all and spit it out as a Wordperfect document (yes – this was in the pre-Word era). I had no idea if this was even feasible, but from a 5th graders perspective, it was my top priority and just seemed like it should be true.

I’m not staking claim to have invented scanners or natural writing conversion tools here. The lesson I learned (albeit much later) was that sometimes the best way to a solution wasn’t just thinking “outside the box”, but was more akin to creating a new box. It’s extraordinarily difficult to remove ourselves from what we know are existing paradigms and limitations. However, sometimes the best new ideas come more from our inner 10 year-old selves than they do from PowerPoints and extensive market research and industry benchmarks. And more often than not, it takes a series of failures to get to the right (or at least more right) idea.

Great innovators in East Africa

About a month ago, I wrote a post describing three challenges to rural poverty where I saw technology as a key lever for change. The three issues addressed – market information, sales opportunities, and cash exchange are common challenges faced by the rural poor, especially in areas of extreme poverty. When I shared my thoughts with a friend living in Kenya and working in the mobile tech sector developing solutions for education, she bounced back with two amazing orgs that are already ahead of the game that I wanted to highlight here.

M-Farm is a Kenyan based organization that helps put critical agri-business information directly into the hands of local farmers to help grow their businesses with deceptively simple technology. SasaAfrica is an online retailer for artisans to sell their wares to a growing audience of web-savvy buyers. Go check them out.

Why these two? They demonstrate the critical importance of human-centered and context-driven design thinking in these promising solutions. Furthermore, they represent creative approaches for solutions that could only come from people who had a passion for their work.

Design thinking and social business collide

M-Farm is a beautiful concept. Farmers help each other by sharing key information about the inputs needed to run a successful farm and in turn add some predictability to a decidededly unpredictable field. It has great potential to work because it’s a win-win situation. Cutting out the middle-men improves revenue across the supply chain. But how did they get here?

The answer lies in the simplicity of the solution: 4 digits. Mobile phones are everywhere – even the poorest of the poor have them. For the solution to work, grow quickly, and be scalable, M-Farm made the right choice to start simple and deliver their services via SMS, delivering a solution that effectively bridges the potentially significant barriers to entry for the market.

Similarly, Sasa Africa saw and addressed a real challenge many artisans have – poor access to markets with money. While a $30 necklace may not sound like much to the average reader of this blog, it’s a ton of money in a country where most people live on just a few dollars a day. So how do you, a skilled artisan in an area with poor infrastructure and low demand, get your product to customers who have more cash? In a mix of ebay and craigslist, Sasa offers artisans a place to sell their goods to online customers around the world, reducing intermediary costs and helping them find new customers and markets quickly.

These two solutions rely on the power of networks, the web, and simple user-focused design – all key concepts in social business. It’s easy to see how these concepts might be extended:

  • M-Farm could create an app that would allow for discussions between farmers and even a marketplace to facilitate trade. It could ev en read off other commodity or weather trends to help bring more data to play. Even smart phones are relatively inexpensive out here.
  • Sasa currently caters to artisans – mostly in the jewelry business. But that’s just the start. Those offering different goods and services across the contintent (and indeed in just about every poor  and rural area) can benefit so much from the broad access of the web. Why stop with jewelry?

Proving your ROI

It’s often said that traditional business school managers and designers don’t mix well. Business leaders like “fact” driven demonstrations of future profit, market segments, and risks. They like answers. Designers tend to embrace more risk, accepting that they’ll have failures along the way but will create something great in the process that contributes great value back to the business (and shareholders).

So does embracing more “design thinking” mean we throw out the spreadsheets?

I’ve written about ROI issues in social business (especially as it relates to collaboration/communication) before, but I want to emphasize something I find to be increasingly true. You need to be brutally honest with your team about feature creep.

I envy Apple because they did something very few companies would dare to do – they shipped their iphone (capable of an essentially infinite number and mixture of apps) with five apps. Jobs was famous for this – cutting down to the bare bones and making them so seamless. He was also famous for telling the board to f-off about maximizing shareholder value. It helps to be a genius CEO and designer. The point is that you need to balance sustainability/profit with extraordinary design. Neither a spreadsheet or a mold will do that alone. You need great people and a shared vision.

So go forward, create, solve, and make the world a better place. But do so simply. And think like a 10 year old.

Republished with permission

Published at DZone with permission of Josh Dormont, author and DZone MVB.

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