After years of near-invisible end users, it’s promising to see the beginnings of ‘end-user recognition’ in much of technology-for-development (ICT4D) emerging best practice. It looks like we’ve made a big stride forward, but we’re not where we need to be yet, despite making all the right noises. To a great extent, we’re still saying one thing and doing another.

Independence and self-reliance, i.e. people in the developing world solving their own problems, should be key development objectives Tweet This Quote

The international development sector, which includes the ICT4D community, is famously uncoordinated. That’s no surprise to many of the people who work in it. You would hope that, at least if the wrong things were being done they’d be being done in a coordinated way, but that’s rarely the case. Haiti is a great case in point, where “a confused aid effort‘ has only added to the difficulties. You’d be right to ask why so many people continue to live in tents nearly five years after the earthquake.

Very recently, the Narrative Project—which I blogged about here—included a call for “a co-ordinated development sector.” It also made the point that independence and self-reliance, i.e. people in the developing world solving their own problems, should be key development objectives. And that people need to believe they can make a difference. This is good to hear, but they’re empty words if ‘best’ practice continues to undermine it.

You could argue that designing with the user is a sensible approach—it’s certainly better than designing without them—but is it taking us closer to an end-game of “people in the developing world solving their own problems?” It may if you’re working with them to build a tool or platform which they, and other communities elsewhere, can then take and subsequently deploy on their own terms to solve whatever problem they see fit, in whatever way they decide, without the ‘solution’ provider needing to be involved.

Local empowerment can only genuinely happen if it’s local people helping local people. Tweet This Quote

To me, design with the user makes more sense to a local solutions developer, who can simply jump on a bus to go and work with them. But it doesn’t for the overseas solutions developer, for example the student group designing an ICT4D intervention as part of their design thinking course. Local empowerment can only genuinely happen if it’s local people helping local people. So what we need to do is work towards a place where that can happen. Allowing the user to design is that place.

The truth of the matter is that far too many ICT4D projects are still initiated from the outside. When I initially launched FrontlineSMS in 2005, the platform was squarely designed to allow local people to conceive, design and run their own projects. The only outside help they needed was for someone to provide something that allowed them to do that. It really isn’t rocket science.

Yet, despite its successes, it still seems to be a model, and an approach, in the minority.

I worry that people who read, study and follow the “design with the end user” mantra might feel more than ever that they’re doing the right thing, but they’ll simply be reinforcing the outside-in, top down approach without realizing it. Design with the end user is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the end of the journey, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it is.

About the author

Ken Banks

Ken Banks

Ken is the founder of, Means of Exchange, and FrontlineSMS. He is a Pop!Tech and Ashoka Fellow, Tech Awards Laureate, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been internationally recognized for his work applying mobile tech for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Ken is also the Entrepreneur in Residence at CARE International.

  • Danielle Hernandez

    It is scary to think that people believe we are at the end of the road for designing with a user in mind. I think companies are going to lose a large market if they ignore the user.

  • ssamazin

    I completely agree. Technology is constantly evolving and it would be foolish to believe that nothing more exists to make products more effective or user friendly. Companies should always be searching for a way to get a leg up on the competition in order to be as successful as possible.

  • Paul Townsend

    I get the point. Designing with the end user in mind is still an outside in approach. I agree with Ken that local people designing and implementing for their population is the best and right approach. I believe the only solution to the needs of developing countries is what this article states those in developing countries are to solve their own problems. And, I would add that we can provide them with the empowerment and tools and education to show them the way.

  • AmberDraina

    Are people just worried t hat by helping developing nations be able to solve their own problems that they will no longer be able to reap the financial benefits from being involved in these projects. Are we really helping people if we force them to be dependent on us?

  • kiwanja

    @AmberDraina – I think you’re spot on with this comment. The aid ‘industry’ employs
    tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in the home countries, so
    it’s not in many people’s interest for aid to work any differently than
    it does today.

    @Paul – Thanks. You pretty-much nailed the thinking behind the post.

