Taking a Shower: Designing for the Impoverished
The readings this week, which all proposed different ways of thinking about poverty, led me to one conclusion about the attitudes and strategies I should bring to that issue as a designer: the poor are agents, not victims.
For the story I wrote, I chose to explore my role as a designer in relation to poverty through the lens of a small family trying to accomplish a small goal: taking a shower. As you’ll see below, I’ll be interrupting the story periodically with sections in italics explaining how the storyline maps onto the theories our class explored this week.
To Take a Shower
“Mom, I’ve got the resume hardcopy,” Katie called out as she opened her mother’s, Donna’s, front door.
“I think we need to get you a new printer.” Katie kept moving deeper into the house. “But you look super competent on here. I’d hire you. Mom?” Katie pushed aside the drapes covering the patio doors. No one in the backyard, and Rocio had forgotten to water the bougainvilleas again.
Katie paused, listening. “Mom? Rocio?” They should have both been here, getting ready for Mom’s skype interview. Mom had lost her job at the Department of Insurance months ago. If she needed something at the last minute, she would have sent Rocio, her personal caregiver, not risked being late by going herself.
Katie heard a sound in the master bathroom. Were they laughing? “Mom, I’m coming in.” Katie barely rapped on the door before shoving it open. The door hit something soft then rebounded back at her.
“Katie?” her Mom said.
Katie pushed the door open more gently. Her mom was lying there in a robe on the ground. She was crying.
“Jesus, Mom, are you okay?” Katie pulled her mom up to lean her against the sink. “What happened?”
“Where is Rocio?”
Her mom started crying again. “I had to let Rocio go last week. I couldn’t afford to pay her anymore.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I would have helped you myself.” Katie’s mom was disabled. She could still walk a bit, but getting into a bathtub and then lifting herself back out again was out of the question.
Donna shook her head. “You can’t afford that. And I don’t want you helping me take a shower. Neither of us needs that mental image.”
“You should have at least waited for me to get here. What if you had hit your head going down?”
“I can’t have dirty hair for my interview,” Donna insisted.
“We could hide it with a hat.”
“It’s a job interview, not the Royal Ascot.”
“We could angle you so the light doesn’t shine on you so much.”
“I can’t be trying to hide my greaseball head and sound smart at the same time.
Here I am echoing the ideas of Dean Spears. His research shows that poverty reduces one’s cognitive control because it forces you to make tough decisions constantly, exhausting your mental resources. Therefore, it is our responsibility as designers to make products and services for the poor that demand the use of as little cognitive control as possible. This frees them up to use that mental energy on other tasks, such as figuring out how to navigate the path out of poverty.
“You’re being silly.”
Donna’s face closed down. “No. If I don’t want my daughter to see me naked, I don’t want her to see me naked.”
Katie sat back on her heels. “Well, this isn’t going to work. You can’t be falling down when there’s no one here to help you.”
Roger Martin and Sally Osberg advocate for social entrepreneurs to help the impoverished by perceiving and then overthrowing unjust social equilibriums. Though I found their theories a tad paternalistic, I do think that as designers we need to use our observation and synthesis skills to discern unsatisfactory equilibriums and take action to change them.
“I could do it myself if the bathtub rim weren’t so high,” said Donna.
Here I refer back to Chris LeDantec. He states that our designs should ideally be accessible and emotionally resonant with everyone, rich and poor alike. It would be possible to make a more universally accessible bathtub; that just wasn’t a priority for the original tub designer in this story.
Donna mused, “Or if I had one of those mini-elevator machines that can raise and lower you.”
“Yeah, that would be nice,” Katie said. They both knew they could never afford to install something like that. “They make those plastic shower chairs that let you sit down while you take a shower.”
Donna shook her head. “I know. That doesn’t help us right now though.”
This section calls back to the pro- capitalist ideas of Allen Hammond and C.K. Prahalad. They advocate for tailoring products for the poor so that they are not locked out of the broader economy because businesses assume that they cannot participate. In this story, someone has created a cheaper alternative to a mechanical elevator seat, though Katie and Donna unfortunately do not have access to it right now.
Katie sprang up. “Wait, let’s try this.” Katie walked out the door and returned in a minute with one of her mom’s lawn chairs. Katie put the lawn chair down in the tub. “This way you won’t have to stand up the whole time or get up from sitting down.”
“Help me up.” Donna held her arm out. Katie pulled her up and maneuvered her next to the tub. Donna reached out to the chair and started to lift herself over the tub edge. She eased back. “No, it’s too hard to get around the chair arm. Get me a stool.”
Returning to LeDantec, he proposes that designers view the poor as more than just consumers. Rather, they have agency, knowledge, and skills to bring to bear to help co-design their own solutions.
“But I don’t want you tippling over mid-shower.” Katie leaned her mother up against the sink.
“Go get my desk chair. The arms on that raise and lower.”
Katie set the lawn chair by the toilet and went to get Mom’s desk chair. It wedged nicely into the center of the tub. Donna heaved herself up and Katie kept a hand on her elbow as Donna gripped the chair’s far arm and edged her feet up and over the side of the tub. Donna settled into the seat and raised the chair’s other arm up. She looked snug in her robe, squashed securely between the chair’s arms.
Katie handed the shower head down to Donna.“Are you good now?” she asked.
“Yup.” Donna was already turning the taps.
“Okay, I’m going to be right outside if you need anything.”
“I’ve got it now.”
Muhammad Yunus’s ideas sneak in here at the end. He states that designers should make products and services that work to remove the structural obstacles that prevent the impoverished from accomplishing their goals, like becoming healthier or opening a business. In this story, Katie and Donna have co-designed a solution to Donna’s immediate problem, she can no longer afford to pay for someone to help her take a bath. This enables Donna to tackle her other big problem, unemployment.
Katie pulled the door shut. “Well, Mom, do you want to practice?” She affected a deep interviewer voice, “Tell me, what experiences have prepared you for this position, Ms. Butler?”
“Go away! I’m trying to shower!”