PATH’s user-centered design process resulted in standardized home water filters that fit multiple water systems. We then worked with manufacturers and partners to make these water systems affordable through a microfinance program. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.
How do you get a new product to people who are in an underserved market, who may live on just a few dollars a day, have little access to credit, and are hard to reach via conventional distribution channels?
This is the story of how a user-centered design process in India positively impacted the health of communities, benefited manufacturers, strengthened the marketplace, and empowered lives.
Developing products that can impact individual, family, and community health at multiple levels, by design
At PATH, we practice user-centered design as we develop new technologies for people who live in low-resource settings around the world. Our process extends far beyond our lab and product development workshop—to the field, people’s homes, and sometimes manufacturing facilities, to name a few. It incorporates input from multiple stakeholders and includes partnerships that shift depending on which stage of innovation we’re in.
“Imagine a map with very little detail. By defining a need and anticipating who will use it, you develop a better map. Successive approximation and iterative work makes the journey route clearer and clearer. The navigation to innovation is rarely linear.” —Glenn Austin, senior advisor of Product Development at PATH.
Designing for cleaner water and for better lives: bringing field tests into homes
In India, we started with the people and their need for safer water. To better understand how low-income people might use water treatment and safe storage products, we enlisted the help of 20 households to “road test” five existing models to share what they liked and didn’t like. Up until then, water filters among participants were novel products, and few people had seen, let alone used them.
“There’s a difference between designing a functional water filter and designing a water filter that people will use.” —Jesse Schubert, senior program associate in Devices and Tools at PATH.
In Vavilala, India, Taramma got a water filter during a PATH pilot project. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.
Over a period of months, each household weighed in on what might influence their adoption and use of water filters. For instance, a bigger water system was initially perceived as better. Hard-to-reach surfaces were seen as problematic to clean. Steel containers were considered aesthetically pleasing. And price made a big difference on whether they would buy replacement filters. All these observations informed our own prototype design.
Through multiple cycles of feedback, PATH’s water filter prototype evolved and improved until we landed on a design that met the needs of our household testers while providing safe water and making a positive impact on their health. The testers essentially became codesigners with PATH and their input helped inform design guidelines for more effective devices.
The design becomes a blueprint for a new user: the manufacturer
When developing solutions, we design for sustainability to ensure manufacturers can keep costs as low as possible while still making a fair profit. In this case, we found our initial prototype was too costly to build.
PATH worked with manufacturers to remain true to our user guidelines, modifying materials to ensure high quality at sustainable production costs. Together, we were able to develop affordable water filters for underserved populations in low-resource settings. The end result: a product that people found attractive, beneficial, and useable.
Getting the product to the people: a new distribution model
Our involvement didn’t end at the physical product; getting the water systems to these areas was another story. Traditional methods of distribution were too expensive for manufacturers to support.
PATH helped develop a new distribution channel. We linked microfinance organizations to the manufacturers so local groups of consumers could purchase these products through affordable loans that were easier to repay.
Creating a distribution network to villages is costly for water filtration manufacturers and drives the price up. This slideshow shows how microfinance loans helped get filters into rural homes. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.
What we really do is user-centered “development”
It’s a longer game that’s played well when all the stakeholders and steps are included along the way.
From the start, PATH enlists a team that covers technology, public health, commercialization, and, depending on where we’re at in the development process, experts who help us customize solutions for the local environment.
Refining technologies by leveraging partnerships and resources can help define new industry standards. The result: lower costs, higher quality, and expanded health access. And that’s really the end game.
This post is part of a multi-part series, Mapping the Journey, which explores how PATH turns ideas into solutions that bring equity, dignity, and health to women, children, and families worldwide. This is the third installment of the series.
Other posts in this series