How PSI and Novek are turning vending machines into trusted contraceptive access points

Accessing contraception at pharmacies or clinics can be an uncomfortable experience, depending on where you live.

That’s why in Nairobi, global health NGO Population Services International (PSI), alongside PSI independent network member Population Services Kenya and Novek, a Kenya-based Internet of Things startup, are turning to “contraceptive vending machines.”

Because as the team discovered during the project’s Human-Centered Design (HCD) design process, young people aged 18–24 years want easy access to contraception, on their own terms.

What insights led the team to land on a self-service solution? What have our prototype tests shown? And what learnings can you apply in similar sexual and reproductive health (SRH) programs? We dig in, below.

How We Got Here: Prototyping During a Pandemic

We wanted to deepen our understanding of our target consumers’ needs at the onset of design; after all, to deliver a relevant and resonant solution, their insights had to guide the process.

We aimed to gather, and test:

Consumer priorities: user experience in purchasing contraception and the desirability, ease-of-use and convenience of any future contraceptive vending machines.

Design features: the ease of use of each of the features of the machine and what users liked or disliked about these features. We also examined the users’ confidence in operating the machine and any perceived risks in using a contraceptive vending machine. We also looked at what users liked or didn’t like about how the vending machine looks.

Appropriateness: if and how the machine resonated with consumers expectations and needs.

Product range: if the proposed contraceptive options in the vending machine aligned with consumers’ needs.

Confidentiality: if we were responding to consumers’ concerns about the privacy of any personal data the vending machine collected

Prototype Contraceptive Vending Machine

Setting Up Online Testing

On the heels of COVID-19, we rethought our approach to prototype testing. Like everything else in 2020, we went virtual, and tested our ideations via Zoom.

We started by updating our testing protocols. The key challenges we anticipated were whether we would get meaningful insights from this remote engagement, given the users’ inability to physically interact with the prototype.

We recruited a group of both female and male potential users, aged 18–24 years, and ensured they had a device they could use for the session.

We set up the vending machine in an office conference room and had two team members present to operate both the vending machine and the cameras. We set-up two cameras, one fixed-position, high-definition webcam that focused on a wide view of the vending machine and a second mobile-phone camera that would provide close-ups during our demonstration and interactions with the vending machine.

Camera set-up for prototype testing

What happened?

Participants confirmed their comfort with online meetings and the session facilitator guided the group in their remote interaction with the machine. The session focused on how intuitive it was for the participants to use the machine without receiving guidance, their opinions on the look and feel of the machine, the mobile money payment process, the proposed product range as well as their concerns about provision of personal data to the machine and the potential stigma associated with buying contraception from a vending machine.

What Users Told Us

“The feedback we received from users was that the process flow of the vending machine was simple and easy to understand…,” Aarons Chea, PSI Regional Researcher

Choice, at their fingertips: Consumers shared that they wanted access to contraception without confronting stigma or judgement from providers. The contraceptive vending machine, they shared, achieved that goal.

User experience: The feedback we received from users was that the vending machine was simple and easy to understand. Users simply had to select products –each listed with a picture, name and price –and check out directly from a touch screen. Through Lipa na Mpesa — a common platform used in Kenya for daily transactions — consumers pay by phone using an account number that appears on the screen. Once payment is received, the product is dispensed.

Look and feel: Female users told us they wanted light colors like white and pink, while male users wanted a “uni-sex” palette. We settled on yellow and amber — bright and perceived as gender-neutral colors. Users further requested that we provide additional instructions that would reduce potential concerns about purchasing products from the vending machine. Given that vending machines are not very common in Kenya, users expressed being ‘afraid’ of trying the vending machine if looked too complicated to use. The idea of having the user instructions printed was to remove the fear of the machine’s complexity.

Branded Vending Machine

Product range: Users proposed an expanded range of products — from condoms to emergency contraception and HIV self-testing kits. And yet we faced a predicament: if the machine sold only SRH products, then anyone using the machine was letting the world know their sexual activity status. So we pivoted, including snacks, and menstrual hygiene products in the machine, to provide users intended to purchase SRH products with a cover. A male respondent shared that he would buy both condoms and peanuts: pocket the condoms and walk away eating the nuts. Anyone seeing him would think he only bought the nuts, hence disguising. Problem solved

Confidentiality: Users endorsed the Lipa na Mpesa — run by the largest mobile phone company in Kenya — as a mobile money platform to pay for the vending machine products with. It’s well known and can be used for free.

What’s Next?

We’re iterating — using consumer insights to strengthen how we design and deliver the vending machines. In the next month, we’ll be deploying the machines to seven locations across downtown Nairobi, close to transport hubs and in parts of the city where young people can easily get to (i.e. commercial buildings where someone can walk in without having to ‘check-in’ with security).

And through it, we’ll be asking two key questions:

1) Once we move from testing to implementation, what will motivate users to buy contraception?

2) And, with an eye to functionality, will the vending machines work as intended… and how will we address the glitches that will inevitably arise?

Watch this space. We’ll update you along the way.



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