Wheelchairs in low-income countries: a lesson in user-centric innovation

In the developed world, wheelchairs have become high-tech (see: The Five Most Incredible Stories of Pimped-Out Wheelchairs). But that doesn’t help people in poorer countries, where lower-tech products are often more useful. MIT Technology Review describes the problem that Amos Winter faced in 2005, when he traveled to Tanzania to study whether existing wheelchairs fit the needs of Tanzanians:

Conventional wheelchairs worked fine indoors, but they were hard to use in rural areas because they wouldn’t let users traverse uneven ground. Hand-pedaled tricycles were useful in those conditions but they were too large to work indoors. The missing product was a chair that worked well on both flat and rough terrain and was small enough to use inside. It would also need to be simple and easily repairable — and cost approximately $200.

Winter, then a graduate student, recruited a team of undergrads who worked with him to develop a prototype. When they took it to Vietnam, Kenya, and Tanzania for a test, however, they learned an important lesson.

“We had created this prototype, we were all gung ho about it, we had actually won an award for it already, but you bring it to the users and they’re like, ‘No, this isn’t gonna fly.'” It was too heavy, too hard to get in or out of, and too unstable on hills.

This is Innovation Lesson #1: Users Are King. Developing a product without consulting users can waste a lot of time, as in Winter’s case. For larger corporations with huge R&D budgets, it can literally waste millions of dollars.  That’s why Innosight, for example, frequently begins a project with in-depth customer interviews, focus groups, and observational studies.

Winter’s story has a happy ending. He returned to the field repeatedly while redesigning the chair, which is now available for sale.

It is light and cheap, contains readily available bike parts, and uses a form of steel that can be easily repaired …. a wheel rim had gotten bent while being transported on an airplane, but Winter banged it back into place in a matter of seconds.

Need a few thousand wheelchairs? They’re available here (and pictured below), but the company can currently only sell them in large quantities.

Amos Winter's wheelchair for low-income countries is light, cheap, and easy to repair.

Amos Winter’s wheelchair for low-income countries is light, cheap, and easy to repair.

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One thought on “Wheelchairs in low-income countries: a lesson in user-centric innovation

  1. michele clark says:

    Great little essay on this subject. A slightly relevant aside – The journalist John Hockenberry is in a wheel chair. He said that when he was visiting Israel which was then not at all wheel chair conscious (I don’t know if it is now) he would come to some steps or something he couldn’t do and from all over people would just appear and lift him up the steps or whatever it was. This happened repeatedly.

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