Designing for Rural India — Part 1

Designing for Rural India — Part 1

Journey of designing OpenCHS with Samanvay

India does not have a National health insurance or universal health care system for all its citizens. This has propelled the private sector to its dominant position in the healthcare market. Private companies provide the lion’s share of healthcare services in the country.

Despite the structures in place to ensure equality and funding from government and non-government sources, we still observe a visible gap in access to healthcare in rural areas compared to cities. A staggering 68% of the population lives in rural areas and has no or limited access to hospitals and clinics. Consequently, the rural population mostly relies on alternative medicine and government programmes.

If one had to paint a picture of rural India, it would be people living in mud houses in small villages. These villages have next to no electricity supply. There are setups of solar power stations which people use to charge their cellphones. Travelling to these villages is not always easy. One would require to change at least three different modes of transport to reach many of these villages. The residents seek out healthcare in cases of pregnancy and severe illness like Tuberculosis, Dengue, etc. However, villagers often do not seek treatment for early symptoms which appear less dangerous. This is not always due to lack of awareness. It is often also the case that infrastructure to support the long tail of healthcare is simply not that accessible in rural India.

Healthcare in Rural India

The public healthcare in rural areas has been developed as a three-tier structure based on predetermined population norms.

1. CHC (Community Health Centres)

Community Health Centres form the uppermost tier and are established and maintained by the State Government. Community health centres are staffed by four medical professionals supported by twenty-one paramedical and other staff. Surgeons, physicians, gynaecologists and paediatricians provide comprehensive care in each CHC.
Each CHC has thirty indoor beds, an Operating Theatre, X-ray, Labour Room, and Laboratory facilities. The community health centre provides expert facilities in obstetric and other care for patients referred to them by the four primary health centres within their jurisdiction.

2. PHC (Primary Health Centres)

Primary Health Centres (PHCs) comprise the second tier in rural healthcare. PHCs provide integrated, curative and preventive healthcare to the rural population with emphasis on preventive and promotive aspects. Activities include promotion of better health and hygiene practices, tetanus inoculation of pregnant women, intake of IFA tablets and institutional deliveries. A medical officer is in charge of the PHC supported by fourteen paramedical and other staff. Each primary health centre has four to six beds. Patients are referred to the PHCs by six sub-centres.

3. Sub-centres

A sub-centre is the most peripheral institution and the first contact point between the primary healthcare system and the community. An Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) is in charge of six sub-centres each of which provides basic drugs for minor ailments. A sub-centre provides services in relation to maternal and child health, family welfare, nutrition, immunisation, diarrhoea control, and control of communicable diseases. ANMs also use Anmol Tablet, a product that aids in maintaining and collecting data, specific to primary health.

4. Non-government Infrastructures

Apart from the government bodies there are other players in the system, which are closest to the villagers (bottom most in this tier). There are private hospitals, which run to provide special services or even basic healthcare.

Accessing health support is not that easy for village residents. They have to travel long distances to visit public hospitals spending money, and time that could be spent doing their daily chores. That’s when community health services come to play.

There are non-profit NGO Hospitals which run Community Health Services (CHS). They hire and train health workers who work closely with villagers in providing health services and education.

Health Workers who work as a part of the Community Health Services are known as VHWs (Village Health Workers), as a part of CRHP (Comprehensive Rural Health Programme). Jamkhed is a programme run under CRHP.

Jamkhed is centered around mobilising and building the capacity of the community, empowering the people to bring about their own improvements in health and poverty-alleviation. This is one of the better known and appreciated community health systems.

Health Workers with a monthly visit chart on the wall

Role of VHW ( Village Health Workers )

VHWs are individuals selected by the villagers. They are responsible for providing consultation and prescription on basic health care. Their appointment by the community helps establish villagers’ trust in them.

VHWs typically take care of a single village, but if required, they can be responsible for up to five villages. They are trained in basic healthcare, understanding symptoms and personality development. Since they are only trained in basic healthcare, they escalate severe cases and recommend the patients to visit hospitals. Quite often these volunteers are women.

Apart from this, VHWs also bust widely held superstitions by providing elementary health education.

Health workers use their considerable interpersonal communication skills to bring about important behavioural changes with respect to reproductive and hygiene practices in their rural communities.

How do they operate now?

The infrastructural support that these health workers get is mostly via Community Health programs and some inventory support from the government.

Inventory procurement list and inventory at the health centers

Here are some highlights about their daily operations -

Use of Paper:

The health workers still use paper for most of their work. They are provided with a chart that maps various symptoms to common ailments and relevant medication. While this may enable the health workers to swiftly treat common ailments, the strict mapping unfortunately severely restricts their ability to correctly identify edge cases or more subtle health issues.

