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    Entries in human centered design (16)

    Wednesday
    Oct212015

    Meet the lotus

    What do you get when you mix one signature drink, a custom fountain display, 150+ people, and a spacious new art gallery in Yangon? A product launch; Proximity-style.

    On October 15, 2015, Design Team co-leaders, Taiei Harimoto and Ko Aung Ko Ko unveiled the Lotus, a radically affordable, solar-powered irrigation pump for low-income farmers in Myanmar.

    As Myanmar began opening in 2011, the agricultural landscape also experienced significant change. Cheap diesel engines from China flowed into the market and many farmers invested in them as a way to mechanize their operations, only to find them dirty, difficult to operate, and expensive to run. “This presented an opportunity for us,” Product Designer Taiei Harimoto explained during the product launch. “Our customers’ irrigation methods are no longer the same,” he continued, “which means that they have new needs that we can design for.”

    Having identified this opportunity, Proximity embarked on an intensive human-centered design process to create the Lotus, which is unlike any other solar-powered irrigation pump in the world. Designed specifically for the local market, it is a submersible pump that fits neatly into the two-inch (50 mm) wide tube-wells found commonly in rural Myanmar—at its widest, the Lotus is 49mm in diameter. When working at a depth of 24ft, the Lotus pump can yield over 15,000 liters of water per day. The Lotus is also likely to be the world’s most affordable solar pump, retailing at only US$345, which includes 260W of solar panels. Most solar irrigation pumps available on the market cost several thousand dollars.

    Most importantly, the Lotus makes sustainable farming easy. Although smallholder farmers each own only a few acres of land, they have an immense collective impact on the health of our food systems. The Lotus will provide Myanmar farmers with sustainable options that are also cost saving.

    The Design Team’s unveiling of the new product was followed by a spirited discussion of its specs and limitations: How long does the Lotus last? Lifecycle testing has shown that it will serve customers for at least two seasons. Will there be financing available for farmers who can’t afford the upfront cost? For the first sales season, Proximity is not offering financing, in part to gauge what the demand is for the product now and to determine what type of financing might be optimal for this product. How long is the payback period for farmers switching from diesel engines to solar-powered irrigation? Ten months on average, and the payback period is even shorter for farmers switching from treadle pumps to the Lotus.

    We want to thank everyone who joined to celebrate with us, and if you weren’t able to make it, we will be releasing a short film about the event and how the Lotus is made in Myanmar in the coming weeks!

    Tuesday
    Jun092015

    Can digital sensors revolutionize smallholder farming in Myanmar?

     

    Digital sensors that allow for precision agriculture are becoming increasingly popular on large farming operations in the US and Europe. The technology, however is becoming affordable enough for developing markets. Earlier this year, Proximity Designs embarked on an interesting challenge with the Futuresense Team from IDEO.org; could we design sensors that would enhance the work of farmers in Myanmar? 

    Fast-forward a couple of months and a  IDEO.org is nearing the end of their second visit to Myanmar’s dry zone. During their first visit in April, our aim was to hone in on particular needs in Myanmar that could be met through sensor-tech. This time around, a Proximity-IDEO.org crew has spent ten sweaty days riding around Pakokku in the back of a pick up truck testing three prototype sensor products, speaking to everyone from farmers to fertilizer dealers, and thinking about what potential services around these products would look like. But, wait a second: what do we even mean by agricultural sensors? 

    At the high-tech end of the spectrum, there are drones that you can fly over your crops to tell you what areas are suffering from particular diseases or nutrient deficiencies. On the other end, there are farmers in Myanmar who use lemongrass stalks to predict next year’s rains. For this project, we’re wondering how we can use low-cost analog and digital sensors that measure soil moisture to help farmers make the best growing decisions they can.

    For instance, when we spoke to Proximity Sales Representative Aung Ko Win, he mentioned that farmers who purchase drip aren’t always sure about how they should adapt their watering schedules once they stop using traditional watering cans. So even though farmers access better technology through drip, they still rely on traditional thinking to determine moisture levels for their crops. Could a simple moisture sensor help a farmer make optimal watering decisions to reduce the risk of pests and disease and help improve yields? This is just one of the questions that we’re asking. 

    Over the next few months, Proximity will be working together with IDEO.org to continue evolving existing prototypes into fully fleshed out products and services. As we do so, we’ll be posting more on particular experiments or questions we’re encountering throughout this design process. If you’re curious and have any questions about this particular project, leave them in the comments below, and we’ll get back to you in future blogs!  

     

    Monday
    Nov032014

    Designing with the user

     

     

    Fresh off the boat (well, in this case, the plane), Steve Frechette is our Energy Team’s new Business Advisor and extrovert extraordinaire. When he’s not devouring every Burmese treat under the sun, he’s blogging about his experiences in Myanmar. Here, he reflects on his recent experience of the user-centered design process at Proximity Designs.  

    I’m new here, but I’ve been at Proximity long enough to realize that user-centered design is truly part of our DNA. Luckily, I was able to join in on an important part of that design process. As the energy team prepares to launch a new product, we traveled to Myanmar’s Dry Zone to gather concept feedback.

    By this stage, the team has already conducted and analyzed primary and secondary market research. Equipped with poster-board prototypes illustrating the potential products we’d like to offer, the Energy Team went back into the field to gather feedback on these potential solutions.

