A Behind-the-Scenes Look at How We Design Life-Changing Services for Farmers

Proximity Designs
Oct 31 · 12 min read

A Proximity staffer spent a week on the road with our research team to learn exactly what we mean when we say design research.

The sound of a brass gong pierces the air, marking the end of breakfast and the start of a busy work day for our team of design researchers.

With bellies full of coconut noodles, the 10 experts huddle in the dining room at their hotel in Magway, in Myanmar’s central dry zone, to discuss the day ahead.

There’ll be in-depth interviews at a small sesame farming village on the outskirts of town, and a visit to a factory where the crop is turned into snacks, followed by a long evening of crunching the day’s data.

Seven members of this crack team are from Proximity Designs and three from Studio D, a world-renowned consultancy with offices in Tokyo and San Francisco.

I shadowed them for a week during an intensive field research trip earlier this year that spanned almost two months and was the result of six months of detailed planning.

Their goal was to gain an intimate understanding of Myanmar’s sesame industry and the lives of those who work in it — knowledge that will prove invaluable in designing products and services to help farmers boost yields, improve quality, and gain access to more valuable markets. My goal was to learn firsthand what exactly the ‘design’ in Proximity Designs means.

The team’s research was based on a concept known as human centered design, which is at the heart of what we do. The basic idea is to put the people who are going to use our products and services front and center of the design process. That means empathizing with them and meeting them in their own environment to work out their needs and come up with solutions.

The fruits of this research will be published on 7th November in our book, When It Rains, It Pours. It follows on from a 2016 book we published called Paddy to Plate, which was the result of a two-month deep dive, again with Studio D, into Myanmar’s rice ecosystem.

That research looked at how Myanmar’s biggest crop shapes the lives of millions of people, and over the past three years it has helped us roll out services to fulfil needs that had been totally overlooked, and boost incomes for hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers.

Our Soil Health Diagnostic Service, for example, gives farmers a breakdown of what’s in their soil — and what’s lacking — then recommends specific fertilizers to boost crop health and yields. Our Farm Advisory SMS service gives real-time alerts about pests, bad weather and crop diseases, something which simply wasn’t available in Myanmar despite the massive increase in mobile phone penetration in recent years.

Thanks to the success of these services, our customers have been asking us for similar practices for sesame, Myanmar’s second largest staple crop.

In When It Rains, It Pours we lay the foundations for that by identifying key areas of opportunity. For example, we found there was a gap in the market for loans that serve the specific needs of sesame farmers. The repayment terms for loans on offer now are too restrictive for farmers struggling to cover the cost of clearing and preparing their land before planting, and of weeding and harvesting later.

The ‘gambling crop’

The sesame industry has been largely overlooked by Myanmar’s policymakers even though the country is one of the world’s largest exporters of the crop. There has been little support to grow markets or add value to finished products. That means there is an enormous opportunity for our human-centered approach to impact the lives of people in this industry.

Sesame in Myanmar has an unwelcome association with failure and financial ruin because of its unique sensitivity to changes in the weather. To make matters worse it is farmed mostly in the rugged and often unforgiving climate of the central dry zone.

“Farmers know they’re always going to get something in return when they plant rice, but sesame is so dependent on the weather that it’s known as the gambling crop,” said Nang Seng Aye, Proximity’s Chief Agronomist. “That’s why, historically, no one has cared about sesame or the people who grow it.”

She added: “This research is going to give us a very detailed picture of who these sesame farmers are, what they’re doing, when they’re doing it, and exactly what products and services we can design to have the most impact.”

There’s a lack of data on sesame in Myanmar. Even official government figures only count around 12 percent of exports. And while institutions like the World Bank have done research into the sector, it doesn’t offer the level of detail needed to bring about new ways of doing things that can transform the market for the better. That’s where design research comes in.

“So a World Bank report might tell you a sesame farmer has to spend X amount of money per acre and, let’s say, 40% to 50% of that goes towards labor,” said Sarah Fathallah, a design researcher with Studio D.

“Our report will add: ‘this is the amount you have to pay for labor but 20 to 50 percent of that is paid in advance two months before harvesting, and X amount is paid on this date, but farmers need to be able to take out informal loans to pre-pay the labor because the disbursement of the formal loan doesn’t line up with when they need the labor.’”

