Five Wins and Five Fails at

It hasn't always gone right—here's what we've learned along the way

Don’t charge to an answer too soon.

When designing the Clean Team in-home sanitation service in Kumasi, Ghana, with Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), we kept open minds as to what the ultimate design could look like. It would have been easy to determine that a low-cost toilet was the answer, but by testing a variety of hypotheses we saw that a multi-touchpoint service was what people actually wanted. By asking the right questions, and not racing to an answer, Clean Team developed into the right service for the community.

Long-term projects need smart phasing. Get feedback and test the viability of your design along the way.

We partnered with Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency and the Gates Foundation to design a new row planter for teff, Ethiopia’s most important grain. A pretty serious engineering challenge, the successful design and implementation of a new planter will take years, not weeks. To get it right, we had to smartly plan out the stages of the project, enlist the right support—like IDEO's Chicago office and Northwestern University's Segal Design Institute—and collect evidence that the planter is worth investing in. Early field tests have been promising, and the row planter looks to be more effective than traditional planting methods.

Don’t be afraid to borrow and evolve the stuff that works already.

When codesigning an app to build good financial habits among low-income Chicago teens, our design team took inspiration directly from what these young people already loved: Instagram, Snapchat, and Kik. There’s no need to design sui generis solutions when the community you’re looking to serve has enthusiastically adopted something similar. The Moneythink Mobile app is now being used by 3,300 students and 1,000 mentors.

Often, unlocking your partners and getting them prototyping can be the path to an effective design.

In our Amplify urban safety challenge, we set out to improve cities for women and girls. One grantee, Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) in Kibera, Kenya, was the ideal partner. Not only had SHOFCO built deep trust in the community, but it already knows the people it serves. Leaning on SHOFCO’s understanding of the local community, and strong human-centered research, our design team immediately got down to prototyping. This allowed us to put tangible ideas on how to get more men involved in combating gender-based violence in the community right away.

Design the solution your partner is excited about and capable of implementing.

When designing farmer training tools with Juhudi Kilimo in Kenya, we tried a variety of solutions at both ends of the tech spectrum. In the end, video was king. Though they may not have felt as revolutionary as other ideas that the design team tested, training and inspiration videos were the most relevant tools to the farmers and extension agents we were designing for. Over 1,100 farmers have watched the eight videos Juhudi Kilimo has produced.

Due diligence on prospective partners is crucial. Look for red flags and take them seriously.

While partnering with an exciting player in the clean cookstoves space, we endeavored to design a more efficient stove that would meet the needs of low-income consumers. Where we tripped up was in ascertaining just how prepared our partner was to take our designs forward. Within a year they were bankrupt. And despite some warning signs, we let our enthusiasm for the challenge overshadow the capabilities of our partner.

Make sure you and your partners are squarely focused on the needs of the poor.

In 2011, we partnered with the Mexican bank Bancomer and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor to design new savings products for low-income Mexicans. Despite a handful of compelling prototypes, we didn’t ultimately get anything to market. A change in leadership at Bancomer, a shift in strategy away from the needs of the poor, and the introduction of some extremely challenging revenue goals sunk what were promising ideas.

Your partner’s team on the ground is as important as the one at headquarters.

In 2012, we took on the challenge of open defecation in Kumasi, Ghana, with WSUP and USAID. The result was Crap Map, a digital platform meant to chart open defecation and mobilize citizens in Kumasi to end the practice. And though we’d like to report massive impact, the truth is, we focused too much on the design of the platform and not enough on the implementation. Though we had huge buy-in from WSUP’s global leadership, we did not focus strongly enough on the local team and what it could reasonably execute.

By starting a project already locked into a solution, you may prevent yourself from designing what people need.

In one of our first projects, we partnered with a large international development organization to help drive demand for their water service offering. Unfortunately, we started working toward a preset solution, one that suited our partner’s assumptions on how to solve the problem, but not necessarily the needs of the community. And then, when our research told us that our partner’s solution may not be the right one, we were already locked in.

A good solution must be feasible and viable for your partner to implement.

In 2013, we set to work with World Health Partners (WHP) to design more efficient and human-centered ways to deliver telemedicine to rural Indian villages. Our design team got deep into how to improve data capture in the process and prototyped a variety of ways to streamline the process for both WHP and on-the-ground clinics. But the system of reporting and interaction that we designed was simply too complex to be useful. We may have met the needs of the people we were designing for, but we lost sight of our partner’s needs.

This post is excerpted from’s Impact: A Design Perspective. Read the whole thing to learn how a mission-driven design organization can have real impact in the lives of poor and vulnerable communities.

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