    In the course of 3 days, the team visited three villages, received 131 survey responses, and held focus group discussions at each location. It was an exhausting, eye opening experience that helped me to identify four conditions that were critical for the success of our concept feedback gathering and our overall design process.

    1) Quickly building rapport helps everyone to open up:

    Standing in front of a group of villagers, I was a bit nervous. But breaking the ice was critical for both them and me. To lead frank discussions, the team needs to make villagers who attend feel comfortable enough to share their preferences and experiences. On our end, I also had to be comfortable interacting with them. So after a deep breath, I stumbled through an introduction in basic Burmese and got some laughs from the group. It was heartening to see that some participants were so interested in the products that they stuck around after the formal session. Discussions with them led to in-depth learning about Myanmar rural energy needs. 

    2) Structure helps to simplify information exchange and keeps respondents focused.

    Direct interaction with villagers is incredibly valuable, but time is limited, and attendees, just like any of us, lose focus over time. We prepared with questionnaires, clipboards, and pens, and we asked villagers to gather in groups monitored by one of our team members. All of these groups were kept on track by a team member who “mc’d” the event. Visuals aids are also incredibly important to help communicate complicated product options. We had large vinyl sheets printed with visual mock-ups that could be hung from one of the village houses.

    3) Listen to what isn’t being said, and observe the environment.

    Listening is a basic human function, but it’s surprising how quickly we can forget to be attentive if we focus on ticking through a laundry list of questions. Sometimes slowing down, and really listening, makes all the difference.

    “Listening,” extends not only to the words people are saying along with their gestures, but also includes paying attention to the kind of environments, cultures, and norms where people live. This sort of observation, or “listening,” helped me understand what can sometimes be difficult to articulate.

    For example, during one village visit, the women sat on one side of the space, the men sat on the opposite side, and the village leaders sat in the middle. This observation provides insight about the decision hierarchy that may exist in the village and how we should approach introducing a new product.

    4) Remember the stakeholders who may not be center stage.

    When designing a product or service for a group of people, it is critical to consider who, besides the end user, will be important in implementing that solution. In our case, our energy sales team and other Proximity staff who interact with villagers on a day-to-day basis will be directly involved in getting products to our customers. Some of these people have grown up in the same villages where we will be selling products and serve as a bridge between Proximity and the end-user. We used a focus-group setup to get their input on the various proposed solutions.

    Reflecting on the experience, I’ve realized how important it is to remember that we’re all people, not simply data points or information reserves. Trying to connect with individuals, as well as simply enjoying and appreciating the experience, goes a long way.

    All photos courtesy of Steve Frechette. 

     

    Tuesday
    Jul152014

    A Match Made in... Myanmar

     

    In the eye of the brain-storm. Photo courtesy of the Stanford d.school.

    These days, our design lab is filled with the sounds of running water and the clacking of robots testing pumps as our d-team puts the finishing touches on a breakthrough irrigation product we’ll be launching in September.  We’re working with Stanford’s Institute of Design on this project, and will soon be joined by two graduates for the summer. Andreas and Evram are the latest in a long list of talented individuals who’ve joined the Proximity Design team as the result of an ongoing, eight year long partnership with Stanford’s d.school. 

    In 2005, the Stanford d.school began offering a course called “Design for Extreme Affordability,” that challenged graduate students to develop well-designed products and services for the world’s most disadvantaged people. We embraced the course early on as one of its first ‘clients.’ At the time, foot-pumps were available in India and parts of Africa for over $100, and we needed to drastically reduce this price tag if our products were going to be affordable for Myanmar’s farmers. The first challenge we posed to a Stanford team was to create a pump for $25. The rest, as they say, is history.

    The entrance to the d.school and all things design-related. Photo courtesy of the Stanford d.school

    Over the course of eight years, Stanford teams have been instrumental in developing key products. It was a Stanford team that first drew inspiration from kiddy pools and suggested we design a freestanding water storage basket, which six years later became our “Sturdy Boy” water tank. It was a Stanford team that proposed the award-winning tri-pod frame structure that we ended up using in our HB4 pump, which in addition to completely re-thinking the structure of existing treadle pumps, also reduced its price to $25. Not only does Stanford have fast prototyping abilities that allow teams to make a lot of progress very quickly, the creativity of their students is constantly motivating us to push the envelope. Human-centered design is now at the core of what we do, due in part to the contagious innovative thinking of the d.school folks.

    Luckily for us, the love is mutual. David Beach, co-instructor of the “Design for Extreme Affordability” course, explains, “Proximity is an amazing organization… For us, the fact that they have experience on the ground, deep insight…that they are involved at the highest levels of crafting a path forward for Myanmar as a country…. They couldn’t be better partners.”

    In addition to making us blush, Beach does point to some of the factors that make our partnership with Stanford’s d.school a truly symbiotic exchange. Strong partnerships, grow, evolve, and endure, and we can’t wait to see what breakthrough, innovative products our work with the d.school will bring to rural Myanmar. 

    A Stanford team member out in the field

     

    Monday
    Jun172013

    Harder, Faster: Robot Farmers for Quality Products

    To make sure our products can take the strain of life in rural Myanmar, we test them to breaking point in our labs first. Not a pump, water basket or drip kit leaves for a farmer's field without first passing the rigorous testing our robot farmers inflict on them.