    @Danielle/ssamazin – We’re not specifically talking about companies here. The commercial sector works very differently to the non-profit world. But if you do want an example of a ‘fairly successful’ company that never designs with the end user, take a look at a company called Apple. 🙂

  • sauerm29

    It does seem unproductive to design a product, in which the user lacks competency with out the developer. It may be helpful to send a development team to an area, before the technology is designed. Then that team could return and contribute valuable input into the design of a user interface, with the local people in mind.

  • kevinlattin

    I think that the best way for products to be designed is when the designers are also the consumers. Just because someone is competent in designing things does not mean that they know all of the issues that a user has with current designs of that products. For example, it is much more likely that someone who is wheelchair bound would have good ideas for a new wheelchair design rather than someone who hasn’t had to spend an extended amount of time in one.

  • osonbol

    I get the point. Designing with the end user in mind is still an outside
    in approach. I believe the only solution to the needs of developing countries is what this article states those in developing countries are to solve their own problems.

  • Michael Diaz

    Developing countries are to solve their own problems because they would know what works best for them

  • Boeing7

    This was an interesting article to read Mr. Banks. I think it is important that entrepreneurs make sure the people who will be using their product have influences in the design. Unfortunately, as you stated, the designer then must be in the location which will be affected by the product. Unfortunately, this just can’t happen in most cases. It really comes down to entrepreneurs needing to find a way solve problems without geographic limitations.

  • oliviamontoya

    I think designing with the end user is very important and can be successful. When designing with the end user you are able to get their perspective and learn what the outcome goal really is. You are able to see the issues that the users are facing first hand and implement a product that will be most efficient in the long run. There might be some geographical restrictions, but I think it is still important to keep the end user in mind during the development process.

  • dshootays

    I agree with your point. In our class we’ve been learning about ApproTec in Kenya and how the technology being used to solve these problems generally is provided through a top-down approach. Working with locals is a step in the right direction as mentioned in the article but it still isn’t perfect. The best method of solving this issue is for the people providing these technologies to be on the ground with their constituents working for an extended period of time to actually understand the random issues that arise and to familiarize themselves with how the locals attempt to solve those problems.

  • dshootays

    Definitely. Although a company will make a profit from a certain group of people, if they want to expand their market base, they must make a product that is intuitive for multiple types of people to use.

  • altruax0

    Great article, I am a student studying web design and I often see more of an outside approach for designing for the user. I think that is best to have user involve with designing because ultimately they are the one going to be using the site or service. I think your article made a good point that to create a setting where local people build for their area. Thanks for the article.

  • mebneter1

    The concept here is very on point. Unless the clients are empowered and take ownership of interventions which impact them, the interventions cannot take root and have a life of their own within the communities they affect.

  • jacob shingles

    This is a very interesting article. I have not thought of this problem much until reading this but I can certainly understand the problem. Looking around the world we see this happen quite often actually and I would say that the authors approach is a sensible and powerful alternative. How can we expect people to be self sufficient if we try and force things on them to help without their involvement. Every case is different but collaboration and open minds are key I think.

  • Nick Flowers

    Great article for reminding people no matter how great they think their idea is, they need the input of the people they are actually developing it for. We often get caught up in thinking our ideas are great and will help people because they do x, y, and z for them but forget that we (usually) aren’t those people and x, y, and z may not be what they really want/need or our means of accomplishing those tasks may not be the best ways for those people. When you think about, it’s almost funny that we forget to ask the very people our idea is intended for what they think about it and instead create what we think they need; we develop for the end user when the end user should be one of the main parts of the development.

  • srmart10

    Designing with the end user in mind is still an outside in approach. Other than that, I really enjoyed the article.

  • AutryS

    Sustainability is what we should all strive for. There are numerous bandages, and quick fixes, but few products and models that truly correct a community’s problem. The answer can only be found in that community, without its influence we can only expect to cover up the issue at hand.

  • Brooks Broussely

    This is a great article and I really think that this kind of approach is what is really needed to help developing nations. I do not believe that people in America designing solutions for others overseas is what will lead to long term growth and prosperity because we are not the ones actually facing these problems.

