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4 principles of user-centered design to improve data uptake

Renee Manorat, Ryan LeMier, Muchiri Nyaggah, Dickson Minjire   |   August 7, 2018   |   1 Comment

Insights from MazaoPlus+

In many parts of Kenya, getting the right fertilizer can be an expensive, uncertain and time-consuming effort for smallholder farmers — often resulting in low adoption of fertilizer and low crop yields. Additionally, fertilizer vendors have an incomplete view of market demand, which leads to inefficient distribution of fertilizer and further complicates the supply of fertilizer available for smallholder farmers.

Results for Development (R4D) and Local Development Research Institute (LDRI) saw an opportunity to create an innovative data platform, which uses technology to collect and share fertilizer supply and demand data (i.e., fertilizer price, fertilizer type, etc.) from smallholder farmers and fertilizer vendors to improve fertilizer market inefficiencies.

This platform, MazaoPlus+, is being piloted in Murang’a County, Kenya. It is an SMS/USSD-based data platform for farmers and fertilizer vendors where vendors routinely update their stock of fertilizers, allowing farmers to “ping” the system quickly to discover who is selling the fertilizer they’re looking for nearby, and at what price. This simple but innovative data platform has leveraged a user-focused development approach.

Here are a few key principles that drove the development and refinement of MazaoPlus+, allowing it to achieve robust user uptake in just the first few months of operation:

1. Engage key stakeholders early on.

Our team engaged relevant stakeholders in the fertilizer space early on at a workshop, convening county government officials as well as fertilizer vendors, who together identified “pain points” experienced by vendors and others in the fertilizer market and potential areas of intervention. This workshop was also complemented by several field visits to validate findings with smallholder farmers MazaoPlus+ would aim to service. We wanted to ensure that our product solved a well-articulated problem for our targeted users.

2. Maintain lines of communication with users to promote use and continued engagement.

LDRI used simple but effective means of keeping users engaged and up-to-date on the system. Text messages were sent to farmers at the beginning of the rainy season to remind them that MazaoPlus+ could help them find the fertilizer they were looking for. Significant increases in farmer use of MazaoPlus+ were recorded after these text messages were sent. Additionally, text messages were sent to fertilizer vendors prompting them to regularly update their fertilizer type and price information, which also resulted in more frequent interaction with the system. Finally, a phone line was maintained to answer any questions or comments from MazaoPlus+ users. This communication method provided the added benefit of providing the team with additional user feedback and anecdotal evidence of how things were working (or not).

 3. Allow room for flexibility to adapt and respond to user needs and feedback.

The user-centered design approach uncovered several important pain points in the Kenyan fertilizer system and led to an important course-correction in the early months of the project. Initially, the project was focused on collecting price and fertilizer type data at the point of transaction between farmers and vendors. However, further investigation into the market and mapping of participants’ needs revealed that pre-sale, demand- and supply-side information was more valuable to fertilizer vendors and buyers alike. This course correction was an important point in the development of MazaoPlus+ that would have been missed if user needs were not seriously considered and incorporated.

 4. Solicit rapid feedback through user surveys during periods of high user engagement.

This process also provided the team with important user data and potential improvement areas. Surveys of users were conducted during the rainy season immediately following the period of highest fertilizer application to ascertain the reasons farmers were or were not using MazaoPlus+ to purchase fertilizer. We also asked what improvements could be made to the process.

The key principles of user-centered design outlined above revealed that market uncertainty caused inefficiency — and that inefficiency led to decreased fertilizer uptake and use by smallholder farmers. Fertilizer vendors and smallholder farmers engage in sophisticated calculations to maximize money elasticity; therefore, it was often imperfect access to information and actionable data, not irrational behavior, that many times contributed to low fertilizer uptake. Through frequent engagement with users, LDRI and R4D were able to identify a pathway for impact that equipped farmers with more data to help them make more informed purchasing decisions.

Where is MazaoPlus+ now?

To date, more than 10,000 farmers have subscribed to receive fertilizer information via their phones, and the system is receiving daily queries. The impact of the system on smallholder farmer behavior and inorganic fertilizer use is still being assessed, however early feedback from farmers and fertilizer vendors alike are largely positive. One fertilizer vendor said that since he registered his shop with the MazaoPlus+ system, he has gotten several farmers who said they found his shop and were able to purchase fertilizer closer to their homes through the service. Similarly, most farmers interviewed who used the system said that they were easily able to compare fertilizer prices in their area and that the system was easily accessible.

Much of the success of MazaoPlus+ to date can be attributed to the important process of user-centered design leveraged early in the process of product development. MazaoPlus+ is active in Muranga County, receiving daily fertilizer data inquiries from smallholder farmers. Looking ahead, we hope to continue to build on the functionality of the system based on feedback from users while also ensuring the sustainability of the system. We are also exploring ways to amplify its impact by expanding the inputs available on MazaoPlus+ (potentially to seeds), as well as exploring additional incentives offered to MazaoPlus+ users to increase use.

Comments 1 Response

  1. Stefanie Wallach August 10, 2018 @ 3:20 am

    This post really interested me – it pulls out useful learning on the enablers and barriers to a user-centered design (UCD) approach for developing development programmes. At Itad, we’ve been evaluating the process of applying human-centered design (HCD) in the development sector, and the Hewlett Foundation recently published our evaluation of their strategy to use HCD for adolescent reproductive health programming in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the findings may be useful for you in your UCD journey, e.g. we found that a strong partnership between the funders, implementers and designers to tackle challenges during the HCD process were essential. We also found that whilst all HCD components were necessary for getting a solution ‘out there in the world’, ideation appeared to have the most value in that it starkly differentiates HCD from more traditional developmental approaches to design.

    We’d be really interested in hearing your reflections on these findings and your experience with the process of applying UCD to your programme design! You can find more information and the full report here: http://www.itad.com/reports/evaluation-of-the-hewlett-foundations-strategy-to-apply-human-centred-design-to-improve-family-planning-and-reproductive-health-in-sub-saharan-africa/

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