Start with People, Design for Partners

A Business Designer's take on impactful partnerships

Human-centered design always starts with building empathy with the people you’re looking to serve. At IDEO.org, that means connecting with low-income communities around the globe. As a designer in IDEO.org’s Financial Health program, I tailor financial products and services to the needs of the poor, and then work in deep partnership with a great variety of organizations to get them to market. Our collaborators range from four-person startups to behemoth mobile network operators. Though the products and services we design together are aimed squarely at low-income households, the truth is, the poor aren’t the only people who we at IDEO.org need to satisfy.

Large or small, corporate or scrappy, each of our partners has its own mission, strategy, and vision. When we start work together we unite around the goal of creating useful services for the poor, which seems pretty straight-forward…but the truth is, low-income populations typically don’t have a lot of extra money to spare. 

That's where designing for the business needs of our partners comes in. Though we always start our process with the needs and desires of low-income communities, they’re not the only people we’re designing for.

The products, services, and experiences we help create have to be desirable, viable, and feasible to our implementing partners as well.

To have a chance of getting to market and to scale, whatever it is we design has to be something clearly aligned to our partners’ mission, something they’re willing to advocate for internally, to monitor and iterate, and to shepherd through the highs and the lows of making it real.

At IDEO.org, we learned this lesson the hard way. In 2011, while working with the Mexican bank Bancomer, we designed a variety of innovative savings tools for low-income customers, but they were ultimately shelved when they fell out of alignment with the desires of the bank’s new leadership. Though the initial prototypes we tested demonstrated compelling opportunities, we were unable to successfully bring leadership on board to the vision. Without an internal champion to support them, they languished.

So how do you design for both the poor and for your partners? No surprise here: we take a human-centered approach with our partners to make sure that we’re meeting everyone’s needs.

Here are a few challenges our partners have brought to us, and how we've worked through them together:

How can we get this new product to scale? 

We want the products, services, and experiences we design to benefit as many people as possible, so of course we’re always designing with scale in mind. That aligns pretty nicely with our partners, who want as much market penetration and usage as possible. But the idea of scale takes on particular importance when providing low-margin products. When we worked with microfinance institution Amret in Cambodia, we knew we had to scale our digital financial solutions quickly because of a saturated market. So, when we created a goal-based savings account that met the desires of the farmers we interviewed and observed, we designed it to work on Amret’s existing infrastructure for a quick push to market.

How much revenue will it generate? 

When you’re designing for the very poor, you sometimes have to get creative on where the revenue is coming from. One thing I’ve learned is that the low-income customer doesn’t necessarily have to be the one picking up the tab. In Zimbabwe, we found that paying for children’s school fees was a huge aspiration for farmers, but that schools collected only 20% of school fees on time. We worked with Econet, a large telecom, to design a mobile savings and credit product that allows parents to pay for their children’s school fees on time, and guarantees payment to the school in full. Though parents pay a small transaction fee, the bulk of the product cost is carried by the schools, which can now manage their balance sheets more consistently. Aligning these needs creates a product that is affordable for the Zimbabwean farmers and sustainable for the telecom. 

How can we get the entire organization behind the product?  

Every organization has its own power structures and decision-making processes. Often, we work with small teams within large organizations who aren’t the primary revenue generators but are trying to create something new. To get resources, these groups need to win the attention of senior executives. So, we work with our partners on clear strategic direction, captivating customer stories, and compelling communications. In one project, we worked with a four-person team targeting low-income farmers in a telecom employing over 2,000 people. To draw in the executives of such a large firm, we added a vibrant external marketing campaign and a short animated video articulating the vision of the new product line to an already rock-solid business plan. Thanks to the power of the pitch, leadership got onboard.

In summary, if you’re working in deep partnership with other organizations, you’re designing for two populations: the low-income community and the partner delivering the service. Though all the products my team designs are firmly rooted in desirability to the customer, no successful product can ignore viability and feasibility for the implementer. At IDEO.org, our goal is to create products and services that improve the lives of people in poor and vulnerable communities. Why wouldn’t we bring the same sense of empathy, creativity, and grit to our relationships with our partners?

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