How a poor villager’s story from the Indian desert taught me human-centered design

Today’s story takes me back a decade ago when I was at the Northpoint Centre of Learning doing my post-grad in Marketing, Media, and Communications. One day, I had the chance to participate in a workshop by Mr. Premjeet Sodhi, the President of Lintas Media Group at the time.

In that workshop, Premjeet shared a beautiful story with us about empathy and curiosity. Today, I’m going to paraphrase it for you to the best of my memory because it contains a very important lesson on becoming a better designer, marketer, and advisor.

The Power of Curiosity and Empathy

Premjeet started by telling us about the time he was doing his MBA and his professor gave the class an assignment. After dividing the students into groups, the professor gave them a simple task by saying:

“There is a poor villager in the middle of the Indian desert who lives in an old hut. He is a farmer with very little resources who barely makes enough money to survive. So, what is your strategy to help him?”

The students quickly huddled in groups and started working on their strategy. At the end of the day, they presented their ideas with much fanfare! They were all about giving the farmer government funds, providing him with a tractor, giving him access to clean water to drink and use for irrigation, fertilizers for crops, some cows and goats, more land, education, etc.

At the end of the final presentation, the professor asked a question that blew everyone’s minds: “Did anyone bother to ask what the farmer wants?”

Just like that, this professor taught his students how important it is to get curious (about finding the right problem to solve) and show empathy before scrambling to find solutions. This lesson has stayed with me through the years because it’s truly fundamental to what we do as designers, marketers, and advisors.

Human-Centered Design

“Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem-solving. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing with and ends with new solutions that are purpose-built to suit their needs. Human-centered design is about cultivating deep empathy with the people you’re designing with; generating ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made together; and eventually, putting your innovative new solution out in the world.” — IDEO

In other words, human-centered design puts the farmer at the heart of everything and asks what he wants. Then, it leverages that information to deliver the best possible product or service.
Human-centered design cultivates empathy for the people that are meant to benefit from the design and it gives us a creative boost that inspires us to generate different ideas, create a variety of prototypes, and share what we’ve made together before we land on an innovative solution.

As Steve Jobs once said:
“Some people say to give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me they wanted a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

The Essence of Good Design

Good design puts humans first because products or services are meant to cater to people and their needs, to provide solutions, innovate, benefit, and make a positive impact on their life. If it fails at that, it’s because the people behind it failed to be empathetic and curious about the end-user.

As Frank Chimero, Brand & Product Designer, put it: “People ignore design that ignores people.”

Design also influences the way we use products, services, and technology, it gives everything shape and creates culture. This is why curiosity and empathy need to be at the center of the conversation before we get to the “making” part.

At the end of the day, we don’t need complicated or complex frameworks to focus on the end human experience of the products and services we provide or help sell. We just need to be curious and empathetic about the end-users to create something truly exceptional and life-altering.


By Paul Syng

Paul Syng is a multi-disciplinary designer based in Toronto. He focuses on a problem-seeking, systems thinking approach that can take any form or function.