My PhD Project

PhD project at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering
Design for Well-Being – An Approach to Understand Users’ Lives in Design for Development
Promoter: Prof. Prabhu Kandachar, Daily Supervisor: Dr. JC Diehl / Dr. Vikram Parmar

Design for Development (DfD) projects aim to improve the well-being of marginalized and disadvantaged populations. Despite its objectives and designers’ best intentions, the outcomes can still fail to improve the well-being of its users when designers do not understand their true needs and wants. Especially in DfD projects, a comprehensive understanding of the potential users is relevant, as the lives of most product designers differ substantially from the lives of the marginalized and disadvantaged, making it difficult for designers to put aside their biases and assumptions. After the Second World War, the user has been increasingly involved in the product design process. The domain of Human-Centered Design has grown, integrating knowledge from different domains of social science. It is increasingly acknowledged that including the user perspective results in better product acceptance. However, product designers often limit their focus towards the product-user interaction, as time and other resources to obtain a comprehensive understanding of their lives, lifestyle, behaviour, values, habits, needs, desires and aspirations are often limited. Thereby, current toolkits and manuals do not specify which information or insight should be collected in order to obtain such an understanding. The aim of this research project has therefore been to come up with a designer-friendly approach to guide product designers to efficiently explore the lives of potential users in DfD projects. The ultimate goal is to contribute to the design of products and services that improve the well-being of its users by addressing their true needs and wants.

To develop a systemic approach to understand people’s well-being, analytic guidance has been taken from Sen’s ‘Capability Approach’ (CA). By taking into account people’s personal characteristics and their circumstances, the CA offers a holistic view on well-being, making it a promising approach to use for guiding broad user context research. Practical guidance has been taken from the domains of Human-Centred Design, DfD and Rapid Ethnography, by investigating efficient and designer-friendly guidelines, methods, techniques and tools. Based on literature, a ‘Capability Driven Design’ (CDD) approach has been developed, consisting of a CA-based thinking framework, prerequisites, methods, steps and a set of themes and questions. Specifically for semi-structured interviewing, a major data-collection method within CDD, the ‘Opportunity Detection Kit’ has been created. The kit comprises steps, guidelines, techniques and tools, following the prerequisites of Capability Driven Design and using its themes and questions. The content and procedure of the kit have been developed by several design iterations. Subsequently, the kit has been evaluated by design teams during their DfD projects, and by experts from different countries in focus group sessions.

Based on the recommendations provided by the designers and experts, the Capability Driven Design approach and Opportunity Detection Kit have been adapted. Obviously, they remain open to critique and modification, based on experiences of using them. For now, it can be concluded that the insights obtained by using the approach and kit offer designers valuable support throughout the design process: to better define the design challenge, to develop design requirements, and to make informed design decisions. The value of such a method has been demonstrated in the DfD projects included in the research. This research therefore contributes to improving designers’ understanding of the lives of their potential users, specifically in DfD projects, being a step towards the design of products and services that truly improve the well-being of the marginalized and disadvantaged.

Full research project
My PhD project is part of a larger research project called: Technology and Human Development; A Capability Approach. The full project concerns the application of the capability approach of Sen and Nussbaum to technology, engineering and design.

Some influential theories of distributive justice, fairness and equality, like that of John Rawls, discuss fair distribution in terms of shares of primary goods available to people. The main criticism of philosopher and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen of these views is that it is not the goods that are ultimately important, but what they allow us to do and be, the kind of lives they enable us to live. Giving everyone a laptop or some other piece of technology is no good in and by itself, according to Sen’s approach. Some people will be able to make good use of it and increase their level of functioning, but others who are illiterate or do not have access to reliable power supply cannot possibly convert their possession of the technology into anything useful. Human functionings and capabilities are therefore at the centre of Sen’s work, referred to as the ‘capability approach’. Although it has been widely adopted in development thinking, hardly any work has been done on the interrelations between the capability approach and technology/design. This is remarkable, since technology by definition aims at expanding human capabilities. This project investigates how the capability approach can be utilized in (thinking about) technological innovation and engineering design in context of innovation for the ‘Base of the Pyramid’ (BoP) or the poor in developing countries.

Research partners
This research project is a joint effort of:

  • 3TU.Ethics. For the research conducted at 3TU.Ethics click here.
    PhD Researcher: Ilse Oosterlaken // Promoter: Prof. dr. Jeroen van den Hoven
  • Centre for Sustainable Technologies, Indian Institute of Science (IISc). For the research conducted at IISc click here.
    PhD Researcher: Pramod Khadilkar // Supervisor: Dr. Monto Mani

This project has been funded with a grant of 550.000 euro by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), as part of their grant program called ‘Responsible Innovation’.

Key publications

  • Mink, A., van der Marel, F., Parmar, V., & Kandachar, P.  (2015). Approaching Design for Development from a Capability Perspective. Current Science, 109 (9):1639-50.
  • Mink, A., van der Marel, F., Parmar, V., & Kandachar, P. (2015). Using the Capability Approach to Detect Design Opportunities. Conference Proceedings of the Design for Sustainable Well-being and Empowerment Conference, Bangalore, India.
  • Mink, A., Parmar, V. & Kandachar, P. 2014. Responsible design and product innovation from a capability perspective. In: Van den Hoven, J., Koops, B.-J., Romijn, H., Swierstra, T. & Doorn, N. (eds.) Responsible Innovation 1: Innovative Solutions for Global Issues, 113-148. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Oosterlaken, Ilse. 2012. “The capability approach, technology and design; Taking stock and looking ahead”. In: The Capability Approach, Technology and Design  (eds. Ilse Oosterlaken & Jeroen van den Hoven). Dordrecht: Springer. Available online.
  • Oosterlaken, Ilse; David Grimshaw & Pim Janssen. 2012. “Marrying the capability approach with appropriate technology and STS – The case of podcasting devices in Zimbabwe”. In: The Capability Approach, Technology and Design  (eds. Ilse Oosterlaken & Jeroen van den Hoven). Dordrecht: Springer. Available online.
  • Oosterlaken, Ilse. 2009. “Design for Development; A Capability Approach”. In: Design Issues, 25(4). Available online.