Design Lessons from the Consumer at the Bottom of the Pyramid

Deepa Prahalad

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Deepa Prahalad for the Harvard Business Review blog “The Conversation” series. “The Conversation is our home for inspired insights and observations from a wide array of contributors.” To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Close to a decade after the idea of the “Bottom of the Pyramid” (BOP) came into the business vocabulary (disclosure: my father, C.K. Prahalad, put it there), the struggle to understand its role as a market and as a source of innovation continues.

Yes, there are notable examples of BOP innovation from global corporations (such as the GE portable ECG machine) and emerging market companies (such as the Chotukool refrigerator) that have broken through in global markets. Yet businesspeople and designers still have much to learn from and about the BOP consumer.

At the BOP, affordability is necessary but not sufficient. Tastes and aspirations change rapidly. This is precisely what can make the BOP such an important learning platform for designers. Independent of any altruistic motives, engaging with the BOP can help designers and innovators gain insight into the following three key issues:

[This is the first. Please click here to read the entire article.]

1. Usability: A great idea remains just that until it is manifested into a design that motivates people to use it. The bar for usability is very high in developed markets because of an abundance of choice and competition. A great interface, ease of use and a pleasurable consumer experience help break through the noise.

Ironically, the usability test in the BOP is often even higher precisely because the poor remained below the radar of multinational corporations for so long. BOP consumers are used to creating their own gadgets with what they have or with help from the community. That means that the poor are used to getting a highly personalized interface at an acceptable price point with very low training requirements. There is also help available locally and affordably when things break down.

The poor are also used to a highly collaborative design process. While a custom-made garment is a luxury even for middle and high-income consumers in Europe or the US, it is the norm for many poor consumers. The same is true for personal care products and small electronics. Women in India often mix their own beauty products from herbal powders at home, and local electronics shops fix and modify devices to suit consumers’ needs.

Demographics also force companies to sharpen usability. In India and China, multigenerational households are still the norm. Due to the recession, they’re making a comeback in the U.S., too: from 4.8% to 6.1% of households. Communal purchase decisions and usage patterns make the BOP a robust testing ground for usability across generations, skill sets, aesthetic preferences and income categories. Cell phone makers, for example, have used ethnography to ensure that their devices can be shared easily among family members.

Much of the angst regarding the BOP stems from unresolved questions about whether (and how) companies can do well by doing good. The simple answer is that the financial and social value of BOP initiatives is as individual as the firms and entrepreneurs leading them. Engaging with the BOP should not be a debate about the social obligation of the firm. In many cases, companies may be doing themselves a favor.

Deepa Prahalad is a strategy consultant and co-author (with Ravi Sawhney) of Predictable Magic: Unleash the Power of Design Strategy to Transform Your Business (Wharton School Publishing, 2010)

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