  • Thanks for making a pertinent point thats often overlooked in development discourse. As a grad student in the Development Practice program at UC Berkeley, I regularly come across well meaning attempts at “changing the world” that have already failed or are going to fail because they just don’t get the problem. Seminars are held, conferences are organized and talks are made without the single most important stakeholder — the user — in the room, in the city or even the country!
    That said, I feel this notion of developing solutions “for” others is not just limited to developed world universities and firms. I used to work in the development sector in Pakistan and even there, I know of many locals who continue to attempt to plug gaps from the outside without involving the most important stakeholder. I, too, was party to many such attempts because that’s just, for the lack of a better word, the convenient way! How would “they” know what they really need?
    This trend desperately needs to be called out and reversed. You would remember that Bahawalpur Service Delivery Unit that won the Making All Voices Count challenge is essentially an attempt to empower the “user” (in this case, the District Administrator) to implement innovative ideas that he can’t otherwise. Disclaimer: I was part of the team. However, the important point is that the idea came from the the user and my team is essentially helping him solve “his problem”. We need more of that!

  • Bangyan Zhang

    It is true that people only might solve their problem independent. It is a big problem that it is hard to them to find some resources which could be used by them. Thus, finding out the solution and solving this problem become more and more urgent to people. I hope the problem will be solve or improve as soon as possible.

  • Cara

    I definitely understand the author’s viewpoint and can see how it would be effective to allow locals to actually design their own products and help each other in doing so. However, there are limitations to this idea because often times, people lack resources or skills required to develop a useful product. That being said, it really isn’t helpful for Americans to forcefully attempt to be “saviors”. I believe that there needs a balance between simply giving things to people and leaving them to design on their own.

  • kiwanja

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! In response to a few:

    @disqus_ca75KjZ6wJ:disqus – I totally agree that it would be challenging for many local users to develop their own ideas and projects, and this is precisely why we need to be working towards rectifying it. How do we work to ensure that in 2, 3 or 4 years time there are the structures in place to allow this to happen? That’s the challenge for me. If we’re still leading and managing the design process in 5 years time, then something is wrong in my opinion.

    @asimfayaz:disqus – Thanks for the comments, many of which I agree! As you may know, a large part of my recent work involved the development of FrontlineSMS, a tool which allows users to design and implement their own SMS-based projects to solve whatever problem they saw fit, in whatever way they wanted to do it. Sadly that approach is still the exception rather than the rule.

    @nixtwizmwgd:disqus – You’re right. It is funny how outsiders dominate development, with ideas based on very little evidence of appropriateness and need. It’s a frustrating sector to work in!

    @Boeing7:disqus – One way, of course, is to build the capacity of local entrepreneurs so they can go and solve the problems ‘down the road’. For example, there are incredibly few business schools across Africa, and science and engineering is weak in many countries. Let’s start spending money on getting those up to speed, and build an army of local problem solvers.

  • christopher

    I totally agree because most people around the world do not have what we Americans are fortunate enough to have and people around the world lack the experience and resources to design their own products that will benefit them locally.

  • Ben

    @Kiwanja responding to @Cara — good points. Its taxing to proceed hand in hand designing and implementing projects completely with local partners. But the benefits are immense, including self-reliance later. Anyone have experience with organizations (and funders) who support this kind of fully integrated skills-building?? Great discussion, y’all!

  • Kyree Brooks

    I agree with this article in the sense of people not having the resources or understand all areas of creating changes for the world. In order to make useful products for less developed countries and other areas, it is important to understand the in’s and out’s of all companies and markets. I also feel that locals need to take in consideration that it is possible to solve a problem.

  • DBrownDreamer

    I definitely agree that education should be the most important factor in self improvement and developing any community. Only people who live within a community know what they truly need. I’m almost certain that there are other issues relating to infrastructure that people may want to work on before developing information technology systems. I don’t know because I don’t encompass that world. They only genuine way for solutions developers is to make any fundamental change is by1) creating an inclusive exchange of ideas and 2) having communities complete a needs assessment. Once this is created, communities and change makers can work collectively from there.

  • Matt_Effect

    I agree also. I enjoyed this article though I have no direct relation to it or ICT4D. When it all comes down to it, what you need is all viewpoints and just a diverse view and this is why we have teams. Especially for foreign ventures and such, we really need a diverse team.

