User personas lead to better tech solutions, such as the ones used in TechnoServe's program, Mobile Connected Farmer Alliance (CFA). M-Pawa user. Mbeya Region, Tanzania. September 2015.

Tech vs. Poverty: How to Create Better Solutions for the Right End User

Technology has the potential to address many of the world’s most pressing development challenges. But some of the biggest failures incorporating technology in development contexts result from solutions that don’t fit the target users’ needs and capabilities. In his first regular column on applying technology to solve development problems, Director of TechnoServe Labs Dave Hale discusses the first step for developing technology solutions: understanding the end user.

user personas

User personas modeled after real end users are a valuable tool for improving product design. Mobile Connected Farmer Alliance (CFA). M-Pawa user. Mbeya Region, Tanzania. September 2015.

Series: Tech vs. Poverty with Dave Hale

In Kenya, a shopkeeper uses a mobile phone to deposit money directly into her account.

In Benin, a cashew farmer knows what areas of his land he needs to fertilize thanks to information from satellites and drones.

In a remote area of Chile, an entrepreneur is getting the business training she needs via an online learning platform. 

Technology is changing the way people live their lives. For over 50 years, TechnoServe has been integrating technology into many of our programs to reach more people and scale our impact around the world. Without an understanding of the end user, technology often proves unhelpful at best, and actively harmful at worst.

Designing Products With the End User in Mind Produces Better Tech Solutions 

TechnoServe works to develop tech solutions based on a solid understanding of user needs and local context. Understanding the user – the person who will ultimately be adopting the technology – is always the starting point for building an effective solution.

Some of the biggest failures in incorporating technology in development contexts result from creating solutions that don’t fit the target users’ needs and capabilities.

Fortunately, there is an increasing emphasis on engaging local communities in testing, piloting, and rolling out new technological solutions

In the technology world, companies create user personas to ensure that product designs are effective for their designated audience base. At TechnoServe, we use a similar process to create user profiles for each program. These valuable assets help to determine which technology approach is most likely to be effective for a particular program and its designated group of users. 

How TechnoServe Developed 5 Core User Personas:

At TechnoServe, we’ve created 5 basic user personas based on the following criteria:

  1. Literacy
  2. Access to technology
  3. Accessibility
  4. Affordability of internet access
User Profile 0 User Profile 1 User Profile 2 User Profile 3 User Profile 4
Literacy Illiterate Illiterate or Numerate Semi-literate Literate Literate 
Tech access
  • Radio and / or TV
  • No phone
  • Radio and / or TV
  • Feature / text-only phone or Smartphone
  • Radio and / or TV
  • Feature / text-only phone or Smartphone
  • Radio and / or TV
  • Smartphone
  • Smartphone
  • Laptop
Internet access No, none in home or nearby Variable, access to mobile data for those with smartphones Variable, access to mobile data for those with smartphones Yes, access to mobile data and/or Wi-Fi Yes, access to mobile data and Wi-Fi

The people who fit these categories include the following kinds of end users across TechnoServe’s programs:

  • User Profile 4: Most of the entrepreneurs that TechnoServe works with in larger cities in Latin America have access to a computer and a reliable internet connection. 
  • User Profile 3: In East Africa, TechnoServe works with micro-retailers who primarily rely on smartphones and who have access to mobile data and/or wifi. 
  • User Profile 2: Clients of TechnoServe’s Business Women Connect program in Mozambique are an example of this category, primarily because they do not have regular access to reliable internet or mobile data services. 
  • User Profiles 1 or 2: Many of the smallholder farmers TechnoServe works with around the world fall into these profiles because they do not have mobile devices or internet access, or they have literacy challenges. 

Using this framework, TechnoServe can identify what kind of technology would be most appropriate for the local context. For example, in areas with limited internet access or low literacy, it might make more sense to share information via radio rather than online. 

Case Study: TechnoServe’s Women in Business Program

Taking a User-Centric Approach to Ensure our Program Meets the End Users’ Needs

TechnoServe’s Women in Business (WIN) program is using radio as part of its market systems development approach to train and empower women entrepreneurs in Mozambique. WIN uses radio as a channel to transform how women are presented and perceived, changing social and household-level expectations throughout the country. 

This framework is just a starting point. In some of our programs, we complete even more detailed user segmentation if necessary. For example, some of our programs work with rural and peri-urban farmers. In this case, these two groups of farmers may have different levels of access to cell service or internet connection and therefore fall into different categories. 

User Personas are the Key to Customization

One size does not fit all, for any type of technology

While technology access and smartphone access, in particular, is expanding rapidly in many areas of the developing world, one size does not fit all when it comes to tech solutions. Almost half of the world’s population still does not have internet access. Billions of dollars have been spent by identifying a technology solution first and then trying to apply that solution without fully understanding the user context. The One Laptop Per Child initiative is just one example. 

It is also important to consider gender when understanding user context and access to technology. For example, it is common for a household to have access to a radio or a smartphone, but the male head of the household controls the access.

If this is the case, we need to develop alternative solutions to ensure that women also have access to training and services. In a future blog post, we will look at examples of how TechnoServe has overcome these challenges in several of its programs. 

Driving Product Design With User Personas Adds Value for the Right Audience Base

When developing any effective tech solution, the first step is to understand the user and the world in which they live. It is important to define the problem in their terms. Only then is it possible to adapt proven technologies to create appropriate, practical solutions. 

Learn more about TechnoServe’s work leveraging technology to fight poverty