Monthly Archives: August 2013

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.

How biking in Boston can lead to enlightenment

As I’ve biked around Boston during the last two years, I’ve realized that I must always keep one thing in mind: 99% of the time, people will do exactly what you expect them to do, but 1% of the time they won’t. And that can kill you.

Here are a few dangerous assumptions I’ve made:

“There’s no way that city bus will run a red light; I can definitely go in front of it.”

It turns out city buses do run red lights.

“That truck doesn’t look like it’s turning right; I’ll just sneak up beside it.”

Can you guess what happened? The truck turned right.

“I need to worry about doors opening on the right side, from parked cars.”

That’s true – but I also have to worry about doors opening on the left, from cars in traffic letting people off.

Yesterday, I was happy to learn that by accepting this, I am working on a process of being “awakened.”  One of my teachers, David Vendetti, read from a passage by Iyanla Vanzant:

A time comes in your life when you finally get it … You realize that it’s time to stop hoping and waiting for something to change, or for happiness, safety and security to come galloping over the next horizon. You awaken to the fact that you are not perfect and that not everyone will always love, appreciate, or approve of who or what you are, and that’s OK. …

You stop complaining and blaming other people for the things they did to you (or didn’t do for you) and you learn that the only thing you can really count on is the unexpected. You learn that people don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say, and that not everyone will always be there for you and that it’s not always about you.

So, you learn to stand on your own and to take care of yourself and in the process, a sense of safety and security is born of self reliance. You stop judging and pointing fingers and you begin to accept people as they are and to overlook their shortcomings and human frailties and in the process, a sense of peace and contentment is born of forgiveness.

Being awakened means realizing that the only thing you can control is your own perception. Once you realize that, you will start to free yourself from your own expectations of other people – and from their expectations of you.

This is something you can practice anywhere – and biking around Boston is a great start. I’m going to pay more attention to my assumptions and continually remind myself: “The only thing I can count on in this situation is my own behavior. I have no control over anything else.”