Ambessa Play: product design for the greater good

Sara Berkai explains why she chose an equity-centered design approach when developing her educational kits – and why other designers need to look at the bigger picture, too.
Ambessa Play 16x9 hero

Equity-centered design (ECD) is a process that's set up to challenge product designers to go beyond typical processes, to incorporate history, address power dynamics and co-create with communities. 

Sara Berkai, founder of Ambessa Play, has been implementing ECD into her work developing science, technology, engineering and mathematics education kits with a one-for-one model: for every kit sold, another one is given to a refugee child. Here she shares why she decided to incorporate this method – even though it's taken a little bit longer to launch her product – and her tips for incorporating it into product design.

1. Find past flaws. While common in social enterprises, the one-for-one model has failed spectacularly in the past. So Sara decided to focus her design on what those models missed – and found it's crucial to develop with the receiving community. ‘There's a great deal of techno-optimism in edtech, particularly within international development,’ she says. ‘Technology in education, at times, is oversold, underused and not designed for the user in mind. ECD has been helpful in a reminder or call for humility.’ 

2. Consider prioritization. With that in mind, Sara decided to prioritize children in refugee camps, rather than those she would be directly selling to. ‘It means we're co-designing with displaced children, testing from sketches to 3D-printed prototypes and asking them what they like and want in every step,’ she says. ‘In action, this looks like solely focusing on displaced children in camps in our design process – and we then find that the toy also works for more kids.’

3. There will be (good) trade-offs. ‘It's a costly, slower and a harder process so, yes, there's a trade-off in time. It means we ship a product slower – it's taken us over a year to work on this – but also we can feel proud that kids have led our design decisions,’ she says. ‘For example, imagine if I designed what I thought kids wanted, asked a few young kids in central London if they liked it, and launched with that. Sure, that would ship a faster product, but it's also slightly careless and reckless – and overall a waste of time if we inevitably discover it didn't work in camps or settlements.’

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more useful stories, tips, tricks and simply good advice, sign up here.

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