Design ideas from Facebook’s farmers

In emerging markets, the typical approach to designing mobile applications for agriculture (of which there are now hundreds), has been to conduct focus groups with rural farmers across countries like Kenya and Tanzania. But with significant usage of platforms like Facebook now common in these countries, is there a more cost effective and illuminating approach to understanding the needs of farmers that can inspire design ideas?

Affinity analysis applied to Facebook’s farmers

What if we could use digital sources as the basis of design ideas for mobile applications for small scale farmers? The data below is pulled from hundreds of posts in Kenyan agricultural Facebook groups, where thousands of farmers and buyers are interacting.

Using this rich data source, qualitative data has been grouped using a basic affinity analysis technique. In a nutshell, the method groups posts that follow a pattern (usually expressed in 1st person e.g. “I wan’t extra profile information on other individuals in this group”), and then combines groupings into more general themes (usually expressed in 3rd person e.g. “it should be easier to search for information about other farmers”), lastly design ideas are generated in response to patterns or themes, where these could be turned into mobile applications that solve the problems identified.

Mobile application design ideas

This analysis is fun because it gives us the material to inspire design ideas. Some of my simple ideas are listed below:

Feel free to look at the data and generate your own design ideas! The interesting part of the exercise is searching through the goldmine of opinions and unmet needs expressed by potential users of a mobile agricultural service. The approach was low cost, quick to execute, and unbiased (we didn’t ask these users whether they wanted a new mobile product, we observed how they were using one currently).

Understanding what doesn’t work

So why did I start thinking through designing for farmers here? When thinking about designing a mobile solution for any user, Bentley and Barret offer some good advice in Ch.3 of Building Mobile Experiences:

Understanding what does and does not work for them is often the best way to invent new concepts to help with unmet needs or to make sure your design ends up fitting into the ways in which people want to interact with each other and with the content provided by your system

So it turns out getting some decent user insights before you’re even starting to design is key. How are people usually doing this? Traditional methods include conducting focus groups, sending surveys, face-to-face interviews, observing farmer behaviour in markets etc. These methods will always be useful, and can be very revealing when it comes to showcasing what farmers are already doing digitally (e.g. selling farm produce on Facebook). However, given the ‘digital’ part of the brief, the methods applied are often conspicuously non-digital themselves, and not always optimally suited to describing digital behaviour. That’s where this affinity analysis applied to Facebook comes up trumps (digitally savvy designers for digitally savvy farmers) – why conduct an expensive focus group when a bit of well targeted online research gives you 10 times as many insights?

Just the first step

So where should we take things from here? When it comes to building mobile applications, everyone should follow a rapid user-centred design process. If, like me, you’re prone to forgetting what that means, let’s define such a process via the steps below (adapted from an MIT course on this topic):

Our Facebook affinity analysis was step 1, we haven’t begun to prioritise ideas, prototype, etc. The main point though, was to demonstrate how useful online repositories of data are for kicking off the design of mobile solutions for small scale farmers.

Cool, but who actually cares?

It turns out it’s not just me, a large number of the 424 ideas submitted to the recently released IDEO challenge to design solutions for small scale farmers used mobile technology, GSMA have been working on mobile solutions for farmers for some time, and funding bodies like the MasterCard Foundation and DFID support a range of work in agriculture and mobile technology. Everyone, it seems, is starting to ask what’s possible when you combine the wave of mobile technology with small scale farmers across the planet.

So, for people who are interested in designing mobile applications for small scale farmers, here are the two takeaways:

  1. Don’t unsuspectingly start generating concepts and forget the ethnographic step 1. It’s exciting to ask what’s possible, but let’s start with what’s happening
  2. In conducting the ethnographic step 1 don’t think you’ve got to convene a focus group of rural farmers together, start by looking online
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