Avoid Making Arbitrary Business & Product Decisions
Even though the terms “assumption” and “hypothesis” have very similar meaning, they are not the same. Many people used them in a wrong way, not just in wording, but in practice. An assumption is a hope or a guess based on past experiences or personal understanding. It can be very arbitrary. According to Merriam-Webster, an assumption is a “statement (as a proposition, axiom, postulate, or notion) taken for granted”. A hypothesis is made tentatively “in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences”. When we design an innovative product or solution, making hypothesis is always part of our job; however, there are some people, designers or product managers, just keep making assumptions, which may lead to big losses to their companies and even cause the product fail.
I worked on this project with NSN Nokia Siemens Networks, which is called RICE (Rural Information and Communication Engine). It is a project supported by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and China Ministry of Science and Technology Poverty Alleviation Department. The goal of this project is to provide a tech solution to help famers in the remote rural area to run their small businesses, to improve their life quality, and get out of poverty. While I dived deep and worked on this project, I found out there were many assumptions had been made by many people, which turned out to be wrong.
Assumption 1, those poor farmers lack of funding to start their own business
With this assumption, there were some “solutions” had been provided to help the farmers to get a micro business loan. For example, Wokai, founded by an American lady, Casey Wilson, who think she really understand the pain point of remote rural farmers’ poverty in China, and created her micro-loan business based on that assumption. She has a very kind heart, but she made an assumption based on her own imagination. On one hand, Chinese government had already come out with many policies to encourage rural farmers to receive funding for their businesses from local banks. On another hand, which is more important is that, China is such a strong nepotist society that most western country people can hardly understand. Every people in China is tied to a complicated relationship net. For five thousand years, China still has family shrine, and has genealogy book well documented to track the family tree and relationships. For many people, especially in those rural areas, where the traditions are still well preserved, the big family, is the safeguard where they can always get help and protection. So whenever someone want to start their own small business, they would not go to the bank, bur rather go to their own family circle to raise fund. So the startup capital is not a problem for them. If so, then what it is? I will explain it later.
Assumption 2, poor people have bad credit
Of course this assumption is also wrong and it is based on people’s bias. Professor Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank with an unbelievable repayment rate of 99.6%, have proved that such assumption was totally wrong. In China, it is not just about poor people also care about their credit and reputation, another reason is what I just mentioned, it is a strong nepotist society, nobody wants to ruin their reputation among their families and relationships.
So if funding is not a problem, then what are the obstacles that have been stopping those farmers to start their own businesses? Being remote and far way from the cities is not a problem with those farmers, since the Chinese government have developed the roads, highways, fast trains; these infrastructures have been well established. They also have mobile phones, and they are able to access the internet. People surf online at local internet bars. I talked to many farmers in those remote rural villages, visited their homes and their field. It is not that they do not want to start their own businesses. They like to watch those venture and fortune programs on TV, and they are also jealous those in the TV program that have gotten rich by running a farm to raise live stocks, aquatic products, or crops; they also want to do the same. However, they do not know the technology required, so they are afraid if they borrow a large amount of money from the family or relatives to start a farm, a simple disease may cause them to lose all the money, and become negative in finance and owe a big debt. So this is the first problem we decided to solve after talk, listen and observe in the villages. Another problem we found out through our research is that, even though the agricultural produces are selling at quite high price in big cities, the farmer did not sell their produces for a good price. Instead, the middlemen had made the profits. So we will also want to help them cross the middlemen, and be able to sell directly to the buyers in big cities.
There were already some other solutions out there, aimed to help the farmers solve technology problems, how were they doing? I also asked the farmers about those solutions. To my surprise, none of them were actually using those products/services. Zero. Two biggest solution out there were “Nong Xin Tong”, provided by China Mobile. Another one is called “New Agriculture Time”, provided by China Telecom. These projects had been put hundreds of millions dollars in it, but they all eventually failed. There were very big billboard signs at the village, I pointed to the Nong Xin Tong ads and asked the farmers, have you guys been using the service? The answers were “NO!” None of them had been using them. Why? How could that happen?
Assumption 3, rural farmers will visit webpages
Nong Xin Tong and New Agriculture Time each has an agricultural web portal, with all kinds of agricultural information there. From government agricultural polices, to jobs info, to market info, to weather info, and so on and so forth. Even though the government have already built the infrastructure, the rural areas also have the internet service. However, the farmers do not have a computer at home, and they do not have internet services at home. Some young farmers may travel 30 miles to the nearby town to the so called “Internet Café”, but they only play games there. So even though China mobile and China Telecom had spent a lot of money and put a lot of efforts to build, maintain and operate their site, no farmers are using their site. From my research, none! None of the farmers I met had ever visited Nong Xin Tong nor New Agriculture Time web portal. What a pity! What a big loss caused by an assumption.
