Yale School of Management

Program on Social Enterprise

Harnessing business skills and markets to achieve social objectives.

How Cultural Understanding Can Drive Design Innovation

Social Impact Lab

What lessons can designers learn from the re-design of a vegetable peeler?

In a Social Impact Lab workshop on October 7, Robert Fabricant YC ’88, co-founder of Dalberg’s Design Impact Group, pointed to an experiment undertaken by a 26-year-old designer named Patricia Moore as an example of how cultural understanding can drive design innovation. Starting in 1979, Moore visited dozens of cities dressed as an elderly woman in order to better understand the day-to-day lives of the elderly. Her experience led her to design a larger grip for vegetable peelers, which was more ergonomically suitable for older users. It became a bestselling design for the utensil company Oxo.

The lesson, Fabricant said, is that designing something well—whether a business plan or a new product—requires an understanding of the audience and its day-to-day experience.

“The beauty of the [new vegetable peeler] wasn’t just that it was easier to use and that it looked simpler; it appealed and said to someone that their needs matter,” Fabricant said. Fabricant’s work at Dalberg focuses on using human-centered design thinking to “foster creative solutions to the root causes and complex systems that limit economic opportunity and human potential.”

Fabricant said that he has learned through his work around the world with Dalberg, and previously with frog design, that a designer’s cultural understanding is one of the keys to creating a better user experience. At Dalberg, he has set out to build a global design practice from the outset, hiring two Kenyan designers into the firm’s Nairobi office to support their work on financial inclusion in East Africa. “It’s a frame of reference that you wouldn’t have if you weren’t situated and working in that community. You have to understand how much the frame of mind we bring from our own backgrounds isn’t always aligned with the communities we work with,” Fabricant said.

Understanding potential product users is a key part of design thinking, Fabricant said, not only in the testing stages, but also when it comes time to turn ideas into working products. His team worked with a fishing community in Indonesia to develop a rewards program that would incentivize sustainable practices for small-scale fishers, a vital link in the supply chain. Smallholder fishers provide 60% of the seafood that we consume. Farbricant’s team ran live experiments using agents and buyers on the docks in Betah Walang to simulate different types of rewards and incentives for sustainable catches. This experiment allowed them to gain input from local participants and an understanding of how fishers placed value on their catch. Previous efforts focused on policy and regulation had left the needs and challenges of individual fishermen out of the picture.

Cultural understanding can also help to save time and money in the long run, Fabricant added.

“It’s a full process of understanding where to create value and how to identify opportunities in the most fundamental way,” he said. “By the time we were working in Indonesia, there was three or four months of analysis the firm had done in and around the fisheries market as well as a network or local partners eager to engage with us. Before we started and spent those resources on the ground, which are expensive, we had an understanding of what the dynamics and opportunities were from the local community’s perspective.”

About the Event

Robert Fabricant, cofounder of Dalberg's Design Impact Group and Frog Fellow, will present at SI Lab about his work bringing human-centered design and innovation services to clients looking for creative approaches to innovation and collaboration in both social impact and international development. After speaking about his work, we'll have a chance for Q&A to learn from Robert and to discuss issues relevant to the intersection of social enterprise and design.

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