Prototype, Test, Tweak, Repeat – Proximity Designs Lives Up To Its Name

A brief history of iterative design started in 2004 with a product that wasn’t quite right for the market.

Text by Catherine Trautwein
Photo by Proximity Designs

MYANMAR – Yangon-based social enterprise Proximity Designs, then a country programme under International Development Enterprises (iDE), began its now-decade long mission to better Myanmar farmers’ earnings with about 40 sample foot pumps from India, products that the company’s co-founder Debbie Aung Din says had immense potential for impact but needed reworking.

Though Myanmar’s groundwater runs close to the surface, pumps presented challenges in the past for the country’s farmers, according to Aung Din. People couldn’t swing buying diesel machines at US$250 and cheaper hand pumps at US$20 wouldn’t serve for irrigation and were “really hard to use and repair,” she says. In the meantime, people employed the use of buckets for irrigation, ferrying 20 kgs on both sides 200 times a day in the dry season, she continued.

“There was a real opportunity for the foot pumps to come in at [around] US$25 as an intermediary step and for irrigation for small plot holders during the dry season,” she says. “We started showing them to farmers and villages and asking them about the price and this and that, and we quickly saw that these models need to be adapted … for Myanmar farmers.”

What followed can be best summed up by the organisation’s name and the sentence it forms: Proximity Designs. The social enterprise, which has stayed close at hand to observe and listen to customers, changed tack on the pumps and set about prioritising the user through design. In this way the company created not just new products but experiences.

Design runs through Proximity like blood in veins, feeding into each of the company’s four subdivisions as well as its ethos. In its approach and implementation, the organisation emphasises putting people first from the first. Perhaps the biggest difference between the company and traditional NGOs comes from how it interacts with users of its products.

“We didn’t want to treat people as charity recipients or aid beneficiaries,” Aung Din says. “When you treat people as customers and sell things, it’s really a matter of giving them choice and affirming dignity. They decide whether what you’re providing is valuable or not, so they hold you accountable.”

People – so central to Proximity’s mission – determine how its products are set up and sold. Around the time the company entered Myanmar with the Indian foot pumps, Aung Din says she and her husband and co-founder Jim Taylor came into contact with Stanford professor Jim Patell, who teaches with others a course on designing for extreme affordability. The class concentrated on “human-centered design,” she explains.

“This is what most very progressive and modern companies … in the UK and West use to design cool products, but for rich people,” Aung Din says. “It starts with a real focus on the user and empathy for them.”

Proximity, whose customers earn about US$2 daily, used the strategies to revamp the Indian pumps.

“You have a rigorous process of prototyping, testing, getting feedback, tweaking, prototyping, tweaking, prototyping, tweaking, and really understanding all the aspirations and needs, wants, practical aesthetics, everything,” Aung Din continued. “Designers had never applied it to the poor in developing countries.”

The company soon extended its tailored approaches into other sectors: irrigation, renewable energy, financial inclusion and farm advisory services. Electricity presents an incredible challenge in the country, so Proximity formulated ways for farmers to water land without it, providing products such as “gravity-fed” drip irrigation equipment for sale. Meanwhile, one of the organisation’s specialty initiatives, “duck loans,” gets scheduled to line up with seasonal egg scarcity, according to the company.

More broadly, Proximity architects loan durations and timing to crop seasons and employs bullet payments, the company said in an email.

Proximity has two types of loans on offer: crop loans and livestock loans. The latter category comprises goat loans and the trademark duck loans. Spanning 150 kyats to 250,000 kyats, the loans are meant for rural farmers and often go to customers in the Delta, though Proximity’s reach has extended to Myanmar’s Dry Zone, according to the company.

This year, Proximity will begin commence enterprise loans aimed at micro-business owners in rural towns, the company wrote in an email.

Proximity operates its own design lab and team. Its investigations have turned up results such as one simple trick that boost yields for farmers – a test assessing rice seed based on old Japanese practices that require only saltwater and a duck egg.

“That’s how we go about designing things, coming up with the best solutions,” Aung Din says. “It’s being able to fail early and fail fast and learn from it, and then in the end you end up with a better product or a service.”

A “scorecard” for the full year 2014 written in neat, block chalk lettering greets guests that walk into Proximity’s clean, modern office. As of the last day of June this year, the company’s “rural reach” had touched 170 townships and more than 9,500 villages. The count of irrigation customers neared 20,000 people.

At Proximity, the micro and macro have crossed axes. Myanmar’s transition “is still in the early stages,” Aung Din says. “We have leveraged a lot of our on-the-ground knowledge of rural areas and customers and thousands of villages to inform and do research on economic policies, so the two have converged.”

“For the macro to be effective it has to … have input from on-the-ground and have that iterative, adaptive mentality,” she continues. “For what we do to be successful in helping families get out of poverty, I think you need [a] macro policy environment that is conducive … You need the exchange rate to be managed, you need [a] good regulatory environment that supports banking and financial inclusion. You can’t just be working at one level,” she concludes.

Depending on whom you ask, change has come – and will come – to Myanmar. As the ecosystem evolves, so will Proximity Designs, whose name says it all.

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