This article focuses on challenges posed by human factor engineering and designing tools, applications for cross-cultural population. The companies who work on cross-cultural design projects face the problem of human-factors-engineering problem. Designers need to understand the culture of those they are designing for; however, they are expected to still face problems. In some African nations, pearl millet grows abundantly but cannot be used as a large source of food because villagers have a difficult time removing the grain from the husk. Developing practical, simple threshing tools is more difficult than it may seem. The article also highlights that the products must be designed specifically for the people who will use them. Catapult’s designers and engineers rely on the computer-aided design and analysis software common to the industry—and they follow the usual product development process. But they are uniquely sensitive to cultural differences. The human factor is the most important influence in the way people use their tools. Designing for that, it seems, requires quieting one’s own cultural expectations, observing, asking the right questions, and listening.


In a world with ergonomic keyboards and driver alerts, where electronic gadgets respond to a touch or a sweep of the fingers, the term “human factors” takes on a high cultural significance.

But what about the vast part of the same world where technology has not progressed far beyond the stage of Iron Age agriculture? There can be food on the ground that people can’t use because they lack the technology to prepare it.

In African countries like Mali and Niger, for instance, pearl millet grows abundantly enough to feed the hungriest of the hungry. But Africans remain hungry because they are surrounded by grain they can’t eat. Separating the seed from its husk—threshing it to make it edible—is a huge challenge for villagers with no access to mechanized devices.

Give African villagers access to simple threshing technologies and they could end hunger in their communities, said Jeff Wilson, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service in Tifton, Ga.

Wilson is an expert on pearl millet and how it might best be used in the African nations where it grows.

Presently, to thresh pearl millet, women place the stalks in hollowed-out logs and grind then with heavy sticks. Or in a privileged case, a villager works the grain by driving the area's one truck or tractor across it. In other places, donkeys walk across the pearl millet to the same end.

While developing a simple threshing technology to help this arduous process sounds easy enough, the challenge is huge, according to Wilson and to the group of 100 volunteer engineers, scientists, and technicians who make up Compatible Technologies Inc., headquartered in St. Paul.

CTI volunteers put their expertise to use to develop mechanisms and simple technologies for use in developing countries. But that's not as easy as it sounds.

The problem comes when engineers, scientists, researchers, and volunteers in the industrialized world try to develop helpful technologies for use in third-world countries.

Even with a ton of information about—and travel to— the places where the mechanisms they design will be used, it's still hard for researchers and volunteers to get a handle on how people will actually interact with the product. Or to fully understand the culture in which they’ll be used— also a necessity for functional design.

Design for Use

Today, when experts talk about design for human use— human-factors engineering—they often point to the iPhone. That device, with its touch-screen and brightly colored icons, doesn’t even come with a manual.

But those who work on cross-cultural design projects face a totally different type of human-factors-engineering problem close up: How to best design for those who will use your products—when you’re not totally clear how they’ll be used, said Rolfe Leary, a CTI volunteer. Leary is a retired forester with the U.S. Forest Service who helped CTI address the pearl millet issue.

Designers need to understand the culture of those they’re designing for. But even then, they still face problems.

Recently, Wilson watched Leary demonstrate a small thresher that CTI had developed. Leary dropped a stalk of pearl millet between two wringers scavenged at great effort from an old-fashioned washing machine. He turned the crank and as the stalk passed through the wringers, grain fell into a bucket below. Husk and stalk came away cleaned of its grain.

But Wilson shook his head: Still too advanced for those who were expected use it. They’ve never seen a crank and would have no idea how to use one, he said. And when a piece on the improvised thresher inevitably broke, the villagers wouldn’t know how—or have access to parts—to fix it.


CTI's products, like food grinders, food dryers, and threshers, may look basic, and in some ways they are, but they’ve been developed after months of study and experimentation. Locals who haven’t seen technology more advanced than a rake or hoe will be expected to set up the machines, to use them, and to fix them when they break.

For the thresher, it was back to the drawing board for CTI volunteers. Feedback from Wilson—who understands pearl millet, how it behaves, and how the pellets need to look after threshing, and who has interacted with the people who will use it—will be vital every step of the way when it comes to development, Leary said.

