(CNN) -- As anyone who's fallen in love with an iPod or Wii game console can attest to, good product design matters. It can matter more, in fact, than how many (or what kind) of features are crammed into a device.
A December 2006 Hong Kong trade show examined ways technology can help the world's poor.
Consider the N-Gage game phone that Nokia launched four years ago. Despite some great features and a global marketing campaign, poor design made the product a highly ridiculed disappointment. (You had to shut down the phone, open the casing, and remove the battery simply to swap game cartridges, for starters.)
So, given the stakes, it's understandable why top product designers are a hot commodity in the high-tech arena. But for an increasing number of designers, the stakes are even higher elsewhere: global poverty.
Imagine taking the industrial design smarts behind the iPod and applying it to the far more basic technology needs of the extremely poor. In the past, few top designers would have bothered. But that's changing.
At MIT, Stanford, and other universities, young design and engineering talents are eagerly enrolling in courses that teach them how to meet the technology needs of the developing world. Stanford offers a course called "Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability." One of the teachers, David Kelley, is the founder of IDEO, the industrial design firm behind such tech classics as the Palm V PDA and the first production mouse for the Lisa and Macintosh computers from Apple.
Amy B. Smith, an inventor who lectures at MIT, said her course on design for the developing world gets about a hundred applicants, but she can only take 30.
Smith was a lead organizer behind the International Development Design Summit (www.iddsummit.org), held at MIT this summer and planned again for next year. Mechanics, doctors and farmers from around the developing world teamed up with top design talents to come up with "pro-poor" technologies that are inexpensive and effective. One, an off-grid refrigeration unit, uses PVC piping, tiny water drips, and an evaporation-based cooling method to store perishable food in rural areas.
An exhibit called "Design for the Other 90%" (http://other90.cooperhewitt.org) recently ran at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. The exhibit highlighted the "growing trend in design to create affordable and socially responsible objects for the vast majority of the world's population (90 percent) not traditionally serviced by designers," according to organizers.
Getting attention were items such as the StarSight utility pole, which draws energy from its solar panels to provide lighting, wireless Internet access, security surveillance and more (see www.starsightproject.com).
Meanwhile, a pioneer of pro-poor technologies is behind a new organization that will churn out even more ideas. Paul Polak, who started International Development Enterprises (www.ideorg.org) about 25 years ago to aid the rural poor, helped launch a new organization called D-Rev a few months ago. D-Rev is keeping a low profile to ensure a smooth take-off.
A non-profit organization, IDE gained recognition for encouraging the use of water treadle pumps in Asia and Africa. The pumps are made of basic materials readily available in remote areas, but reminiscent of StairMasters in that stepping motions are used to draw up groundwater for watering crops (http://other90.cooperhewitt.org/Design/bamboo-treadle-pump).
Other IDE projects include dirt-cheap ceramic water filters and simple but effective irrigation systems. The idea with each project is to "activate the markets" so that small local merchants have a profit-motive to sell such technologies to poor farmers in their area.
D-Rev, the new organization, will encourage the design of more products for low-income people, but not only for the rural poor. The organization is keeping mum on many details, but one of its projects is a "one-horse micro-diesel engine, which will do for mechanization at the village what the Prius did for the motor car," Polak said.
Another is an electro-chlorinator approach to purifying drinking water in the slums.
"One of the problems with slums is a lot of times they don't have access to a water supply, or they tap into the city water, which really makes you sick because it's got pathogens," Polak said. "I think we can do a low-cost kiosk that'll set up a slum entrepreneur on a franchise basis with $300 in capital costs that'll produce 5,000 liters of drinkable water a day." Imagine 10,000 such kiosks, he added, and you've got a big business.
Polak foresees more designers getting involved in such projects. "Most of the designers in the world spend all their time working to solve the problems of the richest 5 [percent] or 10 percent of the world's customers," he said. "Before I die I want to see this crazy ratio reversed."
He's hopeful, partly because of the reaction he sees among designers. "When they get an opportunity to do this different kind of design," he said, "many of them absolutely love it."
Another D-Rev project is a $15 computer aimed at the rural illiterate. But it's less like a laptop and more like an electronic talking book, ala the LeapFrog Leap Pad and the Fisher Price PowerTouch toys.
These toys come in the form of a flat plastic slate into which a book and electronic cartridge can be attached. When the book is opened and the user touches the page, the combined electronics in the slate and the cartridge respond by voice recordings that are relevant to the page.
D-Rev describes the interface it's designing as somewhat similar. And like the toys, the device will be highly interactive, intuitive to use (zero training required), and usable even by those who are not literate, in English or their own language.
The cartridges, which might sell separately for around $3.50 each, could teach various things in various language, depending on the local needs. One might teach rural farmers in monsoon areas who are familiar only with rice paddies how to grow, maintain and profit from other crops during the long dry season.
In the forgotten reaches of the developing world, where poverty strikes deep and many can't read in any language, such a computer might prove more useful than, say, a $100 laptop with an English-language keyboard.
"The 800 million people who can't read and write wouldn't know what to do with a laptop," said Polak. "So you've got to radically change the whole product, radically change its price and radically change its distribution, its marketing strategy. And now you have a digital revolution for the poor." E-mail to a friend