Using Human Centred Design in Indian slums

Originally posted in September 2017 by founder, Laura Baker prior to Planet B.

A hot, sweaty ball of mess, I am definitely not looking my finest. We arrive at our first community visit and I spot an elderly Indian man. He struggles to walk and is hunched as he staggers down the mud steps from his house.

He walks out because he hears a commotion.

We are the commotion.

A bunch of white people in beaming yellow tops turn up on the doorstep of his community.

Are they from the Government? What are they wanting? Why do they want to talk to us?

We are met by many skeptical looks and every time our shoulders turned, the people multiplied.

But Raj sees we aren’t a threat. Maybe because it looks like I’m about to die of heat exhaustion and it’s unlikely I can do anything malicious in such a state. He welcomes us into his house by presenting us with a plastic chair which he demands we sit on.

The wonderful chairs of Indian hospitality

We meet with Raj and others as part of the project I am undertaking with Pollinate Energy.

Our consulting project scope is to:

  • Research smartphone usage and habits in the slums with particular focus on digital banking
  • Understand how social impact phone apps can be integrated into the Pollinate model
  • assess the critical social needs in local communities through digital channels and provide a partnership identification framework to establish new solutions.

To understand what we were up against, I did a bit of research about how digital channels and in particular smart phones are currently being used in India.

The digital market is growing rapidly in India, with penetration of smartphones sitting at about 33%, the real issue is digital empowerment.

Only 17 % of rural Indians have access to the internet and when asked why they don’t use the internet, it is because they don’t see the value in it. My initial thought was internet infrastructure and cost prohibitions but the reality is, many Indians don’t understand the value of using Google and other features because no one has ever taught them. Compounding this, most of the online content is in English and India has over 22 languages, which makes local translation difficult.

So how could a social enterprise like Pollinate selling mainly solar products get into the tech game?

The good thing is that the Pollinate model empowers local entrepreneurs to go to local communities and build relationships to help people in slums understand the value of solar lighting from the financial benefits to the environmental benefits to the lesser known health benefits. They then sell life changing products for people who need it most, from solar lighting to solar fans and even mosquito nets.

Our task is to understand how entrepreneurs or ‘Pollinators’ as they are called, can provide value add relationship building services through smartphone apps to locals.

We started off by scoping our project and defining our problem statement. ‘How might we improve the lives of people in Indian slums through the use of social impact apps or other digital channels?

Using human centred design, we formulated some questions to understand the biggest challenges facing locals as well as underlying fears, hopes and aspirations.

Getting our double diamond on…

Back to Raj. Such an unlikely person to chat through smartphone usage but we were determined to gain insights about family dynamics and how all influencers in the household could be affected by digital channels.

He moved to Kanpur over 30 years ago from a small farming community in the hope of a better life and more job opportunities. He explains in a very matter of fact way that he wishes he could use his agricultural skills in Kanpur, a population of almost 3 million people but there is not enough room or the right environment for it. We asked him if he wished he was back on the farm and while his eyes tell us he would love to be back being productive on the land, but he said ‘yes but you must treat everywhere you are as a temple. If you spend your time wishing to not be here, then you disrespect your temple.’

We sit there listening to Raj, hearing his aspirations for his sons to have a good and prosperous life as well as for his desire to use his agricultural skills.

Hanging with Raj and basically everyone in the community

As we continue through the communities we meet a couple with a young child who live with 12 other people in their house on Government land, allotted for a cemetery. As we interview them, a funeral is happening in the background.

Telling us of their hopes, aspirations and challenges.

The husband makes leather sandals and the wife looks after the child and builds coffins. She has a BComm degree and is the only one in the family who knows how to use a smartphone. They have 3 smartphones but only one is being used. And it is only being used for whatsapp.

When we tell her that she can use google to access Government schemes, she isn’t overly interested as she can’t speak English well and thinks that Google is only for rich, white educated people.

For something I don’t think I could live without, I was shocked that although she had means to access Google, the benefits were so misconstrued.

In this household I am presented with a chair and about 25 people cram into the tiny space. As I look over my shoulder there are curious children trying to glimpse at my phone and understand what i am saying. One girl taps me on the shoulder and says ‘didi’ which loosely means girl. I used my very limited Hindi to introduce myself and then she screamed SELFIEEEEEE. We took some selfies together and she was so excited to see her face next to mine in a phone.


As we continue to move through these communities causing quite the commotion, I am struck by the stark contrast of the dire living standards and the hopeful smiles of the locals.

At dusk, we walk past a bunch of cows, goats and people hanging around outside. A woman approaches us and asks to be interviewed. This was very uncommon and exciting for us. It had been really hard to find women to interview as most would defer to their husbands or male elders. She spoke very proudly of the corner shop her and her husband run and that the reason her family moved to Kanpur was to access better education for her children. Her and her husband work very long hours and she stressed to us the importance of her children having a good education so they can have bright futures.

Her passion for education made me reflect on my attitudes towards education, subconsciously seeing it as a right, not a privilege.

Her children approach me and use my iPad to type their names and for each touch, they said the letter with perfect inflection. I teach them some English words and, although a tiny moment, one that stoked within me a little hope for these wonderful, bright children.

Our next community visit is memorable but for different reasons. We are at a rag picking community.

We speak to some of the local men who tell us about their day. Starting at 4:30am they collect rubbish and come back to their house at 2:30pm where they sort until the evening when someone picks it up and gives them about 200–300 rupees (about $4–6 AUD) for their work.

Hardly any of the kids seem to be going to school but at one point a little girl proudly presents to me a picture of some fruit she had drawn. It had been marked by a teacher and I tell her I am very impressed with her work. A wave of relief rushes over me thinking that although her circumstances are dire, she is at least getting an education. I taught her the English words for the pieces of fruit she drew and she mimicked my pronunciation.

Our translator later told us that the piece of paper was in fact a piece of rubbish she had found. My heart sank and my face dropped thinking of her potential and the importance of education.

Apples, oranges and papaya

Our community visits continue over 3 days and we have 11 in depth interviews and 5 broader interviews.

The field survey findings show that the main challenges facing their families is access to steady income and adequate housing. One guy said that he is doing ok but he would really like a better house for his wife and family because when it rains the roof leaks so they get heaps of mosquitoes and they become quite ill.

Many of the people we spoke to were hopeful of work but rarely receive enough work to make ends meet and therefore don’t bother using a bank account because they have no savings. Many spoke of their ‘zero balance’ bank account which seemed to spur a present focused mindset. We noticed a correlation between job insecurity and lack of child education, which is likely driven by only being able to focus on finding enough money to feed the mouths of that day, let alone think about providing their children with an education so they could feed their own mouths in the future.

There was cynicism brewing in the communities about the value of education as there is a distinct belief that education’s value only comes with employment. One guy said that there was no point putting his kids through school as so many of his friends who studied couldn’t even find decent jobs. To deprive a child of an education because the job market is negatively shifting, filled me with such sadness. Education should be broader than just academia with the need for digital and financial literacy absolutely critical. These three foundations would definitely improve living standards in powerful ways.

Although smartphones are an option, they aren’t being utilised because there is very little digital education and knowledge of how to use tools like Google and various apps. We can’t just expect that if every person in a slum had access to a smartphone that there would be dramatic change in accessing online social impact services.

This reiterated to us the importance of having a field agent or in our case, the Pollinators using their smartphones to help locals get access to critical services.

We used these insights to build recommendations for Pollinate to create partnerships with organisations who can deliver the right services to the right people at the right time. Most of all, the interviews and research gave me an understanding that people have an amazing ability to be resilient and adapt whilst maintaining a balance of hope and despair.

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