Method in Action

Rapid Prototyping


A hallmark of human-centered design is rapid prototyping and then putting the prototype into the hands of real people to get feedback and iterate on the fly. Working in Ethiopia on a new device to plant teff—their staple grain—we put the process to the test when our prototype came face to face with the Ethiopian soil. Given teff is the tiniest seed in the world, and requires a different type of device than most seed planters, it would need to disperse single rows of seeds, all while making its way through some of the stickiest, heaviest mud.


Before heading out for our second visit to Ethiopia, we’d built a prototype to bring to the field. It was created to test certain components of the planter—Would the metering mechanism evenly distribute seeds? Would the planter handle the difficult mud conditions? Would farmers trust that the planter is up for the job? So with prototype in hand, our team arrived to the field and put it to the test. At first, we were pleased to see the meter working and farmers gaining interest, but suddenly my steps started getting smaller. Barely 50 feet down the field, the wheels had picked up enough mud to make it nearly impossible to move. We knew the mud would be challenging but we didn’t think it would render the planter useless so quickly. Deflated, we felt like we were thrown back to the beginning of our challenge. The team headed back in the shop of a local agricultural center to figure out what to do next. We played with a variety of solutions, quickly moving through ideas like spiked wheels and skis, until a local metal worker had a suggestion: wrap the wheels in burlap.

Mia rp ata lg


Wrapping the wheels in burlap isn’t an idea we could have ever come up with in a brainstorm, and burlap certainly isn’t on any list of new high tech materials. However, using burlap came from keeping an open mind to trying new solutions. It came from talking to people who understand the conditions best and by sharing the excitement of this project with others to gain inspiration from a number of places. In the end, burlap worked wonderfully well. And though the wheels of the final product are made of harder-wearing stuff, the burlap fix allowed us get back out into the soil and test some of the other components of the planters with the farmers who’ll use them.

Ravi prakash
Ravi Prakash

2013-14 Global Fellow,