The following is a guest post by Mark Kamau, lead of the iHub’s UXLab and our partner for a recent prototype we tested in Nairobi. We asked him to reflect on his experience participating in our design challenge and how it fits into his broader mission to foster a design thinking community in Nairobi.
When we set out to do the first user experience lab in Africa, we were convinced that there are enough Africans smart enough, who cared enough, to help solve Africa’s problems.
Kenya is a country that epitomizes such energy and entrepreneur spirit. Over the last decade, hundreds of startups and social enterprises have emerged earnestly churning out products and pushing them to the market for their commercial or social value. As the market matures and the landscape forms, it is possible to take a look and analyze what we have been doing right and what we can improve.
One of the main challenges we have is that we far too often jump to code, enterprise or social cause with energy and vigor, but without a user centric approach. We develop solutions based on assumptions. My observation recently (and with a lot of relief) has been that people don’t do that because they are arrogant, but often because they don’t know how to go about engaging the people they are designing solutions for.
This lack of design thinking knowhow is the one of the largest threats to the African entrepreneur, social or commercial. Fewer of us than should be are succeeding. This clearly cannot continue and that is why we set out the iHub UX Lab to help address this gap between solutions and the people they target. To help these solutions people focused.
Last week we had an eye-opening design thinking workshop with Jenny Stefanotti and Jeremy Weinstein from Stanford University. We used a healthcare design challenge to learn design-thinking methods. We had participants from techies to organizations working in the democratic/governance space including SmartVote Kenya and Ushahidi.
The lesson for me begun before the class; determining the design challenge was a collaborative and insightful process. Eventually we arrived on a challenge focusing on the health care system in the slums.
The highlight for me was the empathy work we did in the slums of Mathare (it is one of the most impoverished and dangerous slums in Kenya), where a mother of two was kind enough to speak to me and my colleague and explain the challenges she faces from her own experience. I was particularly surprised by a local health care provider with a burning passion to help people. He had helped many for nothing and had a desire to do even more. My assumption that unlicensed health care givers were out for a quick buck taking advantage of desperation in the slums was in this case blown out of the window. So was my assumption that the mother of two, being illiterate, had no way of telling who sold counterfeit medicine or not. These were some of the many insights the whole group uncovered, showing how important it is to engage people.
In the end, tough as it was to be back in a slum I literally grew up in and seeing the grip poverty has on people, the empathy work formed a perfect example why design thinking is so important as we try to address Africa’s challenges. People matter. Whoever you are, whatever you design, people matter. It might break your heart, make you excited, blow you away… Whatever the case, it forms an informed perspective.
As we brainstormed and formed ideas along the design process from d.school, the energy in the room was palpable. We knew who we were designing for and having a face to the challenge meant something. It was no longer just an assumption, but a clear, social problem with human faces. That was the most powerful fuel!
At the end of the day, we were clearly moving from step to step forming so many ideas and we could trace all of them to a specific, human challenge with a face. To me, design thinking is one of the most powerful tools for developing ideas and one I will do my best to expose as many Kenyans and Africans as I can to. Whatever it takes. We can solve Africa’s problems, one at a time. As long as we invest ourselves and energies in a smart way.
Imagine all the energy and effort we have been putting into designing solutions thus far. Now imagine us doing it smarter. It excites and energizes me to imagine how much more we can achieve with design thinking! It is the iHub UXlab’s raison d’etre.
The icing on the cake was a talk on how Max Ventilla, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Jenny’s husband, has been able to practically apply design thinking with a resilient, forward moving, constant improvement attitude. It beautifully tied in the workshop to true startup experience. His talk totally changed the way I am going about setting up the first user experience design lab in sub Saharan Africa. Instead of waiting for the perfectly kitted lab, I am buying the minimum basic components and I will use these to get started. It might sound obvious, but my ambition and idealism had gotten in the way of my vision: to help develop a user centric design culture in Kenya and in Africa.
Thank you Jenny, Jeremy, and Max for an amazing experience and for sharing yourselves with us.
What a week!