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Designing in Low-Income Communities

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Image from IDEO work with VisionSpring in India 

As designers, we need to find the balance between pragmatism and optimism. We need to constantly think about what is possible and what is realistic. Just because something hasn’t worked before, doesn’t mean it couldn’t work now. At that same time, the constraints faced by social businesses working in low-income communities are severe and must not be ignored.
Here's a few things to consider:
Reduce up-front capital costs
Access to finance is a major hurdle for social businesses and capital costs should be reduced whenever possible. How can we pilot test businesses with as few resources as possible? How can we start small and design business and service models that can quickly scale?
Offer various price points
Some of the best examples of innovations in health services are related to the provision of cross-subsidised services. Organizations like Aravind Eye Hospitals are able to charge those who can pay for upgraded rooms and add-on services, while those who can’t are able to seek care for free. How might we tier offerings to customers to ensure social and financial sustainability?
Technology is limited
While affordable smart phones and tablets are on the way, they are not yet commonplace. Technology-based solutions should function with basic mobile phones. What can be done to connect people using simpler technology?
Labor-heavy solutions are acceptable
Social businesses that are able to employ large numbers of people have added social value. How can we give people jobs to collect data, visit users, share information, etc.?
Don’t forget about the people
In order to build a social business, one must have customers. And to get those customers, we must design experiences that are attractive and desirable for them. How can we ensure that we are designing options that will be attract demand and recommendations?
– Jocelyn Wyatt. 
Jocelyn is the Executive Director and Co-Lead of, the nonprofit organisation started by IDEO to address poverty-related challenges through design and to encourage the use of our human-centered approach to innovation in the social sector. Previously, Jocelyn led and expanded IDEO’s Social Innovation practice.
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