Defining the design problem for financial inclusion

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Dr. Olga Morawczynski is Project Manager, AppLab Money Incubator, Grameen Foundation Uganda.

Most pieces on design state a vitally important fact – if you want a good design outcome, you must clearly define the problem behind the search for a solution. However, this is not as easy as it sounds. A well-defined and broadly framed problem allows for the emergence of ideas that push the boundaries of what is possible and opens up the creative spaces from which breakthrough products can emerge. In short, the more widely you cast your net, the more ideas that you will capture. And the more ideas that you capture, the more you increase the chances of finding ideas that challenge the status quo and lead you to the “disruptive innovation” that you are after.

In our efforts to create challenge questions, we started off by noting what we wanted to get out of the process. Our checklist was broad and included everything from systemic change in the industry, to novelty in product, to uptake with down-market customers. We then worked backwards to create a question that could lead us toward these outcomes:

How can we develop innovative mobile money (MM) products that are suitable for unbanked customers and viable for our commercial partners?


Note that we did not define what types of products we would create (insurance, savings, loans or others) and kept our definition of our target audience very broad (the unbanked).  We also vaguely noted commercial viability but gave no indication of what this means, or even who our commercial partners are.  This gives us ample freedom to think about different product possibilities, business models and customer segments.

That said, the design literature warns us that keeping the problem definition too broad can leave the project team wandering and coming back with loads of ideas that are just too abstract. To avoid this from happening, many design processes include something called constraints to shape the trajectory of the process. This includes everything from sets of objectives to be realized during the process, to price points, to suitability for very particular types of customers.

In the context of our work, some constraints are non-negotiable. For example, our products have to reach down-market and be sustainable, but also be novel and fit into MTN’s platform. But you can also include constraints to purposefully drive the innovation process in completely new direction. The de Bono group gives a great example of how this could be done. Imagine if automotive designers were asked to design a car around square tires. This would surely refocus the designers to look at such things as improving suspension to limit the bumpiness of a square wheel rolling. They might also get rid of the handbrake as a car with square tires would not easily roll down the hill. Such refocusing could produce interesting outcomes – the former could lead to an active suspension that lifts wheels over bumps. This would be especially useful when managing potholes in Uganda. The latter could result in a special set of tires for braking on vehicles that carry heavy goods.

The very act of presenting the design team with a nearly impossible design challenge like a car with square wheels – a practice that de Bono calls a “provocation operation” – can lead them to think outside of the box and come up with breakthrough solutions. We will be thinking much more about making use of such constraints to drive our creativity, because at the end of the day we are testing the process just as much as we are testing the product.


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