Inventory List:

Procurement of medicines is also done using paper. Health workers also track the need for medicines, availability and expiry dates of the medicines. Medicines are procured from Sub-centres where the health workers visit often to give reports to ANM’s about their respective villages.

Patient History

The health workers aren’t equipped to look at patients history at the time of consultation. They keep manual records which are too comprehensive to look into at the time of visits.

Health Worker educating a resident about preventive measures

How does OpenCHS help?

OpenCHS strives to fill this gap and provide a decision support system that helps a health worker perform diagnoses. The system also provides the health workers with the steps for treatment.

What is OpenCHS?

OpenCHS is an Open Community Health Service platform that works in collaboration with NGO Hospitals. OpenCHS is a mobile app that is used by Village Health Workers (VHW) in the field or in their clinics when patients visit them.

OpenCHS helps VHWs to record patient data, perform diagnoses and manage programme statuses. The app also enables the health workers to consider individual patients’ medical histories during their diagnoses.

Our challenges while designing the product

  1. Physical Constraints: Data is not recorded as someone on a desk job would. Health workers not only collect data with the app but they also have to use health equipment to take measurements. This requires the health workers to keep switching their attention between the patient and the application.
  2. No Electricity and Network Connectivity: VHWs don’t have access to electricity. They use basic cellphones (not smartphones), which they charge using solar charging stations located at central areas of villages. There is also next to no network connectivity which makes it difficult for an application to work in the field.
  3. Localisation & Multi-lingual Support: The application is intended to be used throughout multiple states of India. Each state has their own language. Some villages within a state may even use multiple dialects. We focused on providing multi-lingual support and localisation, in particular with regard to specialised medical terminology and concepts.
  4. Ease of Use: VHWs live in remote villages of India, where there is very little or no access to technology. They are used to basic cellphones, i.e. no smartphones. We had to be cautious about not having a higher learning curve for the application for them, so they don’t face issues when they are in the field.

What did we do?

Considering the challenges and constraints that we were working with, this is how we approached the design of the application.

It works offline:

We were aware that the user is not going to be connected to a network 98% of the time, so we made the app work offline. We store all data locally on the device. The app only connects to a server when synchonising data. Typically health workers visit a sub-centre or another place with internet connectivity monthly. Recorded data is reported to the hospitals as part of the synchronisation.

Image 1 — sync status notification | Image 2 — sync finished 50%

Decision Support:

The application provides decision support based on the recorded data and suggests treatment. We built our algorithm in collaboration with medical practitioners and took into account common health procedures. The algorithm even helps the health worker identify emergencies and provide appropriate medical care. When a patient needs medical attention from a trained medical professional, the application suggests them to inform the patients of the details and visit a hospital.

Image 1 — Patient profile and history | Image 2 — Treatment result after consultation

Localisation and Multi-lingual Support:

The application will be implemented with multi-lingual support. For each implementation, there will be localisation for specialised medical terminology used by the residents of the villages. Currently, we have an implementation in Marathi, which can be downloaded from here.

Ease of Use:

Ease of use was our major focus while designing this application.

  • Keep it simple, focused: We tried to understand different activities that a Health Worker performs, and based on those use cases, created focus in the application, instead of going by one interface for all flows, like a dashboard.
  • Attention on Iconography: We experimented with iconography using various styles and even with contextual icons. This quickly proved infeasible given that our users were stretched through rural India.
    We followed these simple rules of iconography:
    - Keep it simple and schematic, i.e. avoid details
    - 5 second rule, if you can’t think of that icon in five seconds then that icon probably is not a good choice
    - Memorability, making the icons distinct enough that they are remembered even after prolonged usage.
Few options of icons we considered for patient profile ; we finally picked the last one
  • Understand Behaviour: We tested an alpha version of the application with Health Workers to see if they are comfortable with data entry and understand input fields as concepts. To our surprise, the first thing the health worker did was swipe on the screen. It was most interesting because we knew that our users don’t use smart phones, so how did this come up as a first interaction in this person’s head? Perhaps media has been reaching them through means which one can’t imagine.
Testing of the alpha version with the health worker

So, What’s next?

The application is yet to be released. The plan is to implement it at one village first and then scale accordingly.
We are looking forward to two types of feedback. After the implementation of the application, the health workers will be trained. At this stage will be able to get quick feedback about usability and other challenges.

