Understanding Your Customer Population

Keeping the Four Ps of marketing in mind, the first step to ensuring that a project can deliver efficient and affordable cookstoves at scale is to develop or select the right Product. This is key to ensuring the project achieves maximum impact; moreover, if users have access to a product that meets their needs, they are more likely to use it. In addition to maximizing social impact, greater adoption and usage rates can maximize returns on carbon crediting.

The chosen product should fit with local circumstances, which can best be evaluated by prioritizing a thoughtful understanding of the target customer population. The IDEO Human-Centered Design Toolkit is a great resource that outlines best practices for understanding consumer behavior and processes, and provides guidance on how that can be translated to designing a product or program.

The Impact Carbon market assessment methodology outlines concrete applications of consumer insights research and how it relates to energy products such as cookstoves. These methods can help project developers to understand key barriers to adoption , and from there create solutions to address them. A blend of qualitative and quantitative measurements is best. Effective qualitative methods include interviews with potential users, interviews with experts, and Focus Group Discussions. Below are some key questions to guide the process:

  • What do customers desire most from a cooking product?
  • What are their greatest frustrations about their current cooking practices?
  • What do they like and dislike about the stoves that are currently available on the market?
  • What kinds of fuels do they normally use to cook?
  • What kinds of stoves do they normally use to cook?
  • What are the main foods that customers will be cooking? (try to determine whether the foods cook quickly or slowly, whether significant stirring is required)
  • How many meals per day do they cook, and for how many people?

In order to discover as much as possible about the target customer population, questions should be open-ended. When determining who to speak with, it is recommended that project developers gather a blend of participants: those who are considered “ideal constituents” and those who are considered “extreme users,” or those who represent one end of spectrum or the other.

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Credit: IDEO

Human-Centered Design draws its strengths from its deep understanding of the cultural and societal environment of a specific group of users (often Extreme Users).  Solutions are relevant to the unique set of users, and while they often can be generalized to a larger population, it is important to recognize that a solution that works in one context may not be appropriate elsewhere. Tension exists between customizing for specific populations and creating a “one-size-fits-all” product.

Once customer needs have been identified, the next step is to assess whether appropriate products are already available, or if it is more appropriate to design a new product (or, perhaps, both). If integrating existing products into a project, it is recommended that customers are offered a variety of appropriate options so that they can select the technology they most prefer. If developing a new product, please visit the “product design” section.

Product Design

If designing a product, it is critical that project developers consider users and their feedback during the design process, as discussed in the design selection section and IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit. For example:

  • If customers usually cook food that requires intense stirring then the stove should be stable enough to withstand it.
  • If customers cook for large quantities of people, or large quantities of food, then the stove must accommodate the size pot that they like to use.
  • If customers are worried about their children hurting themselves then it will be important to insulate the stove so that the outside doesn’t get too hot to touch, and effort should be made to conceal sharp edges.

It is also important to consider what resources are available in order to manufacture product in an affordable manner. This includes a review of:

  • Locally available materials: Is it possible to access metal easily? Is clay a plentiful resource? If not, from where could these materials be imported from and how much would it cost? What other alternatives are available?
  • Locally available equipment: Design should not require machines which are inaccessible. It is key to determine what equipment will be necessary now, versus what would be ideal to have in the future. From here, it is advisable to create an investment plan to prioritize procurement.

Once planned design is finalized, it is time to create a prototype (or several). This should be field tested and feedback collected from end users using the techniques from the human-centered design process. These processes overlap with the Market Assessment Methodology. Selected tactics include:

  • In-Home Tests: Users should be given the opportunity to use the new product for a few weeks (i.e. 2-4 weeks). This should be followed up with a survey to understand their experiences with the product. It may be necessary to return multiple times; for example, it may be worth following up with some customers every quarter to evaluate how their experience with the product changes over time.
  • Sales Trials: At this stage, the product is brought to a market and an actual sales scenario should be replicated. This may include an open-market day where the sales team sells the product from a centralized location, or a door-to-door approach. Sales figures for each product should be recorded, and users who do not purchase should be interviewed to understand why. It is important to record all trends and patterns.
  • Interviews: Key stakeholders such as potential customers, vendors and community leaders will provide vital product feedback throughout this process, so it is important to interview plenty to gather sufficient data around product appropriateness  and appeal.

These trials can be done on any scale, and can be repeated as often as deemed necessary. In all cases, it is encouraged to let people interact with the product as often as they can. This usually done through methods such as public stove demonstrations or loaning products out. It is critical to repeat the feedback process as many times as necessary until the design fits customer needs and production capabilities.

Note: In all cases, it is critical to get participant consent before surveying.

Production

As the production line is established, the manufacturing layout should also be established and optimized to be as efficient as possible. It is important to consider the stove assembly order, and lay the factory out in a logical format. For example, the spray paint station should not be next to the riveting station if there are multiple steps in between those processes. Key areas to consider include:

  • Ensure sufficient storage space: This is important not only for finished products, but also for pieces that have additional storage requirements (for example, ceramic liners may need to dry before firing).
  • Creating an assembly line system with ongoing quality control: factory workers should be trained in proper quality attributes and expectations for acceptable standards set. It is important to ensure all artisans have the capability to identify quality components throughout the stove process and can flag any component that does not meet standards. Provide incentives/accountability measures for artisans to prevent bad components from entering the product is also a valuable approach.
  • It is advisable to appoint a quality manager to oversee final product quality.

Tracking Operations

Next, as with every other step of the carbon crediting process, manufacturing operations must be tracked. It is easiest to establish this when manufacturing operations are initially being set up. Key areas which should be regularly tracked are:

  • Production: The production of various stove components should be tracked to manage component inventory. This will help to determine whether it is necessary to allocate additional human resources toward slower-producing components to ensure production goals are achieved.
  • Expenses: Expenses should be tracked against final product output – this is important not only for carbon crediting, but also for understanding how the business is performing as part of keeping product costs low and ensuring attractive margins. It is important to maintain a clear sense of the materials and labor costs per stove.
  • Performance:  Managers should be able to identify how workers are performing. It is important to regularly assess which workers are doing the best, and what behaviors make them so successful. It is also helpful to assess the per-unit cost in raw materials. Tracking this data will provide help to identify opportunities for improvement and efficiency.
  • Inventory: It is recommended to take inventory daily, especially if sales and production occur on a daily basis. Finished stoves that enter the warehouse from the production line should be counted, as well as stoves that are taken out of the warehouse for sales. These totals should balance and it is recommended to reconcile these daily. This can help to minimize lost or misplaced products, and can be used as an additional tool used to verify production records.

Ongoing Product Evaluation

Lastly, as was mentioned in the “Product Design” and “Understanding Your Customer Population” sections, it is beneficial to conduct ongoing product evaluation. It is encouraged to leverage carbon-required Monitoring & Evaluation framework to conduct ongoing product evaluations in order gain additional knowledge about how customers interact with the product. Kitchen Surveys and Usage Surveys can be used to understand how well the product works in homes, what users like, what they dislike, when people stop using the stoves and why. It is advisable to include questions that will generate the product information you’re looking for; examples of key question areas are included in the product design section. It is important to be open to modifying design based on this feedback.