Acumen Blog


Tim Brown Responds to Acumen Fund’s Lesson #6 – Great technology alone is not the answer

Acumen Fund is committed to sharing the learnings we have collected over our past 10 years. In this spirit, we have published  a document called “10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty.” Each week on the Acumen Fund Blog, we will be posting the next lesson in this series of “10 Things,” along with a guest response from a valued member of our community.

6. Great technology alone is not the answer

Think of a product. The iPhone, the syringe, the water filter, the cookstove…

Surrounding any product are multiple layers of experience.  The product itself is just the first layer.  But there are dozens more layers that impact the usefulness and desirability of a product that go beyond its basic technology.

Often times, services surround a product.  It might be the experience of how you got that product in the first place – perhaps it is going to a retailer or undergoing a medical procedure.  There is also the experience of storytelling – understanding brand or the story of the product that enhances its value.

IDEO focuses on all of these layers of experience, and we rely on human-centered design to do this.  In order to put human experience at the center of design requires the designer to think not just about what that product is, but the entire chain of how that product reaches and impacts people.  No matter whether you are serving high-end markets or the BoP, it has become immensely clear that if you focus on enhancing only one layer of experience of a product and let the rest fall by the wayside, users won’t be able to access the solution or the solution won’t sustain itself.

We have seen over and over that the poor have a desire to buy products that entice them and inspire them, just like everybody else. We have also seen the power that effective marketing and storytelling can have on driving uptake and fueling social impact.

In 2008, IDEO partnered with Acumen Fund on Ripple Effect, a project in which we sought to seed innovation in clean drinking water delivery in India and Kenya.  We focused on innovating not only at the level of technology and storage products, but we helped develop prototypes for in companies’ marketing and storytelling, so that users understood the value of safe drinking water and safe ways of accessing it.  During the Ripple Effect pilot projects,  Water Health International (WHI), set up microscopes connected to projectors so that people could bring in their water and actually see the contaminants.  Subsequently, the company saw this strategy drive uptake significantly.

Technological innovation is undoubtedly changing our world; but the institutions that have the most impact will reach people through investing not in technology alone – but investing in all layers of customer experience.

The Ripple Effect in India, by IDEO and Acumen Fund from IDEO on Vimeo.

Tim Brown is CEO of IDEO, an international design and innovation consultancy. He sits on the Acumen Fund Board of Advisors.


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