The second feedback will have a rather longer loop, where the health workers will be using it in the field and on their return we will learn about how it went and get more qualitative feedback. Here is all the documentation, including designs of the project so far.

Want to know more?

There has been much discussion about each flow and decision, in multiple small and large sessions that we will be sharing in detail shortly so that you can better understand our efforts. Keep on the lookout :)

Thanks to nilenso and Samanvay team for the opportunity to work on this interesting problem. I also appreciate the feedback from Kenneth & Trouble in better articulating this post.
Do get in touch with me ( for any further questions or details. Any feedback will be highly appreciated.

Noopur wrote this story to share knowledge and to help nurture the design community. All articles published on follow that same philosophy.

Designing for Rural India — Part 1 was originally published in on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Original post by Noopur Varma - check out Stories by Noopur Varma on Medium

Black Mirror*, or a review of the review process at a software co-operative

*Deliberately sensationalist headline designed to grab eyeballs.

We recently concluded annual reviews at nilenso, at the end of which, Sandy, who recently joined us, asked: “Why is our process the best we can have?”

This led to a lot of reminiscing about how reviews were conducted at other companies that some of us had worked at.

One example went like this: I ask people to review me. I don’t get to read what they said, or find out if they even bothered to write anything at all. Someone from my team (a senior, usually my boss) would look at all these reports along with HR, and hold a meeting with me. The meeting basically involved my boss giving me a summary of the above, based on his/her understanding/interpretation. While I could ask for explanations and examples when I received feedback that I couldn’t relate to, they were not always forthcoming.

There was in fact a level system based on which variable pay was decided, but this was not disclosed. Since the bonuses were kept confidential, even if a person did find out what someone else made, they couldn’t question their pay relative to their colleague (maybe s/he is a better negotiator?).** There was no incremental movement between levels. Post x number of years, you either moved up or out.

Another colleague said that reviews at his previous organisation involved filling out a report, mentioning the number of bugs you had fixed (or caused), SLAs you had met (or missed), and so on, and that “regardless of all this, your appraisal merely depended on the ‘relationship’ you had developed with your manager. Nothing really came about even when you rejected whatever level the manager gave you, because in the end s/he decides it.”

While these may sound like extreme cases, they are very real (and not all that uncommon). Regardless of experience, the adjectives thrown around to describe the performance management process ranged from “random” and “unfair” to “opaque” and “senseless”.

We’ve written about how we conduct reviews before, but here’s a quick recap.

  • We use an app (hey, we’re a tech company!) to write reviews for each other. This is open source, if you’d like to use it, be our guest.
  • The reviews written are visible to everyone within nilenso.
  • Once this is done (and we stress that reviews should summarise feedback that has already been given during the course of the year) and a “level” has been suggested, we collectively sit down to discuss, and finalise compensation for the coming year.

Stacey Adams’ equity theory, that describes how individuals perceive the distribution of resources is well documented. In order to apply this concept, however, and to determine whether one’s compensation is fair, what one needs is data on how the available resources (profits) were distributed to begin with. The approach that most organisations take in this regard is to hold back information relevant to employees. We run against that grain here.

I don’t claim that our method is perfect. In fact, it’s constantly being tweaked. I would posit, however, that the fact that the rationale behind it is completely transparent, and open to critique, makes it better than a system which keeps hidden from its participants, the thought that went into creating it.

I’m also not going to pretend that this will work for everyone. More specifically, I’ll admit that this process may not scale well, and beyond a point, will have to be adapted it to suit the needs of a company that employs hundreds, as opposed to tens of people.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this quote by JFK:

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

**We would write down our bonuses on a piece of paper, throw them in a hat, and then read them out loud. This way, everyone knew where s/he stood, but no one knew who got what.

nilenso policies: by the people, for the people

Inspired by a recent(ish)* Basecamp article on the benefits they offer their employees; we decided to evaluate our own to see how we stack up. Not too badly, as it turns out. We’ve also (mostly) used their format. I hope they won’t mind, given what they say about imitation and flattery.

Nilenso Benefits

Salaries: We are currently based out of Bangalore, India and it’s always a terrible idea to evaluate anything here on the basis of “averages”. We do, however, try to pay competitively but also never forget that just money is simply not enough.

Transparent finances: We pride ourselves on being a completely open company, in every way. Everyone at nilenso collectively decides which projects we take on, and what our expenses for the year should be. We go out of our way to make sure everyone in the company understands how much money we’re making and how we’re spending it. Our books of accounts and finances are available for anyone within the company to take a look, at any time. If something’s confusing, just ask.

