Let social impact not be an excuse for bad design


When the emotional appeal of designs aiming for impact trumps their inherent merit, costly failures & broken communities ensue.

The story of PlayPump’s fall from grace has almost become ubiquitous in design circles when discussing the ground realities of developing products for the other 90%. What was once hailed as a trailblazing solution to the water crisis in developing countries, a design so simple that it made you go ‘duh, why hasn't this been done before’, is now the poster child of what not to do when designing for social impact.

It is essentially a merry-go-round hooked to an overhead tank allowing kids in sub-Saharan Africa to pump water during their playtime, storing it for use later by the entire community. The design looked elementary enough, & packed with some tug-at-your-heartstrings marketing (see pic below), the project easily appealed to international development aid donors. Soon the funds were pouring in by the millions. Until within a couple years of deployment, it all dried up. The dollars, the pumps & the dreams.
So what went wrong?

The emotional appeal of designs like the PlayPump brings in a rush of funds, often leading to large deployments without long term & widespread trials or quality checks.

Plenty, if you look closely. After all, it takes a particularly powerful failure to inspire an entire PhD thesis on the topic! The pumps were soon rusting, the kids eventually got bored when ‘play’ turned into ‘work’, the women were stopping for hours to turn the wheels in pairs. But the worst hit were villages where the existing handwells were replaced with this seemingly flawless innovation without exhaustive trials or even discussions with the local communities.

Without trying to delve too much on one company’s noble attempt gone awry, this example has some a key lesson for designers- customer is king, especially when he is living at the bottom of the pyramid. While designing for this audience, the over 3 billion people living on less than $2.5 a day, it is easy to get attracted to simplistic, feel good solutions. But much like the case for any new product launched in the market, only those that make the end consumer genuinely satisfied, will be adopted & even get a chance to create an impact. While we are reasonably harsh in judging innovations aimed at blending into our fast 21st century urban lifestyles, the same judgement is sometimes reserved when it comes to designs targeting the remaining population.

When confronted by a radical new product for everyday adoption (think hoverboards & air-based nutrition), the biggest risk even the craziest ideas run is to not become commercially successful, eventually fading from memory except for a small but loyal set of consumers. However, when the groundbreaking new products are meant to serve consumers living below the poverty line or struggling to make ends meet, the implications of a failure are manifold.

PlayPump is a cautionary tale against preempting the success of radical untested designs & then rushing to the markets with a one size fits all solution. Let’s look for example at the much loved & lauded backpacker novelty LifeStraw, a portable water purifier that filters water in real time as you drink through it. About 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water globally & every 21 seconds a child dies of diarrhea. This is one of the company’s target audiences. You must have seen the rather fascinating shots (like the visual below) that reaffirm your faith in the design breakthrough. Could something possibly be amiss?

LifeStraw featured on the cover of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s ‘Design for the other 90%’ exhibition.

An early skeptic of the product, Mulago Foundation’s Kevin Starr, noted how the pipe was too expensive & too slow for mass adoption. Those early designs took nearly 3 minutes to filter a glass of water & costed well over a week’s income for people in the poorest regions of the world to buy! Improvising on the initial design & adapting it for different use cases, the manufacturer, Vestergaard, now has an entire product line of LifeStraws to apparently meet all requirements. It not only adapted the product design to try & serve the target consumers better, it also introduced a unique sustainable financing model so as not to rely on government or aid funds. Criticism still remains (the self-funding relies on carbon credits which is not without controversy) & the jury is still out on a final verdict on how long & far wide will the impact eventually be, but we can all agree that the continued iterations eventually result in a product more functional for the end BoP consumers, thus able to create a more enduring impact on large underserved communities.

The sad reality of concepts like PlayPump is that by meaning to solve a “social problem”, we are confronted with designs that appeal to us on an emotional level while promising glamorous expectations. Often enough, we overlook the underlying strengths & weaknesses of the designs themselves under the garb of the ‘well-intentioned’ label. Rigorous trials, strict quality controls, extreme affordability, viable last mile distribution, profound understanding of the communities they target, built-in adaptability to the conditions where they’ll eventually be put to use. Any of this is slightly ignored & the whole idea of designing for social impact becomes a mere sexy moniker, without much impact, scale or sustainability.