Simple Tools

The CTI volunteers use CAD tools—mainly Autodesk— as they design. They then make prototypes and test them with the help of other volunteers and with experts like Wilson. Software can’t really prompt for that type of vital input. Designers deliberately use very simple components to make up the tools like the tabletop thresher.

For Heather Fleming, the product development process is much the same, regardless of whether the product will be used in a third-world or a first-world country. Fleming is chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Catapult Design, which is made up of engineers, product designers (like Fleming), and even an anthropologist. The firm works with third-party organizations to create technologies and products for populations who need them.

Catapult Design says in its mission statement: “We believe successful products aren’t defined by technological feats, but rooted in a holistic perspective of the development process that is centered on the needs of the end-user.”

In other words, what good is a water filtration product if no one wants it, uses it, or will pay for it, Fleming asks. And if low-cost water filtration products exist, why does the majority of the world's population still drink dirty water?

The products must be designed specifically for the people who will use them. Catapult's designers and engineers rely on the CAD and analysis software common to the industry—and they follow the usual product development process. But they’re uniquely sensitive to cultural differences.

Fleming abides by the maxim she learned in college: Assume you know nothing. It holds true whether a designer is at work on a mobile computing device or a very simple water filtration system.

“You need to know how a product will be used,” Fleming said. “You can’t assume.

“But there is an added layer of cultural complexity when working with developing countries, that you have to be patient with,” she said. “We emphasize that we need to partner with a bunch of different types of specialists to make this stuff work.”

Just Observe

Fleming learned about the importance of partnering through her earlier work with Engineers Without Borders. That group realized that designers must look beyond the perspective that engineers bring to a project, Fleming said.

“My degree is in product design, and we had a large chunk of course work devoted to ethnographic research— like observing and engaging with people to see how they might use the object and then determining engineering constraints based on that,” Fleming said.


But even with that background and understanding, Catapult's designers regularly consult with an anthropologist, she added. An anthropologist can bring a new understanding for engineers and product developers working outside their own cultural norms.

“Just the way the anthropologist phrases questions during field studies; it's things we may not have thought to ask or in the way she asks them,” Fleming said. “She's more tuned in to the cultural aspect of things, so she exposes us to different ethnographic skills.”

When it comes to product development, the starting points for the engineer and for the anthropologist are in two separate places. And that's a good thing, Fleming said.

“For example, a designer might be making an LED lamp for use in a small village because they need an LED lamp, but an anthropologist wouldn’t necessarily jump to that conclusion,” she said. “She might think: they need a better way to produce light, but it might not specifically be an LED lamp.

“The anthropologist isn’t a solutions driver,” Fleming added. “She observes without offering a specific solution.”

For example, Catapult Design works with The Hippo Water Roller Project, the company that offers a product called the Hippo Roller. In Africa, the roller, which looks almost like a plastic rain barrel on its side—allows women who traditionally fetch water from a great distance to get four days’ water supply rather than make daily trips.

Catapult Design worked to find ways to reduce the cost for the 90-liter drum and make it available in countries of South America and in India. Recently, Catapult worked with Clean Water International on a water filtration system to be incorporated in the roller.

It was during talks with the women actually using the roller that the on-site anthropologist proved invaluable, Fleming said.

“An engineer would ask, ‘What are the different water purification technologies available to incorporate here?’ ” Fleming said. “But with the anthropologist's perspective and help we could take a step back and ask, ‘What are people using the water for?’

“We discovered the vast majority of water didn’t really need to be cleaned, people were using it for bathing or for other things,” she said. “Only 25 percent was used for drinking. So maybe we could make a smaller filtration system, or one that sits on the side. To clean only a few liters, you can do that much faster and much more cheaply.”

Engineers and designers at Compatible Technologies and Catapult Design work to develop products to help developing countries. But all those products, if they are to prove their value, must be used by people.

In the end, the human factor is the most important influence in the way people use their tools. Designing for that, it seems, requires quieting one's own cultural expectations, observing, asking the right questions, and listening.