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.


CEO Mindset — Strategy Masterclass with Steve Jobs (Apple) & Sandeep Goyal (Rediffusion)

Your focus, willpower, and gameplay are the only things standing between you and your most ambitious goals. So, what can you do to set yourself up for success?

The big game mentality theory by Dr. Sandeep Goyal depicts the difference between the winners and the runner-ups. It is a simple yet strategic mental model to separate big business tycoons from seasonal businessmen. 

Mr. Goyal described this mental model with a very simple analogy based on cricket. He said: “It’s like when a batsman goes up to the pitch and is surrounded by thousands of fans but is still able to focus on the ball and hit a sixer.” Cue Yuvraj Singh and the time he hit six sixes in a single game.

For most of us on the sidelines, we focus on the micro: the glam, the revenue, the share price and the profit of big businesses but often fail to see the struggles, the hurdles, the hard work, and the resilience in the macro.

Similarly, starting on their journey, entrepreneurs dream big but often overlook small or basic factors that can break or make their business. They shouldn’t forget punctuality, being transparent and honest, having a clear strategy, building the right culture, having shared values and focusing on helping customers.

In a nutshell, the Big Game Mentality is all about focusing on your vision and not ignoring the small stuff (macro, meet micro). Little things matter, and they go a long way in cementing how people perceive your business.

Takeaways from Steve Jobs’ Keynote

This conversation with Dr. Goyal reminded me of Steve Jobs’s keynote when he returned to Apple, discussing vision and focus. This keynote is an amazing masterclass. I have to say; I am biased because I’m quite the Apple fanboy, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that there’s a lot of useful information there, so I want to provide a few takeaways from that keynote.

Even though this talk is over two decades old, it boils down strategy to its most essential parts; the who, why, and what. At one point in the keynote, Jobs addresses the fact that Appel suffered from lousy engineering management.

In Jobs’ words: “People were going off in 18 different directions, doing arguably interesting things. Good engineers, lousy management. So, when you look at this farm with all the animals going in different directions, it doesn’t add up. The total is less than the sum of the parts.”

Steve Jobs is saying here that, as a company, you must focus on the things that work and add value by identifying the fundamental direction you should go in. A company without focus is doomed. Focusing is not about saying yes; it’s about saying no to things you want to do but don’t make sense within your vision or strategy.

Steve Jobs also pointed out the importance of being different while remaining relevant to your audience. To drive this point across, he said: “I think it’s important that Apple is perceived as much better. If being different is essential to doing that, then we have to do that. But if we could be much better without being different, that’d be fine with me.

I want to be much better, I don’t care about being different.”

Jobs also swears by the top-down approach, where the strategy is clear in terms of the vision, and then you bring in the right people and build the right culture around that. If you do that, your company will succeed because it can produce the right products. There’s a lot more we can discuss from Steve Jobs’ keynote, but for now, I want you to think about the following important points:

1. Focus and have a sharp vision

You might have interesting ideas boiling to skyrocket your business’s sales, but with an ambiguous vision, you are headed nowhere. An important focus aspect is discarding ideas that don’t align with your business strategy. Businesses with a sharp vision are not apologetic about being different than others. Instead, they complete the market gap and attract audiences by pulling on their emotional strings — logical and illogical. 

2. Be different but relevant

A business with a truly unique vision has to be relevant if it wants to be competitive. You can’t develop an application without analyzing and understanding the market needs. 

That’s why it’s important to think of the following questions when developing a unique application: 

  • Does my audience need the product, service or application I am developing?
  • Will it fill the market gap?
  • Are there similar solutions in the market?

Steve Jobs says, ‘We are focusing our energy on the right products, the right marketing strategy, the right communication strategy, and the right distribution strategy.’ That’s a good example to follow!

Pro tip: Think like the CEO of the company.

If you want to go from order taker to trusted creative advisor, always think like the CEO of the company that you’re working with. They are thinking about everything and not just visual design. Here are a few to start:

  • The product
  • The customer
  • The market 
  • The stakeholders
  • The media 
  • The competition
  • The company value
  • The company business model (how they make money)
  • Perception and innovation
  • Operations and logistics

Thinking like the CEO of the client you’re working with will give you a completely different perspective and approach to delivering value. You also want to be genuinely interested and curious, and ask the right questions to learn about the business and industry. That is the secret to becoming a trusted advisor.

A customer-centred approach will also allow you to have cognitive empathy. In fact, emotional intelligence can help you develop a higher-resolution understanding leading to uncovering and solving the right challenge/problem. 

