Exploring the Role of the Capability Approach in Design for Well-being

Mink, Annemarie; Parmar, Vikram; Kandachar, Prabhu (2014). 'Exploring the Role of the Capability Approach in Design for Well-being' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Introduction: Products and services that are used in daily life, play an important role in shaping and changing the world. The design of these products and services can therefore be truly relevant for poverty alleviation and well-being. When working on poverty alleviation projects, one of the challenges for designers is to obtain a deep insight into their user-groups. IDEO (2008) states that individual interviews are critical to obtain this insight. Several valuable design methods and toolkits, developed for non-governmental organizations, social enterprises and/or community workers, provide guidelines on how to develop an interview approach, how to establish appropriate questions, and how to conduct an interview. They do not, however, explicitly specify which topics to discuss. A valuable addition for designers would be to specify which data they should collect to obtain a comprehensive picture of the well-being of their user-groups.

According to Robeyns (2005), the capability approach offers a broad view towards development, well-being and justice, and takes into account all dimensions of human well-being. Therefore, the capability approach seems promising to play a role in providing designers interview dimensions to obtain deep insight into a developmental context. However, the capability approach has certain characteristics that influence practical application. The approach is underspecified, diverges from everyday language, and includes a broad variety of dimensions that differ per situation. Moreover, the concept of capability is difficult to capture, capabilities have an interdependent nature, depend on personal, social and environmental conversion factors, change over time, and differ per person and per region. It appears to be difficult to operationalize the approach while retaining its conceptual richness (Kleine, 2010). Nevertheless, it is interesting to explore if the comprehensive view the capability approach provides, can be used to obtain the required deep insight into the lives of disadvantaged or marginalized user-groups. This paper focusses specifically on establishing question categories and questions that designers may use while gathering user insights from the local context.


Method: While there is a lot of debate about using a list of capabilities, several lists have been established and/or used to practically apply the capability approach. We used a number of lists mentioned by capability approach authors to explore the cohesion and differences between the listed dimensions. We used the 'find themes' method from IDEO (2008). First we wrote down all unique dimensions, and then arranged them on the basis of relations. Related dimensions were clustered  in the same 'theme'. The next step was to look for patterns and conflicts. This was done to assess if all themes are on the same level and incommensurable. Eventually, thirteen themes where established: accommodation, products/plants/animals, meaningful work, partnership/family, friends, leisure, mobility, education, health, nutrition, safety, self-determination, and cultural and spiritual life. Robeyns (2006) recommends to establish a list detailing different levels from 'ideal theory to more pragmatic lists' (p.356). In our list, the themes represent pragmatic categories, while the clustered capability dimensions – where each category consists of - represent ideal theory. For each capability category we developed a set of questions, by using the set of capability questions developed by Anand and other authors, and by brainstorming with the team. The questions are divided into ideal questions, which represent what we are actually after, and sensitizing questions, which are pragmatic questions that can be used to start the conversation in order to uncover the answers to the ideal questions.

We used these questions to conduct semi-structured interviews with product users in India to uncover their resources (Kleine, 2011), personal, social and environmental conversion factors (Robeyns, 2011) and the existence, sense, use and achievement of choice (Kleine, 2011). These studies have been conducted to get a sense of working with the established categories and questions, and to use the outcomes to improve them. We selected users of four different products and questioned them about their lives before and after obtaining the product. The four products are: (1) the Jaipur Foot Prosthesis of the Jaipur Foot Organization; (2) the clay refrigerator of Mitticool; (3) the Tasar silk reeling machine of PRADAN, and; 4) the clay stove (chulha) of Philips. These products have been specifically designed for a developmental context, and have been implemented in the Indian market. During the study of the Philips Chulha the focus was on conducting many interviews in a short time span (Mink et al., forthcoming). During the other three studies the focus was on generating deep insight into the lives of a limited amount of users. On the basis of these interviews, the categories have been re-grouped and the questions have changed.


Result: We established a list of capability categories and related questions, based on literature and practical studies. These categories and questions can be used by designers to conduct a semi-structured interview to explore the design for development context and to obtain a deep insight into the lives of disadvantaged or marginalized user-groups. These insights will assist the designer in creating appropriate solutions for their target group, in order to improve their well-being.


Conclusion: The capability approach offers a holistic and comprehensive view on human well-being, and despite its operationalizing problems, the approach offers sufficient guidance to develop topics and questions which designers could use when exploring user needs in a totally different context. The categorization in this paper is based on literature and practice, and is a first attempt to offer designers a grip. However, the list of categories and questions remains open to critique and modification, as it should be, according to Alkire (2007).

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