Design and the Developing World

A few days ago, a tweet by Amy Quispe appeared in my feed:

Completely true of course. I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes curse my iPhone for running out of juice when I’m out and about all day. Most of the time though, I’m surrounded by power outlets, and it’s easy to ignore how short my battery really lasts. People in rural India or central Africa, however, may not have the luxury to be so forgiving – especially considering a mobile phone is often their primary way to access the Internet [1]. The current generation of smartphones is essentially completely useless unless you spend most of your day at home or in an office where you can keep it tethered to a charger. It’s clear that these devices are primarily designed for the “First World” (where customers have deeper pockets).

When manufacturers do target developing countries, they often end up with products tailored uniquely to “Third World” customers. Things like Mozilla’s $25 smartphone are great, but live in a world of their own and are not meant to compete in “First World” markets.

Maybe we’re going about this all wrong. A lot of the qualities that are essential to selling technology in developing markets are relevant elsewhere as well. Things like cost, battery life and durability matter anywhere and dismissing those as “third world” features is a lazy excuse for making less of an effort and we’re worse off for it.

Motorola F1

I wrote before about crazy ways constraints can foster creativity. I think when designing products, even if customers are rich Californians, it would be good to bring the developing world back into consideration. Designing for third world users has a strange way of provoking innovation (The Motorola F1, for example, is one of the most interesting phones I have ever owned, even though it didn’t do so well in India). Why not put some constraints on power consumption, durability and data usage. The results may be surprising.

[1] Mobile phone boom in developing world could boost e-learning – theguardian.com, Wednesday 30 May 2012.

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