  • atozzi

    I agree, we need to have different teams with different viewpoints in order to make a bigger impact and be better equipped to solve problems.

  • Samantha

    This article makes me think of a recent approach to management I studied, the positive approach, most usually taken in international sectors, but often used a last resort in corporate sectors (e.g. MERCK in MX) as a final resort when absolutely everything has failed. Essentially, it is just what this author emphasizes-” that what [what we need to do] is allow[ing] the user to design.” PD is a model that has no leadership role, but rather, through facilitation, looks at a narrow problem or issue, and then, through focus groups, questions, and other interactive ways, finds core replicative behaviors in one or two people in a community that can be replicated throughout all communities, organizations, or groups and teaches those communities in positive way to do so. It is very much an empowering model-and also allows a bottom-up localized way of improving situations.

  • Kyle Schiedemeyer

    Great article thank you. This article does a great job and really relates to people who are up and coming. People need to help people around them if anybody wants to be successful you can very seldomly do it on your own. If I could ask the author a question it would be what inspired you to write this article?

  • jennabieller

    I agree with the idea that “overseas solutions developers” may be far too displaced to be abled to effectively design for the 3rd world end user. I am in a college course such as this and, I feel this challenge daily in our social entrepreneurship consultation project. It is so hard to understand the end-user when you are living in an affluent college town, but I think these are the types of courses that prepare us to better understand how we can strive to create sustainable and viable options in the next generation.

  • Bryan Parylak

    A very good article indeed. The ability to achieve true sustainability really should be what we aim for. And one way to better this would be to simply what you are designing and what exactly you are designing it for. You need to know every single detail down to the last bullet point other wise you will be designing something for the wrong reasons.

  • JamesSpadge

    Interesting article that gets straight to the point. Are the things we creating really designed for and help the end user if the designers never really understand the situation these products are going into? I would have to say no according to the article.

  • epron

    “Local empowerment can only genuinely happen if its local people helping local people”. This argument is sustained by countless examples in the social entrepreneurial sector. One of the key qualities of the sustainability of a social innovation is the idea of “community buy-in”. One example of this is “Livelihoods” in Kenya which employs youth in the targeted community to sell its products to the targeted community.

  • epron

    How can they solve their own problems if they don’t have the resources they need? While I agree that designing with the end user in mind is still an outside in approach, this does not make it less valuable or effective. The idea of developing countries solving their own problems is not a realistic approach to solving problems. I think what this article is advocating is the best realistic approach–resource and technology of western countries combined with voiced needs of targeted community.

  • JonathanYK

    most people work for themselves and really successful in their own idea, but they need to bring the words to action and bring it to the world to make a difference in the world.

  • Nathan

    Thanks! When people create products, they need to understand what the end result is. Sustainability is the key to a lot of things, especially impact investing. How do you think we can get this message across to people?

  • amuhammad11

    i think this article brings up a good point for local solutions if not only for geographical reasons, but also for cultural reasons. Too often we hear about companies who are well-meaning in their mission, but totally off the mark in cultural competency and ways to effect the level of change with a foreign community.

  • Jessica White

    I agree! Sustainability is the key indeed. I also agree local solutions are important as well. The biggest issue is that people can talk and discuss all they want, even in a blog, actions are what are going to change things. Words can be a good start though, who knows, maybe you will find assistance or a means to make those actions!

  • hj2

    I agree with you. I liked how you brought up cultural reasons from this article.

  • mmorris93

    Thank you for this insightful article, and I could not agree more that when designing for the end user, proximity is everything. It is impossible to design a product for a group of people without first knowing their specific needs, and how the product will effect their lives. It is easy for engineers from first-world countries to judge certain inefficiencies and to theorize solutions to these problems, but they will never know how effective their ideas are until they take a walk in the shoes of those who need the solutions most. I think designing with the end user in mind is a noble idea, but the designer should understand that they must first get to know their consumer.

  • Ananda Conlon

    I agree with what you have to say. I think that it is important for small villages to be able to sustain themselves. Sometimes people try to make short term changes that will not actually solve the root problem. I believe that looking at a sustainable change that the community can live off of for generations is key.