The process

To get information that rich, the team has to sort through large volumes of data gleaned from interviews, like financial figures and budgets, observations about weather patterns, and information on farmers’ daily routines. The research covered three towns — Magway, Aunglan, and Pwintbyu — and the team spent a further two weeks in the quiet hill town of Kalaw making sense of their findings.

But the process of organizing the data begins before the team does its first interview. Research coordinators Nway Nway and Nilar arrived in each town ahead of everyone else to identify the right participants and set up meetings so the team can launch straight into research when they arrive.

And as the interview notes pile up, it’s vital that the team has a good process in place to help them pick out the important trends. So in each location they set up a pop-up command center. The walls of the hotel room they commandeered for this purpose in Magway quickly became a mosaic of post-its, butcher’s paper and A4 sheets containing thousands of data points from the previous days’ interviews.

Here’s what a typical day of doing design research looks like:

7am Wake up, move upstairs to the dining area. Nilar and Nay are cooking shan noodles for the team. Rotating breakfast duty is one of several rituals the team does to instill a sense of shared responsibility.

8am Sarah strikes a triangular brass gong, another team ritual which signifies the beginning of the work day, and everyone gathers in the studio. Nay leads the “stand-up”, or morning meeting, where the team discuss what they’ll be working on today. In the morning we’ll go out to a small village 40 minute’s drive away where Sarah, Nway Nway and Nilar will interview machinery owners to make headway on a framework they’re working on.

What is a framework?

A framework is any kind of structure that helps make sense of information about a particular subject. A framework for understanding, say, a village might ask how many buildings, vehicles, people and animals it has; 500 residents, 250 of whom are farmers, 1 tractor, 12 ducks, 0 schools, and so on. It’s a way of deciding what information you want from your research so you can write better interview questions, and it helps researchers to efficiently organize large amounts of information as they get it. An interview with a sesame miller might throw up a fragment of information about the process of exporting produce to China. The team decides this is worth pursuing, and sets up a framework detailing the various stages a sesame seed goes through between production in rural Shan state, to consumption in urban China. It’s assigned an owner, who then organizes the team to collect the necessary data over the course of the next few days. “Frameworks help stop people overlapping,” says Nway, a researcher with Proximity Designs. “Each team member has a framework that they’re trying to fill out and that’s what guides them when they ask questions. This means questions are more deliberate. It means we don’t ask the same questions over and over again.”

9am Everyone piles into a minivan. Nay’s mix of 90s pop RnB classics blares out of the sound system. We bounce along the highway singing along to TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ at the top of our lungs.

9.40am The music is turned down as we turn off the bitumen road and into the dusty lane running through the centre of the village. We pull into the courtyard of a two-storey wooden house. Nilar and Nway Nway, who were here a week ago setting up interviews, get out of the car first and speak to an older lady who tells them who’s ready to be interviewed. Some people are still at the market and will be returning soon, she says. Teams fan out across the village as per the lady’s instructions. A gang of school-age kids follows behind Sarah, Nway Nway, Nilar and I as we walk to a house for our first interview.

10am We’re greeted by an elderly lady who tells us to sit down at a table laid out for us with plates of laphet thoke (tea leaf salad), a thermos of green tea and bananas. Her husband will join us later, she says. The lady and her husband are sesame farmers and were the first in the village to buy a tractor. They use it during ploughing, seeding and harvesting and run a side business renting it to other farmers.

This is in-depth interview, as opposed to an ad-hoc one. Sarah reads off a list of questions, Nway Nway translates and Nilar takes notes. Sarah goes down the list asking about access to farm finance (virtually non existent) and when demand for their tractor is highest (summer harvest) and lowest (off season, around August and September). The gang of kids, much larger now, hangs back in the doorway, watching.

11.25am The husband joins the interview for a moment before Sarah asks if they could show us their machines. They lead us over to the tractor and plough attachments parked behind their house. We take photos of them smiling, standing against the large back wheel of the bright orange tractor. Sarah jumps up into the cabin and takes photos of the dashboard.