Assumption 4, rural farmer will subscribe SMS service
Nong Xin Tong also has a subscription based SMS service, with just as low as 3 CNY per month. With this service, Nong Xin Tong will keep sending agriculture related text messages to the subscribers. However, I talked to over a hundred farmers during this project, none of them had subscribed this service. The farmers may pay 2 or 3 CNY for a Kung Fu novel to read on their mobile phone, but do not want to subscribe agriculture content. Why? The book is one time cost, and they only pay what they like. The SMS service will automatically charge every month, become a long term cost, plus, the general distributed content may not directly relate to the individual farmer. For example, this farm may have a tomato farm, but why should he pay for the potato content?
Assumption 5, a hotline will be quite helpful to answer farmers’ questions
Will it be useful to have a hotline service? So whenever a farmer encounters a technique problem with his/her farm, he/she can simply call that number, describe the issue, an operator will answer the question and provide help? Sounds make sense, right? However, the farmers do not want to call that number. Why? Here are the answers I heard. First, the operators are mostly young fellows. In farmers’ head, they think aged means experienced. They do not trust those “young kids” can really help them. Second, those young kids will just listen to the describes, make a judgment, then provide a diagnosis with treatment suggestion. The farmers do not trust that either. They would expect the “doctors” to come over, check at their farm or land, then provide a diagnosis with treatment idea. A “tele-doctor” service is not what they can rely on.
With all the information we collected, with the understanding on those farmers’ real issues and their concerns and their life style and how other players failed with their assumptions, we defined our own hypotheses, and build our product and services on top of that.
Hypothesis 1, local TTF with nationwide network will be able to help local farmers
The Technical Task Force (TTF) refers to groups of highly trained professionals, development experts and academics, often with entrepreneurial skills, who are working together with poor farming communities to reduce poverty. Their job is to help the farmers solve technical problems, they have computers at their offices, and they often surf online and be able to use Alibaba and many other online services and resources. There are hundreds of thousands such TTFs in rural areas, staying in the village to help the farmers to solve their technical problems, providing training, diagnosis and treatment solutions. Almost in every village, there is a so called Agricultural Technical Station, where there will be several TTFs working there. These TTFs are mostly local farmers, but they have finished an associate degree or bachelor degree, received training, then come back to the village to serve the farmers. These TTFs were grown up from this village, they know everyone in this village, so they have the trust from the farmers. Whenever the farmer encounters an issue, they will be able to actually go to those field, to check out the live stocks or plants before making a diagnosis.
Of course the agricultural techniques can also be complicated. Farming, forestry, livestock, aquaculture, there might be many different situations. Several TTFs in one village, and they only had some training with associate degrees; they may not be able to help every farmer and handle different situations. So our platform will be a site for the TTFs to use, and they will also be connected with the nationwide TTF network. Hence, whenever a TTF encounter a problem he/she can not solve, he/she can ask in this network to get help. TTFs can also share their experiences online to enrich the knowledge base to help others.
Hypothesis 2, farmers will call local TTFs
Even though farmers have mobile phones, but at that time mobile phones were still not smart enough. Most of the farmers were using a keyboard feature phone. And most of them even do not know how to input Chinese characters on the phone. So in our hypothesis, the farmers will only need to call the TTF. Our system will connect the farmer with a local TTF, if no local TTF can answer the phone at that time, the system will record a message. Then when the TTF is available, he can call back, send back a text or voice message.
Hypothesis 3, local TTF can help bridge the purchasing needs with supplies
Local TTFs knows everyone in the local village, he/she knows which farmer planted tomato, which farmer raised chicken. When a buyer from big city want to place an order, the TTF will be able to help fulfill the order. If his village does not have enough quantity, he can also ask a TTF at nearby village to help finalize the order. By this way, the farmers can across those middlemen, and sell their produces for better price.
Hypothesis 4, local TTF can help arrange the transportation
Local transportations are also quite different. Some farmers may own a pickup, some may own a truck, some owns a sedan or van, some may own a tractor. Local TTFs know those vehicle owners, and be able to help arrange the transportation according the order needs.
With these hypotheses in mind, we designed our product, and built prototype for first run of user testing. Of course we find out many usability issues since we are city boys and girls. We revised our design, went back to the villages for testing again. In order to understand better how those TTFs receive and processes information, we even conducted an eye-tracking experiment.
The system was finally optimized after several run of testing and iteration, and went for a trial in Yunnan province, with the support from China Ministry of Science and Technology Poverty Alleviation Department.
I was so shocked when I found out that there were zero people using Nong Xin Tong and New Agriculture Times, even though China Mobile and China Telecom put hundreds of millions dollars into those services with large number of people worked on those services. I tried my best to avoid making assumptions in every of my project, and hopefully after the trial in Yunnan, the RICE platform will be nationwide used and benefit all the farmers in remote rural areas. If it goes well, I even hope it can be promoted to more countries and areas. Of course, different country and different area, the situation may be different again, and a lot more research and localization will need to be made. By sharing this experience and this article, I also hope more product owners and designers, will learn from it, always avoid making arbitrary business & product decisions based on personal judgment, but only hypothesis based on research findings.