You wouldn’t think that cookstoves would be such a hard thing to design. After all, the concept of heating food is as old as man’s ability to control fire. However, refugee camps in developing countries continue to face issues.
The Guardian published a story on the problems that T. Alexander Aleinikoff, the United Nations deputy high commissioner for refugees faces. Aleinikoff notes, “We’re in the situation where everybody and his brother has invented a cookstove and none of them have really worked well for us.”
Incomplete research leads to a poor product
Why is that? Aleinikoff explains that the large, solar cookstoves don’t heat food fast enough, while others use solid fuel that not only are inefficient, but also the cause of deaths and climate change.
Where did the designers go wrong? Well, they didn’t take into consideration the culture or circumstances. In other words, they didn’t do much in the way of actual customer research.
How better research can pivot innovation
A little bit of customer research, a key component of product development, can really save you a lot of trouble. For example, let’s compare this scenario of the refugee camps with another story on cookstoves used in Africa. Sara Collins, creator of the Wonderbag, also lives in Africa where she created a solution for those that live in rural areas. This bag is a slow-cooker that is designed to continually cook food all day long after it’s been brought to a boil via a traditional cooking method. Collins’ product development comes from her personal experience with living in the rural areas and living with rolling blackouts for most of her life. She knows the culture intimately so she could design something that would work for their daily needs of family life in rural Africa.
Does this mean that the Wonderbag could work for other places in Africa? Not exactly. The needs of the refugee camp are quite different from a family household and the customer context needs to be understood. This is where Per Heggenes, CEO of the Ikea Foundation, enters the story. In the same Guardian article, Heggenes shares that this is where philanthropy can make a huge and practical difference. They’ve got a long way to go, but this is the realm where product development, innovation, and business philanthropy together will make progress.
Truly understanding the needs of the customers makes your product more valuable. This key component of product development and innovation can mean the difference between success and failure.