Reimagining design principles for people that struggle to meet their basic needs

During the ’80s, shampoo sales skyrocketed across India. The simple reason was that it was introduced in small sachet packs. This smaller unit was extremely attractive to a rural Indian owing to its affordability. This small design modification resulted in huge success for a lot of companies. The rural Indian although a very weak economic entity has its strength in numbers.

In his famous book, Rural Marketing — Indian Perspective, Awadesh Kumar writes;

Indian rural market is very vast. Over 750 million consumers (74 per cent) of India’s one billion plus population live in 6.27 lakh villages. It is about 12 per cent of world’s population.

Consequently, the design thinking that goes behind traditional urban products fails when it comes across a rural poor. The extent of poverty in India can be seen through the following figures

  • 50% of Indians don’t have proper shelter.
  • 70% don’t have access to decent toilets.
  • 35% of households don’t have a nearby water source;
  • 85% of villages don’t have a secondary school.

The constraints that one would face in India are completely different from what one would encounter in the West. This difference gets further exaggerated when one moves from urban India to rural India.

Lack of resources

A doctor from Bathinda, a small city in the northern part of India, received 2 accident victims in the ER. The first had got a backbone injury and the other was a head injury victim. Both needed to go for an MRI immediately. The problem was that the whole city had only 1 MRI machine and there was a huge waiting list on that machine.

The hospital could recommend only 1 out of the 2 patients for the priority MRI. The doctor chose the head injury patient because the other patient could still survive albeit with a lifelong disability.

The doctor chose life over lifelong disability.

Such are the choices one has to make when dealing with the Indian rural poor. This is the story every day across India. What would an app like flo.health do in a country where more than 82% of women do not have access to sanitary hygiene.

“Only 18% women in India have access to sanitary hygiene in India” - Times of India
In the past five years, India has seen an array of movements aiming towards menstrual hygiene and sanitation.

Design principles need to take into account the lack of resources at an individual level.

Building on top of what we know

India is a big country. Every product has a market here but if one really wants to penetrate deep into the Indian ecosystem the design principles need to be different.

That is not to say that we throw out what we know, it just means we build on top of what we already know. For instance, the urban population uses Kerosene or LPG gas stoves, where the flame can be controlled. On the contrary, the rural majority uses an open fire or ‘Chulha’. Pressure cookers with handles on one side suit the urban consumers, but not the rural consumers. A wide-bodied dual-handle cooker could be a better solution for such open flame stoves.

Popular design principles like “mobile-first” and “behavior prediction” all fall flat in the face of a rural ecosystem. We need to take into account the limitations and variations in the rural ecosystem before designing products to cater to it.

Mode of communication

Reaching out to a rural poor is not easy. Rural India is not present on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc. To reach an average rural guy the modes of communication not only have to be different but also extremely effective in holding his/her attention away from the pressing needs of daily life.

In the book, Rural Marketing — Indian Perspectives, Awadesh writes about how rural communication can be made effective

  • Vernacular — The messaging needs to be presented in the local languages
  • Pictorial presentation — The use of visuals as part of the message is important in rural markets as literacy levels are low
  • Utilitarian form — It should have a mass appeal
  • Credible source — either from government or famous personalities
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Environmental Factors

The needs of rural Indians differ from those of urban people also because of the environment they reside in. For example, while an Audi would suit urban roads but for villages, one would need a rugged vehicle

Socio-Cultural Factors

In his famous book Rural Marketing — Targeting the non-urban consumer, Sanal Kumar writes

Social and cultural practices have an important influence on rural consumer behaviour. The presence of a community washing-place would mean that washing soaps are not products used in private but used in front of others.…Television viewing is still largely community viewing and hence rural audiences are not comfortable with sensuality or sexuality.

Socio-cultural factors go beyond what people want to hide from the public eye as seen in the above examples. These also apply to what people want to project. An example, Philips introduced large music systems instead of the compact ones it has for urban markets because of the large size representing higher status in the rural setting.

Economic factors

Rural worker largely falls into two categories — daily wage earners and seasonal earners (farmers). Both can pay small purchase price thus products need to have smaller packaging.

These and many other factors influence how rural India consumes. To design for such a demography one needs to take into account all these factors.


Products for rural India need to be

  • Community shared — We can’t expect individuals to own them right away.
  • Minimalistic — For example, a button booth to just press and connect with the nearest hospital. Just 1 button in a booth.
  • Zero training time — Not only do we not expect users to retain the information we can’t even expect them to learn anything new

These principles give new meanings to the popular design terms like minimalism and behavior prediction.

The owner of a non-profit enterprise SmartLoo, Swapnil Chaturvedi has a dream to make toilets smart for rural India. He aims to hold municipalities accountable through his SmartLoo system which would immediately indicate when a toilet is lacking soap, water or any of the other essentials.

Having worked for the last 8 years in this and having won a few accolades Swapnil has a lot to share about how product design needs to happen for rural India.

  • No-frills design — The toilets they manage do not have anything costly installed because anything costly is worth more in price than its utility. The poverty in slums pushes the residents to steal everything from soap dispensers to the door handle.
  • Sturdy — the focus needs to be on keeping it working. You do not need to have the best soap or the most expensive cleaners being used. You just need to keep the toilet clean enough for it to be used daily by 3000 people.
  • Honesty — The design needs to incorporate the reality of the world in which it exists. We need to be honest with the user about its limits. Be clear upfront about what’s happening and why. If something goes wrong, give clear recovery instructions but spare them the technical details. Swapnil would deliver lectures about how it is everyone’s responsibility to keep it clean.

These practical design principles resonate with how we think about our masses. The minimalism that we need to achieve goes far beyond what we can imagine.


In a world rife with design gurus and principles we need to start thinking about what could design look like for the masses that don’t possess the purchasing power. We need to start asking questions about the jurisdiction of design. Is design only applicable to those who can afford it?

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As the famous playwright, Samuel Beckett said

To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.