Using Human Centered Design for solving the rural healthcare problem





The mPower team just returned from an intensive field stay in Netrokona and Kishoreganj to understand the rural healthcare scenario of Bangladesh. The team has been using a methodology known as Human Centered Design (HCD) pioneered by and described in detail in their amazing website to design an appropriate market solution for rural healthcare. The word design, in this part of world, is mostly associated with aesthetic elements – fashion design, interior design etc. However, the verb design, extrapolated from its use in engineering, simply means to create a solution to address a problem. The key element of design thinking is adapting one’s mind and team to a many-to-one approach. The process of imagining many viable solutions and then chipping them away into one makes design thinking creative and intellectually rigorous at the same time.
HCD puts the consumer at the center of the design process and is especially tailored for designing products and services whose end purpose is to make life easier for: humans. It could be anything from an improved toothbrush (IDEO brought us the squishy handle on toothbrushes) to savings instruments for small-plot farmers in Zambia. Since the vision of mPower’s new venture is to make healthcare more accessible for people, we found this methodology to be a great fit for our design work.

Developing empathy is the first step in HCD and the main goal of this field trip. This deep dive into the hinterlands was about listening to stories and trying to understand what people aspire for when they seek healthcare. This trip was not about seeking simple answers but to ask probing questions and let the conversations flow organically. As technologists and big data enthusiasts, this was an inherently uncomfortable process for the team because the research would not yield averages and bar charts with standard deviations, but only stories. Stories from which to extract themes, themes from which to extract design directions.

Immersion: To grow our empathetic intuition it was necessary to immerse ourselves in the local context and culture. We discarded the sneakers and put on choppols. We intentionally made it a point not to stay in hotels, but in people’s homes. Stay in the same house, share the same bathrooms and eat the same food. Although the hospitable culture of Bangladesh meant that we would still be treated as guests to a certain degree, but the barrier would sometimes be forgotten while sharing a cup of tea or washing the dishes at the chaapkol and the stories would come out.

Quality over quantity: Turning off the numbers switches in our brain, we prioritized quality over quantity. We spend long hours sitting at the local bazaars, just watching people come and go at the rural pharmacies. We returned the next day to watch it happen all over again. We wandered the halls of the Upazila Health Complex and wondered why there was a large goat in the children’s ward. We made friends with the local farmer and the primary school teacher, and talked to them in their verandahs. The fact we were living with a local host provided us immediate access as ‘friends’ rather than ‘researchers’ in the community and made for much warmer and authentic interactions. The insights from a two hour long conversation was much richer than any number of 15 minute ones.

In context: It is important to interpret stories from the context they are spoken from. Often the Upazila Health Complex would be cited as being terrible by one respondent and quite wonderful by another. After visiting the facility ourselves, it was quite beyond us why anyone would find the service there satisfactorily. But we couldn’t deny that some people did and it had spoke volumes about their expectations and lack of other available options. By living in the community, we grew an organic understanding of the context people were speaking from which let us interpret their stories better. Had we noted these responses simply as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we would not have had any insight save a filled Excel column. Being in context let us interpret ‘good’ and ‘bad’ on a much deeper level.

HCD is a great tool for any team looking for a deeper understanding of any consumer centric problem. Having worked in business and with several marketing agencies, I had been unimpressed by the direct question and answer methods used by most third-party market research firms. If you really want to get to the heart of your consumers, get out of the office and into their lives. Put away the questionnaires and pick up a cup of tea.
Posted by Shammi Quddus


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