Designing for Underserved Communities

A Busy Street — from Unsplash by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma’aji

It is our responsibility as designers to empathise with the users of whatever solutions we are tasked with designing and the problems they seek to solve.

However, it can be difficult when we are working on problems with which we have little or no familiarity and are unable to contextualise due to how far away our perspective is from the users with whom we should be empathising.

I understand.

Understanding and empathising effectively with the problems of users in underserved communities can be nigh on impossible because it is difficult for the average designer to put themselves in their shoes and focus on the user’s core needs.

We have no idea what it takes to walk in their shoes, we have no idea how to connect with them to discuss their problems because, well, they aren’t online, there’s scant data on what their day-to-day activities are anywhere on the internet, and most research efforts aren’t really interested in them outside of capturing GDP numbers and what-not.

How do you create a user persona based on that?

It is critical that we recognise that design is a social service, and that we can and do drive social change when we implement effective design solutions to current societal ‘bottom of the pyramid’ problems.

In my experience, I would suggest the following solutions:

Understand and Empathise Genuinely
Throw away any preconceived notions or ideas you have about your user’s habits and needs. Concentrate on observing and engaging with them in order to fully understand their experiences and motivations, as well as the core issues and challenges they face in their daily lives.

Empathy is not Sympathy!

Sympathy leads us to believe that we are better than our consumers and that we pity them for their predicament. We simply cannot allow ourselves to think in that manner!

Our primary objective must be to immerse ourselves as much as possible in their experience and comprehend their options in order to come up with better, easier solutions to their challenges. Empathy allows us to do just that.

Ideate contextually

Given that users from underserved communities with the problem(s) we are attempting to solve are underrepresented online, we cannot rely on the usual user personas we are familiar with, as this will result in us creating tone-deaf or irrelevant solutions to problems that the user considers secondary!

Bring your ideation process closer to the user by immersing yourself in their physical environment to gain firsthand knowledge of the problems you hope to solve for them.

Make the user an active stakeholder

Persuading these users to participate would arguably be the most difficult aspect. However, as we design, deploy, and iterate our solutions, these members of the community must be involved as active stakeholders.

This is critical because involving actual contextual stakeholders and their ideas not only aids in the refinement of design solutions, but it also shortens the skill/capacity building required for end users to engage with our product because involving actual contextual stakeholders and their ideas creates inbuilt familiarity with whatever solution we put out.

Solve for impact

Designing sexy-looking products and solutions is fun and is an easy way to gain favourable press, but it is critical that our primary focus be on how much of a positive impact our solution has on the users’ lives.

Is your transportation app truly improving your users’ commutes, or is it just a fancy way to showcase new mapping technology? Is your fintech truly enabling your users to earn, save, pay, or even grow wealth?

There’s nothing wrong with developing the clunkiest looking bit of software or hardware as long as it has an immediate, measurable impact on the end user.

Focus on impact above all things!!!

As designers, and especially as African designers, we can transform our society if we just slow down, stop prioritising ’sexy projects,’ and try to see how we can make life easier and more rewarding for people who aren’t as fortunate as we are.

Design is more powerful than we sometimes recognise, and it provides us with a plethora of ways to put that power to good use.

PS. Deciding to write this was mostly inspired by the Chess in Slums Africa project led by the amazing Tunde Onakoya. Please check them out and donate to the cause here, here and here.

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Tomiwa Ogunmodede

Tomiwa Ogunmodede

Product Designer. Brand Strategist. Problem Solver.