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Many years ago I had an opportunity to partner with a mobile phone maker’s design team to research product needs for a device targeted to the 4 billion people who didn’t have access to the category. At the time, CK Prahalad’s “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” was driving strategy with global companies as they worked to expand the total addressable markets for their product portfolios. Instead of trying to force existing solutions into those markets, we decided to get firsthand knowledge of the lives of people who were in this market and we chose India as the place to invest our time.
We utilized an ethnographic methodology and immersed ourselves into the life of a family that lived in a village about four hours outside of New Delhi. And when I say immersed, I mean it. For four days, we lived under the same roof as this family. We slept in the same house. We ate with them. We ran errands and worked with them. The village wasn’t modern by our standards. The home was made of wood and cement bricks. There were a few rooms with hard clay as the floor. There was no electricity or running water in the home – in fact, one of my contributions was carrying water twice a day to the home.
Our task was to live the life and assess how to create a product that would work for this family. The company I worked for made products that had sensitive and fragile electronics and through this immersion it became very clear that our traditional mobile phone design wouldn’t work in the conditions in the village. Dust, dirt and moisture would be a problem. Temperature fluctuations would be a problem. Battery life would be a problem – it’s hard to charge a phone daily when there is no electrical outlet to plug it into. The things we learned about what a phone had to be couldn’...