Product design for developing countries improved by more cultural knowledge

News - 14 November 2016


‘One of the design assignments I supervised in my research involved the development of a diaper for the disabled in Bangladesh,’ explains Annemarie Mink. ‘How difficult can it be, one of the students wondered. But afterwards, he saw things quite differently. Wearing a diaper can be a source of shame. In Bangladesh, having a disabled child is sometimes seen as the mother's fault, and as a kind of punishment. This meant that it was important for the mother that this diaper was as invisible as possible and also easy to change quickly.’ 

‘A conventional diaper is quite visible. The students eventually came up with a pair of shorts fitted with inlays that could be quickly changed because they used Velcro instead of (cheap) ties. This example shows that, even with design assignments that seem relatively simple, the cultural context can and should have an influence on the design,’ says Mink. 


Another real-world example: during her own graduation project, Annemarie Mink worked on a compact silk-reeling machine for women in India. The new machine enabled the women to produce more silk and to work from home rather than going to a central workplace. 

‘The women actually doubled their productivity, enhancing their position within the family. But because the silk workers now work at home, they miss the company of their fellow workers. Some also suffer a loss of the status that being able to work with large machines accorded them. In addition, the new machine was so user-friendly that even very young girls could be put to work on it. I had unsufficiently predicted these things in advance.’


Working on Design for Development can thus result in specific problems for (Western and local) designers. ‘Of course, this also happens with designs assignments in a Western context, but the consequences of a 'design fault' are often much more far-reaching in developing countries and more likely to lead to the product being rejected. 

Product designers are being taught to take account of the users' perspective, but they have not been specifically trained in ethnographic research. Moreover, they often lack the time and resources needed to investigate the user context properly on the ground.’


In the light of this, a more systematic approach was needed, which is what Mink focused on in her research. The approach she developed provides designers with a flexible guideline for rapidly, rigorously and systematically making a comprehensive assessment of the user context, specifically for Design for Development. 

A key component of the approach is a new, semi-structured interview technique for questioning users. ‘The approach assists designers in making substantiated design decisions in order to enhance the accessibility, applicability, acceptance and use of their products.’ Details of the ‘Capability Driven Design’ approach can be found at  


To mark the awarding of Annemarie Mink's PhD, the Delft Global Initiative organised a seminar entitled 'Responsible Innovation to Improve Global Well-being'  on Friday 11 November. At the seminar, four speakers from the Netherlands and abroad discussed the role of users and their context in the design of products and services.

Prof. Mugendi M’Rithaa (South Africa)   - ‘Socially Responsible Design in Africa
Prof. Ria Reis - ‘Context, Culture, Health, and Well-Being’
Prof. Dorothea Kleine (United Kingdom) - ‘Digital Technologies for Sustainable Human Development’
Prof. Prabhu Kandachar - Towards Design for Development’

Watch this seminar.

More information

Annemarie Mink:, +31 (0)15 27 85720
Ilona van den Brink (TU Delft science information officer):, +31 (0)15 2784259
Website ‘Capability Driven Design’ methode

Annemarie Mink was interviewed by Dutch radio on 15 November. Listen to the interview