Design Problems in Global Development

Women in Sudan. Courtesy: UNDP

Alex Dehgan’s new Coursera offering on the Innovation and Design for Global Development has led me to see that many of the challenges in creating effective international development efforts are very similar to the challenges of launching successful technology products. Both are design problems, and there are numerous examples of failed efforts in both domains. Let’s explore two cases, both involving the use of products to solve for development challenges.


PlayPump was built a water pump for African countries. It was designed by a South African entrepreneur as a merry-go-round connected to a ground water pump. As children played on the PlayPump, water was pumped from the ground into an elevated water tank. The children had fun. The village got water. The walls of the water tank were even used for revenue generating billboard advertising.

PlayPump generated a lot of enthusiasm. Many donors got involved, including Laura Bush–the then first lady of the United States. Soon, PlayPump expanded to many African countries.

“A real disaster”

In 2010, Frontline produced a follow-up report and summarize a study of the PlayPump.

A report commissioned by the Mozambique government on the PlayPump that was never released, cited… [many] problems… – women finding it difficult to operate; pumps out of commission for up to 17 months; children not playing as expected on the merry-go-rounds, and maintenance, “a real disaster,” the report said.


Tiny Spark wrote a great story on the Soccket, so I’ll quote them here:

It’s a story about a pair of young Harvard graduates who said it was possible to harness the world’s love for soccer to generate electricity for poor kids.  They called their product the Soccket, formed a for-profit company, and began selling it to corporations and foundations in the U.S. and around the world. Co-founder Jessica Matthews launched the Soccket back in 2008, saying she had helped develop a soccer ball that converts kinetic energy into power. Just a half hour of play would generate three hours of light.

“The third day, the light went out”

The balls didn’t work in real-life conditions.

Failure to Understand the User

The failure of many development programs can be traced to a lack of true understanding of their targeted users. In the cases of the PlayPump and Soccket, solutions were developed by well-meaning outside agents who did not understand the full problem space that their products were intended to work in. More specifically, they did not appreciate the complex layers of needs, wants, and constraints that define their users’ lives and environments.

PlayPump solved for how water can be pumped while kids play. Soccket solved for how kinetic energy of soccer balls can be used to generate electricity. The result was that while the products did solve for their use-cases (quality problems not withstanding), they weren’t actually useful in the broader context of their users’ lives. In other words, the products were not designed well.

So how can products be designed better? How does a product designer understand the multitudes of needs, wants, and constraints, both explicit and latent, of their target users? Well, I think a design process centered around users is the only real way to design good products.

Human Centered Design

Here’s what IDEO says about the Human Centered Design technique.

It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.

We will explore HCD and Design Thinking further in future blogs.

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