A recent example of this happening is the curious case of SOCCKET, the energy harnessing soccer ball. The clever & creative idea comes from two Harvard grads who set out on a mission “to build a collective invested in the power of play for social good”. Simply put, the modified soccer ball stores kinetic energy during playtime to be later used as a source of electrical energy. Ain’t that smart! For users in disadvantaged communities, corporations and public institutions underwrite the cost of SOCCKET through bulk/wholesale ball purchases & they are distributed in the field with partner NGOs. The product received multiple awards & successfully ran a Kickstarter campaign, exceeding their goal of $75,000. President Barack Obama himself was spotted testing the soccer ball in Tanzania & SOCCKET programs have become active in Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil and Haiti.

The fun & powerful SOCCKET in action. And a broken one ‘after’ all the action. (Courtesy @CollinsJen for @TinySpark_org)

Though not all were impressed, the product seemed set for greatness, which lasted only till it was put to use. Despite a very capable & scrappy team working on the design & execution, when a Mexico based reporter followed up on the product in the field, all signs pointed to a failed design. The balls had lasted anywhere between a few days to a few months. The backers on Kickstarter also mouthed similar complains after receiving an underwhelming product which looked worn out within minutes of play & stopped working soon enough. The latest update on the project page is a contrite apology from the team, acknowledging a slew of manufacturing & quality control errors & promising a sturdier, improved redesign.

To their full credit, bringing such a challenging concept from paper to life was never an easy task, & the SOCCKET team goes back to the drawing board with invaluable lessons & renewed conviction. Hopefully in times to come this concept is mastered to perfection & we have a beautiful, functional, playful answer to the energy crunch. But the underlying question remains, are we too quick in hailing the perceived outcome of a social solution without being diligent in its design foundation?

Could all this mean slowing down on designing for social impact or affordability? Absolutely not! None of this takes anything away from the hard work & passion being poured into designing products & services specifically for populations living at the base of the socioeconomic pyramid. What we need to ensure is that the do-good sentiment doesn't oversimplify the core problems, rendering beautiful, albeit out of context, solutions. A classic example where lack of understanding of local sensibilities led to a fall out between an elegantly designed product & its wide spread adoption, is the Hippo Roller redesign & distribution undertaken by Project H in its early days.

Early Hippo Roller Re-design (Courtesy Alisa Walker @FastCompany & Collin Dunn @TreeHugger)

The original product, called the ‘Aqua Roller’, was designed by a couple of South Africans to make it easier to collect & carry water in undeveloped communities as compared to traditional methods. The young & ambitious Project H team, lead by the brilliant Emily Pilloton, chose this as one of their first projects & raised funds to distribute 75 Hippo Rollers initially. During their first field trip the team noticed glaring design flaws (ineffective production lines, wastage of space when packing the empty containers leading to expensive shipping costs, low durability of the rubber o-rings etc).

Project H’s Emily Pilloton on the cover of MAKE magazine’s 40th issue on makerspaces.

Getting Engineers Without Border on board, they set about making tweaks to revitalize the product & soon had distributed the brand new rollers in Kgautswane, a rural community in northeastern South Africa. With the élan of a full fledged design consultancy, the team tackled each design inefficacy head on. However, the effort was not sustainable & even met some sharp critique. Hippo Rollers gradually turned to be an experiment in the evolving expertise of Project H, leading them to vow to take only such projects where the designers & partners understood & worked in the same location. Emily has since shifted the Project H headquarters to the poorest county in North Carolina, done incredible work in the local community, written two well received books on designing for social impact, emerged as the face of the Maker movement, & firmly established Project H as an award winning team of designers deeply connected to the people & problems they seek to serve. She summarizes that first experiment with Hippo Roller below, giving some critical lessons to others tackling similar problems:

The Hippo Roller re-design project was in many ways the biggest error we have made as an organization. …We had yet to see the value of local work, and were drawn to the simplicity of a device that so clearly has the potential to improve life. In hindsight, the process of redesigning the Hippo Roller was misguided and disconnected because of its lack of direct collaboration with end users, and a minimal shared investment in its success. — Emily Pilloton (Published here)

Today more than ever the excitement around designing for social impact is more than just a buzz. It’s an attractive opportunity being turned into sustainable careers by a number of impassioned designers. And how can that be anything but good? Just as long as we are careful to not let the innate nobility of our ideas veil the merits of good design.


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