In-depth vs ad-hoc

Interviews are divided into a few formats, the main ones being in-depth and ad-hoc. In-depth interviews are organized ahead of time and are where we get most of the key information we’re looking for. They are held in context — in a home, field, or workplace — and focus on individuals, such as the head of the household, but often include others who are present. They usually last between one and two hours. We do ad-hoc interviews if we meet or hear about someone in a village or at a market who we think can offer valuable insights, like sesame transporters and retailers. These interviews last between 5 and 50 minutes.

11.40am We say goodbye to the couple and walk back to the car. The other teams have also finished their interviews so we get in the car and head back to Magway. We stop for lunch at a restaurant on the main road serving buffet style Myanmar curry. Delicious.

1.15pm Everyone piles back into the car. Our driver is going to drop people off at different stops around town. Sarah, Nway, Nay and I get out at a downtown shopping mall where we are scheduled to meet the owner of Magway’s biggest sesame cracker brand.

1.40pm We meet the company’s founder, his son and daughter in-law in a windowless room in a cafe at the back of the mall. The AC is blasting and provides a welcome respite from the oven-like dry zone heat outside. The TV on the wall, large speakers and U-shaped black leather couch suggest the room doubles as a KTV lounge at night. Nway works through a list of questions with the interviewees while Nay takes notes.

2.20pm The interview finishes and the old man and the son say goodbye. We follow the daughter-in-law out of the mall and across the road to the factory. In the forecourt outside the warehouse large machines filled with white sesame seeds — a roasting drum, a giant mechanical mortar and pestle and a sesame screening machine — spin, whir and pound away. Inside, workers in red shirts use wooden paddles stir large steel vats filled with sugar and warm butter. Some feed sheets of warm sesame brittle through heavy rollers, others slice the brittle into squares. Nway asks questions, Sarah takes photos.

3.05pm We catch a tuk-tuk across town and back to the hotel. Back in the the pop-up studio Sarah, Nway and Nay start filling the day’s data into Google sheets. Other teams return and start cataloguing their data and finishing frameworks.

6pm Nilar rings the triangular gong and everyone stops what they’re doing. Grace will be leading this evening’s debrief. Going from left to right, each team member briefly summarises the day’s interviews and progress they’ve made on frameworks.

6.20pm Pens and post-its are handed out on which everyone is given three minutes to write as many insights and observations from their interviews as they can. One at a time, people stand up and read out an observation before sticking it to the “data wall” — a large sheet of butcher’s paper tacked to the wall. The team groups similar observations together, and patterns in the data begin to emerge.

7pm The group outlines plans for tomorrow. There are more in-depth interviews, ad-hoc interviews that need scheduling, and frameworks to finish. New frameworks that emerged from the debrief are assigned owners.

7.20pm Dinner is delivered to the room and placed on a small table. People grab a plate and sit wherever there is space.

8pm Work is done for the day. We quickly clean up the studio and most team members go back to their rooms for some well-earned rest. A few stay a little longer to finish their frameworks.

Living, breathing data

The ultimate goal of design research is to create products and services that customers love using. But we think it’s also important for the team to feel a strong connection to the research they do, the people they meet along the way, and the data they gather from them. In other words the same principles we apply to designing products are applied to the research process itself. That’s why we ring a gong, why we share breakfast duty, and why we have a nightly meeting where everyone contributes something; it all adds a sense of ritual and purpose.

The very act of checking in with your peers at the same time every night in the midst of a long project has a grounding effect when progress can be hard to gauge, said Grace Su, a lead researcher on the project.

“On big projects it gets hard to make sure every voice is heard but the way the process is set up, everyone has an equal amount of time to share their thoughts and observations. It’s a fundamentally empowering process, especially for the younger, less experienced members of the team,” she added.

As Sarah from Studio D explained over lunch back in Magway, having staff who hold a deep connection to the research experience, their team members and the farmers they meet means the research carries life long after the project is over.

“We’re not here to create something and run,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why we like to work with Proximity, because they are the living, breathing champions of the data.”

When it Rains, It Pours is out on 7th November. Click here to find out more:

Proximity Field Notes

Stories about farmers, rice and Myanmar, told by Proximity Designs

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