How “Design by Empathy” transform businesses?

“I know how to Tolerate and how to Breathe” — Dialogue from the film “Chachi 420”. But Kamal Hassan knows how to become a character.

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Kalam Hassan’s convincing and realistic portrayal of a woman was one of the reasons for this movie’s box office hit. His body language, variation in dialogue delivery, accent, reflex actions of the character in certain scenes, facial expressions — were all different from his other character. Without research, observing females of that age, spending time with them, analysing their behaviour/action in various scenarios you cannot make the character realistic, and the movie would have flopped. To make the character convincing, he had to live like the character.

You are them and They are you.

In another movie “Hindustani”(Indian) Kamal Hassan played two contrast roles. One — Aged freedom fighter — Another convincing performance, right from body language to walking to sitting and facial expressions. As an old freedom fighter, he had few dialogues to deliver- the challenge was to show emotions through his body language and face. His face had stony, hard makeup. So, he had to use eyes predominantly to show the emotions. Unless you observe people with that kind of problems, restricted movements in certain situations, you cannot portray the character effectively. If it is not real, it will affect the movie’s success.

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Empathy — The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. To feel what someone feels, you would actually need to become that person and it is hard. Consider you are 30 years old and making a product for 80-year-old. You need to put yourself into the type of situations she encounters. Can you tie something to your hands or legs, stay for hours to simulate “Frail” and see how you can go about everyday activities? How about painting your eyeglasses and simulate blurred vision? How about plugging your ears to simulate hearing deficiency? Can you open the doors? Fridge? Can you use the knives? When you are old, how it’s like to newspaper, use mobile, use email? We have to look at both what people do and how they feel.

We can discover unarticulated needs, new oppurtunities, when we have personal empathy with other people.


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Ingvar Kampard was born in 1926 in a small farm by the name of Elmtaryd near the village of Agunnaryd in Sweden. Being in a poor village, harsh conditions, he is not a stranger to Frugal Lifestyle. His firsthand experience of poverty had taught him to make products at low cost to meet the needs of his villagers. In 1943, he started IKEA, that sells ready-to-assemble, low-cost furniture. He was himself a user. He lived among other users. He could come out with concepts like revolutionary “Flat Pack”, as he understands the user’s needs, wants and their behaviour in situations.

The motivating idea behind IKEA is that one and all should be able to afford modern stylish furniture.

Kamprad still flies only Economy Class and encourages IKEA employees to use both sides of pieces of paper. He reportedly recycles tea bags and is known to pocket the salt and pepper packets at restaurants. Kamprad has also been known to visit IKEA for a “cheap meal”. Basically, he still tries to live as one of his customers at times. He makes sure that others in his company to practice “Empathy”.


In 1870’s Julius Maggi took control of his father’s mill after his death. “Grind all that can be Ground”. He was fairly successful and added a couple of more mills in next two years.

There were high levels of disease, infant mortality at that time. Julius Maggi and Dr Fridolin Schuler believed there was a link between malnutrition and high levels of disease and infant mortality. It was the time of Industrial Revolution creating more jobs for women. Women, who traditionally prepared food for their families, were increasingly spending more time in workplaces like factories and less time in their kitchens. Julius realised they would need food that was nutritious, filling and fast. After years of research, he launched Maggi in 1882.

He connected with his workers, observed them, understood their weaknesses, reasoned why they were taking more medical leaves. This made him identify the exact problem and optimum solution. The food should not be just nutritious, it has to taste well, easy to cook and easy to digest. And One More Thing — Budget. It has to be low cost. “Empathy” helped him.

Dale Carnegie Quotes “If you want people to be interested in you, you should be genuinely interested in other people”.

Same applies to out product and services, as we are selling them to real flesh people.


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Harly-Davidson’s office is a temple for motorcycle culture(Endless display of photos, sign, colored motorcycle tanks, pictures of rallies etc..). Interiors reflect the culture. The company mandates the leaders to spend a considerable amount of time out with motorcycle riders. Harley promotes a culture to make employees are riders themselves, They look at merging the line between customers and employees. Sorry, they call customers as “Riders”. At Harley-Davidson’s headquarters, the parking row at the front is reserved for Bikes. Cars — Parking in the back. It reflects an Organisation’s priority. They also stress employees to have empathy towards “Non-Riders” too. Simply connecting with Riders alone is not enough.(Are we noting down this?). Harley Davidson galvanised riders to become an army of evangelists by forming “Harley Owners Group”.

Lara Lee, Harley-Davidson’s former head of services “We don’t spend a lot of time talking about ‘what customers want’. We are them and they are us”


After working for 11 years at American Express and CEO of RJR Nabisco, he was selected to become CEO of IBM in 1993. At that time, IBM was struggling to compete in the market. The conventional wisdom was that IBM could no longer compete as a single firm. It has to be broken into small business units to remain specialised in each segment. But Gerstner shocked the world by stating that he intends to keep IBM together.

Gerstner, “It would be insane to destroy its unique competitive advantage and turn into a group of individual component suppliers — mere minnows in the ocean”

Gerstner knows that there are companies who didn’t need a single PC but had special needs for a solution combining hardware, software, service and support. IBM was the only company who could do at that time from Beijing to Berlin. Finally, IBM turned the corner and became profitable. One of the main reasons for IBM’s success — Lou Gerstner was a real IBM customer. Gerstner’s experience at his earlier company — American Express.

AMEX need for real-time information had been rising aggressively. The company required a complex system of computers, software, telecommunications equipment and support services, which were beyond them. Gerstner saw that IBM could tackle exactly this kind of problem. So, he focussed IBM to concentrate on corporate executives in big companies who depended on technology to make their businesses work.

Gerstner met with people of his top clients and learned that IBM’s products were expensive, customer responsiveness was poor. Based on those inputs, he focused his resources on price reduction and support services.


Phil Knight was a middle distance runner who trained under coach Bill Bowerman. Bill Bowerman had been trying to improve the shoes in his free time to enhance his student’s performance. Both of them being part of the problem are well aware of the needed solution. They started NIKE in 1964. After years of struggle, in 1971 they came up with lighter weight training shoes.They debuted their training shoes in the 1972 U.S. Track & Field Trials.

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Business happens in the real world. Anybody can develop by spending time with customers at supermarkets, homes or streets etc.. Without a personal connection to people, critical decisions of companies are affected. The hardest part is to understand that you are not making the product for yourself, but for others.

If you care for people to whom you are designing the product, people will care for your product.

References: Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik, Well Designed by John Kolko, Talking to Humans, Wikipedia, Nestle website, IKEA webpage.

Written by

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at or

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