All of us see the suffering of people in developing countries and want to help. The problem is often knowing exactly how to do that. Many engineers are eager to use their technical skills and see opportunities for products they could design, but many of these engineers don’t have the impact they’d like because they don’t truly understand the customer needs.

Understanding the customer needs is key to developing a good product, but it is very hard to understand the customer if they live on the other side of the world in a totally different culture with a totally different life experience because they are in poverty. Engineers Amy and Charles Wood recently travelled to India to test some different methods for clearly defining customer needs with people there.

They spent two months in a city called Vishakhapatnam on the eastern coast of India, and unfortunately, those were the hottest and most humid two months of the year. They spent most of their time in small fishing villages on the beach. Through their trusty translator, Madu, they talked to over a hundred people getting to know the villages, what life was like there, and what the biggest challenges were. They asked about power, water, cell phones, fishing equipment, and anything else they could think of.

After six weeks of interviewing, they noticed that the most common problem women in the villages talked about was cooking. Traditional wood-burning cookstoves were outside of the majority of homes in these villages. They always cook outside so the smoke and soot don’t get in their homes. Many of the women owned modern propane stoves but the propane itself was a huge expense. On top of that, almost all of them prefer the taste and experience of cooking over a fire rather than a propane stove so they continued to cook outside over a fire.

Charles and Amy had heard of many engineering projects where designers made cookstoves that were more efficient, used less fuel, and boiled water faster. These seemed like worthwhile goals, they had never heard of a study that factored in the taste of food prepared on one stove or another or the customer’s preference.

The biggest pain women in these fishing villages talked about cooking during the rainy season. They didn’t want to use propane stoves because they were expensive and made lower quality food, but they didn’t want to use a traditional cookstove inside their home because of the smoke, so they were forced to do their best to cover the fires and cook outside in the rain.

Through several rounds of prototyping and testing, Charles and Amy spent the next two weeks developing a small shelter that could be used to protect the fire and the woman cooking from the rain and then fold away for storage during other times of the year.

Charles and Amy learned through this experience that one of the best ways engineers can help people in developing countries is to not assume we know what they want or need. Engineers need to go to that place, see what their life is like, talk to them, learn from them what their biggest challenges are, and then design products that meet those needs instead of the needs we think they have.