Open reviews: Our review meetings that happen twice a year are completely open too, to anyone who wants to attend them. Everyone can read the reviews written by everyone else, and they’re all open to questioning.

Read more about our review / salary structure here.

Insurance: Medical care is expensive, so all our employees and their family — parents, children and spouses are covered by a comprehensive insurance policy (this means cashless, all ailments covered, pre-existing conditions included, no bureaucracy policy), where nilenso pays 100% of the premium.

Education allowance: While we don’t have a formal limit on what you can spend on education, employees are free to use the company credit card to buy books — technical or otherwise as well as pay for courses online or offline. We even have an English tutor who comes in every week to help our Operations staff improve their language skills. One of them is now giving his board examinations, after being out of school for more than a decade.
We also try to host educational events at the office — from Haskell lessons to technical talks (if you haven’t been to XTC — eXtreme Tuesday’s Club, ask us for an invite). We want you to attend conferences, whether that’s around the block or halfway around the world. Since we’ve been up and running, we’ve attended a ton of conferences: Euroclojure, Clojure/West, Clojure/conj, RubyConf San Diego, RubyConf India, React Conf SF, StrangeLoop, GCRC, Fifth Elephant, JSFoo, rootconf, pgconf, 50p — and that’s not an exhaustive list.

100% coverage on hardware / software: Whatever hardware, software, or services you need to do your job are always 100% on us. No red tape, no questions asked.

Ergonomic Furniture: If you’re not comfortable in the office, we’re not happy. If your desk is too high, or the lighting in your room is too bright, let us know, and we’ll do something about it.

Expense Account: Everyone who works at nilenso has access to our debit and credit cards to pay for any work-related expenses — software, hardware, travel, office supplies, books. If you’ve paid for something from your own pocket, that’s fine too! Just send us a photo of the receipt and we’ll reimburse it promptly (we have an app called kulu that keeps track of all of this). When you’re traveling abroad, we get you a prepaid forex card, so you don’t have to pay for anything expensive yourself. Basically, everything goes, as long as you’re reasonable (nobody has been unreasonable so far).

Fully stocked healthy pantry: Our pantry is restocked daily with fresh fruits, yoga bars, and healthy alternatives to aerated soft drinks (just put whatever you’d like on the list we have put up, and it shall magically appear in the kitchen). We also make sure there’s fresh milk, bread and cereal, for the days when you miss breakfast.

Lunches: We get lunch in the office everyday and eat out once a week (admittedly, this could be somewhat healthier than it is now — we order in, based on what people like, but we’re working on it).

Menstruation Leave : nilenso offers paid menstrual leave for anyone who needs it, no questions asked.

Vacations and Paid Holidays: nilenso offers 29 days of paid vacation and a few national holidays. Obviously, this doesn’t include times when you’re very ill — and when you are, we’d like you to take as much time as you need to recuperate before getting back to work. None of this is strictly monitored, so we’re often asked what happens if people take advantage of our liberal vacation policy. For the record, we don’t know, because it hasn’t happened.

Maternity and Paternity Leave: At nilenso, both parents are offered 6 months paid and a further 6 months unpaid leave around the time that they welcome a newborn.

Work: Being a technology company, we’re really passionate about deep tech, but also about education, healthcare, maps, renewable energy and a host of other subjects. The first couple of years of our journey at nilenso were spent trying to establish ourselves as a firm that could be counted on to deliver on technically challenging projects. Having done that, we’re now fortuitously positioned to use technology to solve real world problems. While this isn’t technically a benefit, we actively try to find projects that align with your interests, even if it comes at a cost.

Working weeks: We’re a small company, so people often end up doing way more than they would in other, larger firms — recruiting, sales calls, ordering lunch, talking to lawyers, taking Haskell lessons. We encourage 40-hour working weeks, and let our clients know what to expect as well.

Working remotely: Many ensonians often work from home (some more often than others). Some time last year, Tim even worked from a beachside getaway in Kerala for a couple of weeks. If there’s any way we can support you while you’re away, we do it. We use Slack / email as much as possible so you’re connected to everything going on at work. Alternatively, if you need a data dongle because there’s no WiFi where you’re going, pick one up from the office. None of our employees are fully remote, so we’re not there yet, but we’re definitely on our way.

It’s never easy to pen down what a company does for its employees, because it’s so difficult to separate that from what it does for itself. In our case though, there’s no need for separation: as a co-op, the company *is* its employees, and everyone who works here owns her just as much as the next person.

— — — — —
*Okay, I admit it, I wrote this post in January 2016 and then sat on it for a year.