How to Design a Product When You Are Not Your End User: 5 Deep Product Development Lessons from Rural Africa

You’ve got a problem.

You’re experiencing a common, everyday annoyance for the hundred-and-third time. In frustration, you think: there has to be an easier way. Then — if you have the right skills and resources — you build a solution, put it on the market, and quickly find success as an innovator and entrepreneur. Instant profit.

That’s the storybook version of how great products get invented. And in a decade when so many startup ideas can be summed up as “Uber for [insert increasingly less necessary consumer service here]” or “a new smart [insert increasingly less necessary household object here]” it sounds plausible enough. Start with your own experience, wind up launching the next big app or platform.

It’s a fun story. But in reality, it’s almost as outdated as the one where the fresh-faced grad starts in the mailroom and bootstraps his way up to the corner office.

The next big developments in tech are not going to come from people solving “first-world problems” with greater and greater precision.

They’re going to come from people applying digital technologies to solve much deeper problems: hunger, poverty, and lack of access to the tools that make it possible to overcome them.

And that means that if you are a digital native from a wealthy country and you set out to build products that truly matter, you will frequently not be able to start from your own personal experience. Your habits, your assumptions, your intuitions about how good products should look and work — they won’t help you here.

NINAYO is an online marketplace that enables smallholder farmers to find guaranteed buyers for their crops at a fair price. I founded it after spending about three years working in one of the rural Tanzanian communities our platform serves, starting as a teacher with the Peace Corps and expanding into agriculture trading once I discovered how volatile the local maize market was.

So when I set out to build NINAYO, I knew the people our platform would serve. I had a hands-on grasp of the problems it would solve.

But the fact remains that I’m an American who’d never been anywhere in Africa before my Peace Corps service. Even spending three years embedded within a market doesn’t necessarily equip you to find instant product-market fit.

Today, NINAYO has more than 25,000 users selling what they grow (and chipping away at the 30% of Tanzanian crops that rot each year due to market inefficiencies).

We’re still very much a startup. We’re still scaling, refining, experimenting with different revenue models in the hopes of growing faster.

But we couldn’t have crossed that 25,000-user mark without learning some huge lessons in product design — lessons that would have been much harder to learn had I become a startup founder in Silicon Valley instead of rural Africa.

  1. Beware of “universal” design standards.
Backpack straps: Feature or bug?

Above is a photo I took in January that says so much about the mistakes companies make designing products for users they don’t really understand.

The woman in the photo is carrying what appears to be a full and heavy backpack… atop her head. Like most Tanzania women, she probably learned this practice from her mother by bringing buckets of water up from the river on her head to the village.

She is skilled at this and does not need to use her hands. Those straps were designed to be a key feature, but for this user, they’re worse than useless — they’re actively annoying.

If you want to design the world’s best backpack, first you’d better make sure that your user base doesn’t prefer to carry things on their heads.

Almost all of NINAYO’s users access the internet on mobile phones which don’t load Java (a programming language). If we’d been starting from a blank slate, armed only with our conceptions of what makes a good platform, we’d probably have produced a much more “beautiful” interface with much more robust functionality.

By building within these constraints, however, we were able to open up a major opportunity by partnering with Facebook’s Free Basics Platform, allowing users to search the site for with no data cost. When you are working with the “Bottom of the Pyramid”, anything that lowers costs for users is a huge advantage.

Many of our users are not familiar with navigating websites. We found that our users often needed us to spell things out that more frequent internet users would take for granted. NINAYO.com is not flashy. You might see buttons with more text than you’re used to and explanations that seem more explicit than necessary.

But on a mobile phone with a weak signal, in the hands of farmers who might have only a few minutes to get online that day, it works.

2. Investigate the historical and emotional context around your product.

Talk to your users!

Farmers in impoverished areas tend to have heard a lot of promises from different NGOs that have passed through over the years. (That’s a topic for another post.)

So when they encounter yet another group promising a new tool to help them improve their farming operations — well, some very reasonable skepticism surfaces.

In our case, we came to realize that no promises or signals of trustworthiness we could build into NINAYO would be as powerful as a direct, positive experience. So now we’re trying something new and engineering those positive experiences, by buying crops from our users ourselves. Once they’ve tested the platform and found it to be trustworthy, they’re more likely to build it into their everyday operations.

If you’re building a product for people who aren’t you, be sure to ask yourself:

What solutions have already been proposed to this problem in the past?

And how have users reacted to those solutions — behaviorally and emotionally?

The answers might increase the work you have to do (inside or outside of your product), but they’ll ultimately help grow your customer base much more quickly.

3. Recognize when you’re just too far away from your user.

Nearly a quarter of Tanzanian adults don’t read, and that figure only rises in rural areas. That’s a huge chunk of our potential user population.

Early on, we debated ways to account for this within NINAYO. Heavy use of pictures? A totally symbol-based interface?

But ultimately, we couldn’t arrive at a solution we felt would deliver the same quality experience for illiterate users as it would for literate ones. We decided to build our interface with the expectation that users could read, creating a unified experience for our core user base rather than a fragmented one that could accommodate everyone.

These decisions are never easy to make. And maybe someday we’ll have the resources and expertise we’d need to create a text-free version of NINAYO. But for now, we can be sure we’re serving users whose information habits we better understand.

4. Calibrate user tests with cultural defaults in mind.

Translating Swahili to English is not enough, translating between cultures matters too.

The farmers NINAYO serves come from a very polite culture.

I’m still amazed at how quickly I was made to feel welcome as a new Peace Corps volunteer. And that culture has made it much easier to make connections and set up product demos than it might be in other parts of the world.

But it’s also made it tough to get unfiltered user feedback. In rural Tanzania, it isn’t polite to tell somebody their product has a gaping design flaw that’s preventing you from setting up your user profile.

It’s better to smile, praise the product, and then, when the developer or designer or researcher leaves, go back to never using it.

This effect pops up all over in user research, but it requires extra attention when you’re testing a product in a different cultural context. You may end up relying much more heavily on user behavior than on verbal feedback. Or you simply may need to know that for your users, “It’s great!” means “It’s minimally acceptable!” and adjust your scale accordingly.

5. Become your own user.

It gets messy.

There’s no substitute for firsthand experience — and that goes double when you’re not automatically part of your target audience.

I mentioned earlier that NINAYO itself is starting to act as a buyer for users’ crops. That’s helping get farmers using and loving the product faster. But just as important, it’s giving us a firsthand perspective on the platform as users.

That kind of insight has been so invaluable, we’re actually building crop-buying into our business model.

I’m planning to write more about that shift in a post to come. It’s a big next step in our adventure, and I admit I didn’t foresee it when we founded NINAYO.

But that’s how this works. Design with deep attention toward your users, and they’ll take you places you never could have envisioned on your own.