In this ProductTank London talk, IBM iX engineer Chris Hay highlights how technology can help us truly to change the world. He speaks about his experiences of engineering innovative Kenyan payment systems such as M-Pesa and M-Shwari, and of reinventing how we manage asthma conditions using simple computing tools.
The Story of M-Pesa and M-Shwari
Mobile-phone based payment system M-Pesa first launched in Kenya in 2007. The service lets customers manage their finances with their mobile phone. They can send balances, deposit or withdraw money in one of two ways, either by going to a conventional ATM or by visiting one of many, local, retail agents scattered through rural Kenya. Transactions are made by sending PIN-protected text messages in exchange of a small fee of 25 Kenyan Shillings (less than 25p).
Chris was part of the development team when M-Pesa launched, he then moved on to run its architecture and redesigned the system to support 400,000 transactions per second. While initially no one expected M-Pesa to do well, 10 years on the service is available in 10 countries and has over 29 million active customers who transact 614 million times a month (that’s 529,000 transactions per second).
Following the success of M-Pesa he oversaw the launch of M-Shwari, a loans and savings bank account linked to the M-Pesa system which can also be accessed with a mobile phone. This project took the Kenyan market by storm when it launched in November 2012, with 100,000 new accounts signed up on the first day of operation. Its customer base grew to over 10 million within a couple of years. Both M-Pesa and M-Shwari have revolutionised personal banking in the remotest corners of Africa and have become the most successful service of their kind in the developing world.
What does it take to manage the unlikely transformation in personal banking in rural parts of Africa?
It’s a simple as that. You need to be completely dedicated to whatever you’re doing to push beyond expectations and that won’t happen if you’re missing that spark.
Improvise When Entering Uncharted Territories
Don’t be afraid to use the back of the proverbial beer mat to figure out problems. Try to tackle problems without being constricted by existing rules or regulations, forget about them for a moment. It’s OK to improvise without knowing where this will take you.
Be Faithful to Agile Principles
Keep your product delivery lean by making sure you identify any unnecessary work and take it out from the schedule. Be ruthless about removing any features that do not form the MVP.
Prepare for the Black Swans
Rather than investing time in pursuit of success metrics, you need to plan for the unexpected. Although Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swans are highly improbable and can’t be predicted, Chris provides a simple tip to negotiate such ambiguity: identify any potential weaknesses in your system and design solutions to address these gaps.
Build a Culture of Collaboration
Create a team culture that fosters atmosphere of safety, transparency, and cooperation. While everyone in your team needs to be united by the same vision, it’s far more important that your team works in close collaboration and everyone understands the impact of their work on the rest of the team.
The Tale of the Smart Inhaler: Think Like Your Users
You too can drive technological change for good with a bit of ingenuity and an understanding of your users. The idea for a “smart” inhaler for asthmatic patients, which Chris devised with another colleague at IBM by connecting Raspberry Pi to an inhaler, came as a result of his experience of being asthmatic. The smart device would nudge patients to self-medicate based on weather patterns. Given that some of the major triggers for patients with asthma are weather-related, their simple construct was to link real-time weather data with the patient in a bid to prevent asthma attacks. If you know what problems your users encounter every day, you will be able to design better products.
- Dedicate your time to something you are truly passionate about.
- Build your products with the worst-case scenarios in mind. Map any potential problems and design your product so that it can withhold such issues.
- Be selective about what comprises your MVP. Ask yourself what are the consequences of not delivering on some features and prioritise accordingly.