  • kyliekielsky

    This is a very insightful article, and a very interesting read. Some great points are brought up, and I agree wholeheartedly with them.

  • Steven Bichler

    I agree with you here. I think that cultural reasons are often overlooked, because some of the thinking is so narrow-minded. You have to be cultural competent in the area you chose to be involved in, because there are certain groups that will never work together regardless of the situation an understanding of that is key.

  • Steffiheuer

    Thank you for your article. I found this article interesting and extremely true. We do need to make product that is for the end user. You want something that everyone could find use in. I really enjoyed reading your ideas and I think they are great for everyone to keep in mind.

  • James

    I agree, it is very hard to reach your goals, or be successful on your own. Everyone needs some help at some point to make it work.

  • Austin Dorman

    All too often people only see short term goals. People are always looking for the quickest fix of a problem, and they fail to see that a slightly harder or longer fix would improve their problems far more. Being sustainable is a long term goal, so more times than not the quickest fix usually isn’t the answer. People need to focus more on long term goals.

  • thomas kearney

    Thank you for this insightful article. I think a lot of developers don’t seen to understand that we have to broaden our horizon. If we reach out to other countries then we can get more feedback and make the world way more sustainable. I think developers are accustomed to producing products for the local population because it’s what what they are comfortable with.

  • tyler

    Thank you for sharing this article. There were a lot of points that I agree with. There really are a lot of people that do not know a lot about the areas they are trying to change or they too do not have the proper resources to create a change. Similar to what you were talking about, in order to create a change in a less developed country, one has to know all about the country. You cannot create a change somewhere that you do not even know fully what needs to be changed. You have to know the different companies in that area, and get to know them. I think everything you said hit the point, but you did not talk much about these people trying to have a relationship with these locals. In order to make a change somewhere, you have to show the people you mean well and that comes from developing a relationship, and I think we leave that out oftentimes.

  • Luke Drumel

    The most wonderful thing on this planet is helping others and we simply cannot succeed in doing so if we don’t have all the information up front and guessing on what they think needs to be changed. Without having a common ground with the associates and local businesses your setting yourself up for failure because the right measures weren’t taken. The best way to get to the locals is showing affection and emotion to prove to them that they actually give a damn.

  • mywa4360

    It feels as though the argument being made is that we need to design products for the poor, with the poor, while simultaneously taking into account the fact that the international development sector is highly uncoordinated. In teach-man-to-fish terms, this argument sounds like this: We must give men tools to fish, but the fish they catch require special poles for which we don’t now how to make, so we must ask the men for help with making these poles, only we don’t know how to go about contacting them or even how to work with them in the first place.
    There seem to be certain necessary conditions that must be in place in order to even think about helping men build this new pole.

  • bdelbian

    I am currently working with a nonprofit organization in Kosovo for a class project. The main goal of the project is to come up with solutions that the impoverished people in Kosovo can use in order to help improve their quality of life. It does not necessarily have to be something innovative, but it can be. The top ideas that my team comes up with will actually be implemented in Kosovo, which I think is a pretty big deal.
    That being said, how do you go about designing new products or ideas for an impoverished group when you do not have a means of actually going to that place? In all reality, I cannot say that I have been in these people’s shoes, but of course I would love to help them in any way that I can. What is the best way to go about helping people you cannot necessarily meet and work with one on one?

  • JeremyWahl

    thanks for the article. i think a lot of developers only look at a small group and need to look at the bigger scale sometimes. reaching out to a bigger scale and working with other countries would be great but it is easy to just stay to what you know and stay to what is easiest.

  • wegener61

    You also need to understand and possibly experience the daily problems that people in foreign markets face. Marketing for the proper people, and making a product affordable to those who really need it are two vastly separate things.

  • Sara_Kay0316

    I completely that it is more accessible to stay in our comfort zone, but it would be incredible if there came a time when we could reach out a little more. Hopefully as time progresses we can find a way to make this happen!

  • Austin Jones

    I agree, everyone needs help sometimes. especially those who are up and coming. Doing it on your own can be tough. sometimes the smallest amount of guidance can make such a huge difference