Human-Centered Design
Using a rigorous, participatory HCD process to increase access to safe drinking water

Roughly 780 million people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water and many more use water supplies that are contaminated or at risk of recontamination in the home. However, household water treatment and safe storage products (HWTS) sold via commercial markets are often inaccessible.

Millions in Asia and Africa are unable to buy HWTS products through commercial markets
Develop market-based solutions to support development of HWTS products for low-resource settings
India, Cambodia, Kenya, and Vietnam
Partners listed below
Path Expertise Areas

Problem Definition

Design & Development

Prototype Evaluation

Market Research & Commercialization

Product Validation

Program Implementation


Post-Implementation MEL


The challenge

An estimated 780 million people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water (World Health Organization 2010). Hundreds of millions more use water supplies that are contaminated or at risk of recontamination in the home. Large-scale public water systems are unavailable or inadequate in many parts of Africa and Asia, especially in rural areas. Many families have been unable to buy household water treatment and safe storage (HWTS) products through commercial markets because of high prices and limited availability. Contaminated water at home can lead to severe diarrheal disease, killing hundreds of thousands of young children each year.

In 2007, PATH began exploring the potential for market-based solutions to increase access to safe drinking water among low-income consumers in Africa and Asia. This also included creating new, healthy markets and strengthening existing markets by supporting the development of HWTS products better suited for low-resource settings, developing innovative distribution channels, and increasing consumer demand.

The approach

When PATH’s Safe Water Project sought to design products that would meet low-income users’ needs, the project team spent a great deal of time visiting people’s homes and communities, talking with them about their lives, and watching how they prepare and store water for their family consumption. It soon became evident that not all water treatment products were created equal. Devices that are difficult to assemble correctly do not ensure safe water or promote sustained use. Products that can’t withstand the rigors of household use or that leave water with a bad taste or smell are not used. And options that are too fussy, unfamiliar, or expensive will not be purchased in the first place.

To stimulate uptake and correct and consistent use, products must be appealing, affordable, and realistic for their target populations. Using a human-centered design (HCD) approach that listens and responds to users’ needs to drive the development of consumer products for low-income users has ensured that they are affordable, appropriate, sustainable, and reflective of local priorities. However, effective product development doesn’t just serve users. It also helps drive demand and, in turn, more sustainable markets.

PATH focused on improving access to safe water by supporting prototyping and developing products appropriate for low-resource settings, developing innovative distribution channels, and increasing consumer demand.

The solution

The goal of PATH’s Safe Water Project was to determine the extent to which commercial approaches could increase access to safe drinking water among low-income populations through sales of household water treatment and safe storage products. The objective was to identify commercial models that would be sustainable, scalable, affordable, and capable of influencing water treatment behavior so that products were used consistently and correctly by target households over time.

Increasing the supply of affordable and appropriately designed products

Low-income households have specific needs, desires, and constraints that must be fully understood and translated before developers build a suitable and desirable product. A suitable and appropriate product would drive demand. Recognizing users’ deep-rooted needs and challenges, PATH began to conduct an extensive landscape assessment of existing technologies and devices.

Internal product development experts tested a range of products in the lab. They conducted over 600 hours of extended user testing with hundreds of consumers worldwide to better understand how, when, and why consumers used these products. Since the profit potential in low-income markets is still unproven, it is often difficult for companies to invest in products that specifically meet the needs of low-income users. So, PATH conducted extensive research and development work and compiled design guidelines for effective, low-cost HWTS products that would minimize barriers to market entry, keep prices low, and stimulate competition among HWTS manufacturers at the low-income end of the market.

Developing innovative sales and distribution models

To minimize the cost of effective HWTS products, local institutions were supported in developing or improving purchasing, manufacturing, testing, distributing, and financing capabilities. PATH tested and assessed several innovative sales and distribution models in India, Cambodia, Kenya, and Vietnam, reaching more than 50,000 consumers. This included exploring typical retail and direct sales channels and selling through self-help groups and nongovernmental organizations. An innovative microfinancing model in India and Cambodia scaled independently after the project was completed, reaching over 500,000 people.

Increasing and sustaining consumer demand

To help build consumer demand for safe water products, PATH conducted market segmentation research, gathering data from hundreds of low-income households in Asia and Africa on their preferences, beliefs, and behaviors related to water treatment and storage products to better understand what motivates and inspires consumers and how to best reach them. These insights were then used to determine how to best influence the purchase and sustained use of water storage products.

Through our work in each country, PATH was able to identify five distinct market segments, which enabled market sizing and demand forecasts. The findings were then distributed to commercial firms to help them better market their products for the initial purchase and sustained use.

In 2011, PATH finalized agreements with three manufacturers to develop, produce, and sell gravity-fed HWTS devices that used a PATH-designed and freely available interchangeable replacement filter mechanism, disrupting the proprietary interface approach used by leading companies. This has resulted in significantly expanded water treatment options for low-income consumers in Asia and Africa.


The impact of using human-centered design

This project determined that market-based approaches can extend and enhance the reach of public health programs and dedicated nongovernmental organizations through gains in efficiency and effectiveness by leveraging private-sector investments and infrastructure. Working in partnership with users, PATH and private-sector partners successfully introduced water treatment solutions, strengthened markets to make these solutions sustainable, and enabled low-income households to prevent life-threatening diarrheal disease through better access to affordable, attractive, and practical products.

The project team redesigned an existing ceramic water treatment device in Cambodia to support increased uptake and consistent use. The multidisciplinary project team created a more attractive design, evaluated multiple manufacturing options, tested retail and direct sales approaches, worked with field partners to understand distribution challenges, and redesigned the product to pack into a smaller box. The resulting new version of the product generated an 18-fold increase in demand, providing over 250,000 people with consistent access to safe drinking water.

Small commercial partners learned how to work more effectively and efficiently in low-resource settings through the Safe Water Project. To help build their skills in market research, product development, and other business areas, PATH developed and distributed a commercialization toolkit. Manufacturers have benefited from user experience testing and design research to create new products. Three manufacturers in China, for example, developed new products based on our design guidelines and began commercial sales in 2013. Kohler Co. continues to manufacture and distribute an open-source common-connection point and platform solution designed by PATH to promote water filter interchangeability, standardization, and market efficiency for households worldwide.

The Springboard Initiative has continued to build on the success of the Safe Water Project, producing a new ecosystem of interchangeable water filter products from a variety of companies on the PATH-developed C1 Common Interface—a simple, common-connection point and platform solution designed to work with different filters and different devices, thereby providing consumers with a range of products at a lower cost.

More importantly, this project amplified the ethos that communities and individuals in low-resource settings are very much engaged economic actors and decision-makers, with needs, values, preferences, aspirations, and freedom of choice. A human-centered approach allowed PATH to be responsive to people’s freedom to choose and act in ways that are best for them within a dynamic and continually improving market that is mindful of and responsive to their needs, values, and aspirations.

A human-centered approach allowed PATH to be responsive to people’s freedom to choose and act in ways that are best for them within a dynamic and continually improving marketplace.

Our partners

  • Medentech
  • Chujio Ceramics
  • Hydrologic Social Enterprise
  • Hindustan Unilever Ltd.
  • Eureka Forbes
  • Mart
  • Zuellig Pharma
  • Safe Water and AIDS Project
  • VisionFund Cambodia
  • Spandana Sphoorty Financial Ltd.
  • Access
  • Lucknow Pragati Sewa Sansthan

Better solutions. Better outcomes. Better sustainability.