3. Handle criticism with wisdom 

Steve Jobs once said, ‘I don’t feel my job is to win a popularity contest right now’ when he was asked about handling criticism during an interview. Handling critical feedback with wisdom takes you one step closer to running a successful company. 

4. Attract the right audience

Focusing on what your company has to offer means you need to focus on attracting the right audience. How you represent your business in the market should reflect the audience that will buy your products and services. 

For instance, Steve Jobs once said, “Apple is still the dominant leader in education.” By saying that, he clearly stated that his company focuses on educators, creative thinkers, students, and the future generation. He knew exactly who he was catering his products to, and so should you!

5. Find meaningful partnerships 

Developing meaningful partnerships with dominant leaders in the industry will only open your business to more growth opportunities. Not every business in the industry is a competition, so you need to be smart about the stakeholders you choose to collaborate with inside the market. 


As you can see, the big game mentality is all about the gameplay you put forward to grow your business. Entrepreneurs are often tempted to act against their business strategy. However, only those who stay laser-focused on their goals win the game. 

Instead of creating a complex plan, stick to the simple strategy of ‘why,’ ‘who,’ what,’ ‘when,’ and ‘where.’ That way, you’ll keep things simple and will find the success you’re looking for faster. 


The Power of Contrast and Self-Value

Today, I would like to jump right into the topic of self-value. A while back, I was going through Twitter, as you do, and I came across a tweet from Blair Enns that said, and I’m paraphrasing:

“If you’re not willing to pay for value, then you can’t learn how to value-price effectively.”

Blair Enns

That got me thinking about the power of contrast and self-value, so I want to explore that topic with you today.

Why Is It So Important to Value Yourself?

The first thing I’d like to say about self-value is that how you value yourself is the same way you value others. If you don’t value your time, you won’t value anyone else’s time either. For creatives, independent freelancers, and artists of all kinds it is very difficult to see your own value and even fostering that value in the first place can be extremely challenging.

However, it’s so important that you learn to value yourself and your time sooner rather than later. The lack of self-value creates the kind of inner conflict that keeps you from realizing your full potential. Once you sort out that conflict, you won’t hesitate to ask for more money when you’re working on freelance projects. We see this all over the freelance market; people don’t feel confident enough to ask for the remuneration that they are worth.

Why? Because they don’t value themselves, their time, or their skills enough to confidently price their services or product as they should. It is very important to spend time self-reflecting, looking inward, and honing in on how you value yourself and how others value you. It is also important to understand your relationship with yourself and with time because it’s such a finite resource.

Get Invested in Something Greater Than Your Ego

There’s another tweet that got me thinking and this one is from Diego Zambrano, one of my subscribers. In the tweet, he talked about how “real friends are the ones who stick around when you’re happy; the ones who disappear were feeding on your misery.” He also provided great advice for people who want to be happy in saying that they should “attach their ego to a higher purpose than themselves.” There’s a lot of truth to that.

When you’re working on something new that goes against what’s expected, whether that’s building a new business, starting a YouTube channel, or whatever project you have in mind, you’ll notice that a lot of people around you won’t support you like you thought they would and you will actually find that support in strangers.

That often happens because you are going on a new path and the people around you are stuck in their ways, so it’s difficult for them to come to terms with you taking steps forward while they are glued to the same spot. Of course, this is not all black and white. There’s a lot of nuances involved! The type of value you offer has to also be relevant to the people’s attention you crave! See value pyramid.

Have a Healthy Competition With Yourself

Another tweet that truly got me thinking comes from Sahil, and he said: “Competing with yourself is the ultimate positive-sum game.” This got me thinking about how we often fall into the comparison trap. We look at the best version of other people, which is what they show to the world, and we compare it to our version of ourselves, which is still under construction.

You may be having a rough time and then you go on social media and see all these people living the perfect life. That automatically makes you feel defeated and bad about yourself. However, you have no idea what those people are struggling with because that’s not what they show you. That’s something you have to keep in perspective.

The Importance of Contrast

Contrast is everything in life; black and white, sweet and salty, day and night, cold and warm. As human beings, our senses operate from contrast and everything we enjoy has contrast.

For example, there’s a big difference between eating something that has the perfect balance of sweet and savoury and eating something overly sweet and has no nuance to it. Which one do you enjoy more? It’s often the former because it has contrast.

That is true for everything in life. Contrast is always present and it’s what makes things interesting. You can use the power of contrast in your thinking and day-to-day life to make everything so much better. Learn to hack it and you will see a big difference in your career and your life.

View this NFT art on Opensea here.

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