Using participatory design to develop latrine options in Malawi

29 July 2013


In 2011, UNICEF Malawi decided to apply social marketing tools to improve and enhance their existing CLTS program. The CLTS program had demonstrated great advances in improving sanitation coverage. However, reports were coming into the office that households were continuing to struggle with poor product designs that collapsed after a short time-in-use.

The first step taken by UNICEF Malawi was to apply mixed methods research to understand the existing sanitation market. Three districts were chosen including areas with sandy and clay soils. The research confirmed the anecdotal reports that sanitation products were failing to match both the needs and wants of householders. Plus suppliers were only offering products that met the price range of very wealthy households.

The next phase moved to product design. Traditionally, programs have looked to the sanitation engineer textbooks and tried to identify an ‘expert solution’. We decided against this approach – we knew the existing solutions wouldn’t recognise the local conditions of the market (no access to cement, very limited transport infrastructure to gain access to external building materials) nor utilise the local builders’ and villagers’ knowledge and skills.

Participatory design

So we turned to participatory design. Participatory design has been around since the 1970’s. It was used to help factory workers provide insights and advice into the design of new industrial technology. It aims to create a space that allows users and designers-researchers to create solutions to overcome a design problem. It is commonly applied in the agricultural, industrial design, IT, architectural sector.

We couldn’t find any examples of it being applied in the sanitation sector but we could be wrong and would love to hear about your experiences.

We created our participatory design sessions by applying two proven and established methodologies

  1. Spinuzzi, C. 2005 The methodology of participatory design. Technical Communication 52 (2), 163-174
  2. IDEO 2009 Human Centered Design Toolkit

The three-day design sessions consisted of four main stages:

Stage 1: Initial exploration of work

We invited 25 – 30 people to each session and then divided them into four teams. Teams were formed to consist of five builders/masons, two village health workers/householders and one EHO. Each team was asked to draw and label the existing sanitation technologies in their villages. The teams we then instructed to identify the ‘advantages’ and ‘disadvantages’ of each technology. Each team then presented their findings to the group.

Stage 2: Discovery processes

The discovery process asked each team to identify numerous potential design options. The design options were framed by a design challenge. A design challenge presents a challenge in human terms, in a broad manner that offers opportunities for discovery in areas of unexpected value but is ‘narrow enough to make the topic manageable’ (IDEO 2009). The design challenge used during the sessions was:

Can we create a toilet that matches what the majority of villagers want, need and can afford using local materials?

Teams visualised their designs through drawing and text. After two hours of brainstorming, each team was asked to identify three designs that they would like to prototype. For the remaining hour, the teams identified the materials required to create the prototypes and these were submitted to the government staff for collection from local suppliers.

Stage 3: Prototyping

Day 2 was dedicated to the process of creating small and medium-sized prototypes. Local building materials were provided to allow each team to explore and create their design directions. Users were encouraged to share and discuss their ideas with people from outside of their nominated team.

Stage 4: Feedback

The first half of day 3 allowed the design teams to estimate the material and labour costs of their prototypes. During the final afternoon on day 3, teams presented their designs to 12 – 15 local villagers including both men and women. The villagers were invited to review the prototypes and provide feedback. The feedback sessions were intended to allow the design teams to hear critiques from potential users.


We identified three exciting, non-cement design directions including:

1) Corbelled bricks to create flooring in clay soils

2) Trapezium bricks to create circular pit linings in sandy soils

3) Sand bags to reinforce wooden frames used to line pits in sandy soils

These designs are now undergoing testing and revisions at Mzuzu University’s SMART Centre and through ongoing feedback from local masons, builders and users.

Some hints and tips

  • Return to the same location where you conduct the market research – this improves continuity for the local leaders and villagers and also keeps to Fred Hollow’s golden rule ‘no survey without service’
  • Invite people such as natural leaders and others with a strong interest in sanitation to the participatory design session. We found these people had a lot of good ideas to share
  • Make sure you have adequate space to conduct the prototyping. The space should be open to the public to let other villagers watch and provide feedback.
  • Beware the subsidy hangover – we had many participants ask us ‘when will you provide the cement’. Be prepared to spend time explaining this is a no-hardware subsidy approach
  • We found that some local leaders (such as village chiefs) can subtlety dominate a participatory design session. Of course, they should be invited but make it clear that everyone’s ideas are important and should be shared
  • Identify a technical group to conduct testing and revisions of the designs created by the participatory sessions. These revisions should then be returned to the local sanitation suppliers and villagers for feedback and ongoing local revisions. Participatory design is an ongoing process – this is just the beginning.

Finally, I am keen to hear about your experiences or suggestions about participatory design. I’m also keen to develop a website/blog that captures the design outcomes from participatory design sessions that occur across the globe. If you’d like to speak with me please drop me an email – [email protected]

Ben Cole is an environmental health consultant that enjoys using participatory approaches to build self-supporting small businesses that improve public health. He is the Director of and founded