January 15, 2013 | The Editors

Good question: what do people want in a water filter?

For millions of people who lack access to safe drinking water, home water filters can help solve a problem that contributes to the deaths of about 800,000 children from diarrhea every year. But PATH’s safe water team knows there’s a difference between designing a functional water filter, and designing a water filter that people will use.

Over the course of nearly three years, the team studied water filters and their users to learn not only what people need, but also what they want. The team spent more than 600 hours in homes in India, Cambodia, Tanzania, Mali, and Ethiopia, carefully observing people using water filters. It’s the kind of research commercial designers conduct when they’re building products for wealthier consumers, but it’s not nearly as common in less affluent regions.

Woman in her home standing proudly between a blue water storage barrel and a water filter.
In Vavilala, India, Taramma got a water filter during a PATH pilot project. Click the photo above to see a slideshow about the project. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

How tall is your cup?

You might guess some of what the team uncovered: the filters had to be affordable, durable, and effective. But they also had to be visually appealing, easy to assemble, and located at the right height so that a standard-size cup—which might be a different size in Cambodia than it is in Africa—could fit under the tap.

As three new water filters using our team’s design guidelines come to market, we asked Pat Lennon, technology portfolio leader for the Safe Water Project, and Andy Beddoe, product development officer, a good question: what’s the most interesting thing they learned about human behavior as a result of their water filter research?

Pat: Oh, there are so many things; it’s hard to pick just one. At PATH we try to do two things in all of our work: increase uptake and ensure sustained, correct use. This is really critical with a water filter, because you can’t just use it once in a while and expect it to be effective at protecting health. So, one question we had was how do we design with a consumer focus so that we draw people to the filter?

The shape of one of the filters was a problem. People would say, “This is like a garbage bin. I don’t want to drink water from a garbage bin.” But we also found out the water filters could be too aspirational. When we showed one of the really sleek designs to people, they’d say, “It looks nice, but it’s not for me.”

So nice it’s embarrassing

In fact, a family in India that was testing the high-end filter snuck it into their home at night because they didn’t want the neighbors to see them with it—it was just too much. I guess the equivalent for us might be pulling up in front of the house in a Ferrari or something.

That really struck me. At first, I thought, “We’ve got to make this product look as good as possible.” But I found out that when it comes to household products, people want something that fits in with the rest of their home, and that’s not always the most modern or fancy design.

Profit motive and more

Andy: I came into the project at the time we were saying, “Let’s take what we’ve learned in the field, translate it into design guidelines, and transfer it to partners in China who can make these things.”  Mostly I worked with the manufacturers to envision and execute a commercial product—there are three of them making these devices—and I would say what surprised me is how these partners on the ground in China identified with what we were trying to do and stuck with us.

They’re used to working on something and then filling orders right away, because that’s when they start making a return on their investment. But through any development process you run into technical hurdles, and these all slow your time to market. And our partners were willing to continue with the long-term vision of getting this product to market, in part because they were aligned with our mission and excited to be a part of it. That was a very pleasant surprise.

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