Product design strategy

Compatible product platform designed to stimulate competition and open markets to low-income consumers

In theory, use of household water treatment and safe storage (HWTS) products can significantly improve the quality of drinking water in low-income households. However, in practice, few households actually have access to such products, and when they do, the products are often too expensive, unattractive, difficult to maintain or otherwise inappropriate for the needs of low-income households.

To fundamentally change the equation, PATH has developed a product design strategy that will encourage new companies to compete more openly with interoperable products that are acceptable and attractive to low-income households.

The heart of PATH’s strategy is a flexible product platform that allows companies to customize HWTS products to meet local preferences, needs, and constraints. Customization allows producers to select or develop a filter element(s) that is appropriate for local conditions and to design an exterior shell that meets the specific aesthetic and functional preferences of low-income populations living in different regions of the world.

This approach separates HWTS products into two interoperable components: the exterior shell (vessel, tap, lid, and user interface), which must be aesthetically appealing, durable, and functional in a low-income setting; and the internal filter (or treatment engine), which must remove or neutralize a variety of particles and disease-causing agents from source water.

While most HWTS manufacturers make both devices and filters, the platform strategy makes it possible for companies to specialize in filter development and/or device design. The platform strategy also steers companies away from the current practice of developing proprietary filters that fit only one brand of device, forcing consumers to buy expensive replacements that may or may not be available in their area.

Diagram of PATH's water filter device.

The platform strategy makes it possible for companies to specialize in filter development and/or device design. Photo: PATH.

Separating the filter from the device opens the playing field to new companies and allows them to focus on what they do best. As more companies compete on how well and how cheaply they create, market, and sell their products, consumers begin to see increased choice, increased access, and lower prices. The result is a cheaper, faster-to-market, and culturally relevant design.

Further, if users’ water conditions call for special functionality, producers can offer compatible modules that are guaranteed to fit the device, preserving the users’ initial investment. Ultimately all products made to fit the platform interface will combine to create a significant “installed base” of products that encourage producers to compete to provide replacements.

How does it work?

The key to PATH’s platform strategy is a common interface connection between the filter and the device. Like a light bulb socket, this common interface is designed to fit any number of filters, whether branded and sold by the original company or sold separately by another. This means companies (and eventually consumers) can choose their replacement filters based on cost, brand, reputation, availability, effectiveness against certain disease-causing agents, or all of the above.

The common interface also makes it possible for consumer product manufacturers to design devices without having to specialize in advanced water filtration technologies. This makes it easier (and cheaper) for companies with a competency in marketing, distribution, and sales to create appealing products and brands. They can buy the filters from a qualified filter manufacturer and still present a high-quality product at a lower cost.

PATH’s common interface has two important features. First is orientation control, which prevents users from installing the filter incorrectly—a common problem with standard candle filters that was confirmed during user-experience testing. Second, the filter element cannot be removed from the device until the dirty water container is separated from the clean water container. This prevents dirty water from accidentally leaking into the clean water container.

Envisioning the future

PATH is currently working with three device manufactures in China to develop competitive products based on its design platform. PATH and partner Cascade Designs, Inc (www.cascadedesigns.com) have created a low-cost filter element that is being beta-tested now in India. If acceptable, these filters will be available for any device with a common interface.

“Our goal is to provide low-income households an assortment of attractive products that are less expensive and locally appropriate,” says Pat Lennon, PATH’s Safe Water Project team leader for product development. “By leveraging market forces and removing barriers to entering the HWTS market, we think we can provide low-income households a product they are excited to use.”

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