We began exploring the concept of “good enough” in product and service development while conducting field research on grassroots entrepreneurs and innovative enterprises in emerging markets like India a few years ago. We found that innovators in these markets use a unique approach to innovation that starts by upending assumptions and asking fundamental, rather than incremental "what if" questions when developing a new product, service, or business model. Asking these fundamental questions, we learned, often leads to simple and focused design of a “good enough” solution--an affordable product or service that effectively meets the basic needs of hundreds of thousands of customers in emerging markets.
Many of these resourceful innovators use jugaad, a Hindi word that roughly translates as "an improvised solution borne from ingenuity that addresses a pressing socio-economic problem." This frugal and flexible approach to innovation allows them to provide quick and effective solutions to consumers grappling with complex issues in their daily lives. More importantly, jugaad is an approach that is also increasingly critical to driving innovation in developed countries that now face more scarcity and instability than ever before.
Good enough products are of high value to innovators as well as to customers in emerging markets for three reasons:
- They are cheaper to make, more affordable and more accessible
- They are easier to use and maintain
- They satisfy a broader audience
For example, Mansukh Prajapati is an entrepreneur we met in the remote deserts of western India who asked himself a bold question, “What if I can make a refrigerator that does not require electricity?” This is a critical question in a region where delivery of vegetables and dairy is erratic and access to electricity is patchy. Mansukh didn’t even finish high school, but he came from a long line of potters and so had a deep knowledge of clay. To answer his own question, he went back to the basics to consider the natural cooling properties of clay and used this knowledge to make an off-the-grid terra cotta fridge.
Named Mitticool (“mitti” means earth in Hindi), the fridge works as follows: Water is stored in an upper chamber and seeps down the sidewalls of a lower chamber, where evaporation cools the food that is stored there. It requires no electricity and is 100% biodegradable. Here, simplicity also leads to sustainability. While Mitticool keeps water, vegetables, and dairy cool in the heat of the desert, it also keeps the food hydrated, so it actually tastes better than it would in a conventional fridge. This simple fridge is not simplistic or unrefined, but rather smart and innovative. It uses an inexpensive, widely available material (clay) and traditional knowledge (pottery) in an entirely new application at a price (about $40) that makes it highly affordable.
In developed economies, the “bigger is better” approach to innovation has dominated for years. But a series of changes is occurring that is driving demand for “good enough” products and services even in the West:
- A shrinking middle class that is demanding more value for money
- Consumers who prefer usability to complex, over-engineered products and services, and
- A willingness to trade off additional or more refined features for time saving
Like innovators in emerging markets, companies across the rest of the globe, including in the U.S., are focusing more and more on consumer needs rather than desires, and are responding to consumer demand for simpler products over complex ones, even when a trade-off in quality must be made.
As Carlos Teixeira, an assistant professor at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons, told us, “Good enough is a trade-off, but with good design, the user experience doesn’t feel compromised.” Good enough design, he said, requires going beyond consumption and production to having a deep understanding of the ecosystem--from consumer needs to distribution--like many of the innovators we met in emerging markets.
Case in point, while music lovers can hear the difference between uncompressed music formats such as CDs, and highly compressed MP3s, the overwhelming preference is for MP3s because the intuitive platforms on which these compressed files operate (iTunes, MP3 players) are simple and user friendly. Specifically, they make it easier to listen to more music and share this music with others. The listener’s choice, as a result, becomes less about quality and more about usability and simplicity.
Good-enough products deliver higher value because they are designed to do one thing exceptionally well (functional specialization), rather than handling multiple things in a mediocre fashion, which can leave users frustrated and confused. Take GE’s Mac 400, a low-cost, portable ECG (heart monitor) developed in India that costs a fraction of what a typical ECG unit costs in the West and is one fifth the weight. The portability increases accessibility--it allows rural physicians to carry it to remote villages--while the low cost provides greater affordability. Reusability of pre-existing components, such as the printers used in Indian bus stations, which can withstand dust and monsoon rains, increases functionality, and further decreases the cost of this remarkable device. This simple ECG unit has also received FDA approval in the U.S., where it will have a great impact on our highly strained health care system by adding portability and significantly lowering the cost of ECG testing.
John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, calls this kind of real-world design “radical incrementalism”--the art of delivering much more value without adding more bells and whistles in products. As Maeda points out: “It’s not necessarily beneficial to add more technology features just because we can. R&D engineers must make frugal simplicity the core tenet of their design philosophy.”
Many good-enough products have benefits that override the desire for over-featured products of the highest quality--whose incremental benefits do not justify their complexity and increased cost. The lessons of jugaad and "good enough" from emerging economies can help emerged economies drive more innovation at a lower cost for more people. Learning them quickly will prevent alienating the growing numbers of Western consumers seeking to simplify their lives.