Prototyping for empathy

Earlier this month, I gave a talk at Frontend Conf in Zurich about developing and using empathy in the design process. In writing the talk, I came all sorts of wonderful stories of people designing prototypes to allow them to simulate the experience of another person, from Patricia Moore to St Francis of Assisi.

This story, about an entrepreneur in India, is one of my favourites.

Arunachalam Muruga grew up in poverty in Tamil Nadu, in the south of India. At the age of fourteen, he dropped out of school to support his family when his dad died. He went on to have an arranged marriage. One day, early into that marriage, he was shocked to find that his wife was hiding something from him: a pile of dirty rags she used to deal with her menstrual period.

He asked her why she didn’t just use pads. She told him that if she did that, she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy milk for their family.

And this isn’t an uncommon situation in India: a 2011 study found that only 12% of women across India use pads. In rural areas, that number tended to be much lower. Women used whatever they could get their hands on: often rags, but also sand, sawdust, leaves, ash. Using rags would be fine, except the social stigma associated with menstruation in India means that women hide their rags when they’re cleaning them, rather than putting them to dry in the sun, and so they don’t get properly disinfected. As a result, 70% of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor hygiene, and one in four girls in India drop out of school—for good—when she begins menstruation.

Suffice to say, it’s a real problem.

Muruga wanted to solve that problem. And, let’s be honest, he wanted to impress his new wife while he was at it. He thought, since pads were sold at forty times the price of the raw materials, he could make his own, cheaper.

Now, making them wasn’t so hard. But it turned out that testing them was a bit of a pain. His wife was only available for testing once a month, which didn’t really offer Muruga the speedy turnaround he was aiming for. The social stigma against menstruation meant that he struggled to recruit women from his own community. And there were a few biological hurdles that prevented him from testing on himself.

So he improvised: he took a football bladder, filled it with goat blood, attached it to his hip and ran a tube between the bladder and his undies. Every time pressed on the bladder, blood would gush out. And he wore this thing all over town—whilst riding his bike, whilst running errands—in order to simulate menstruation and live the experience that women live.

You may no be surprised to hear that this didn’t make him super popular: the smell wasn’t great, his clothing was often blood-stained, and people thought he was a pervert, or that he had a sexual disease. His wife left him, his mum moved out, and eventually the town got fed up and told him to leave, or they’d string him up from a tree in order to exorcise his demons.

So things weren’t great, but he persisted. And years later, after some time testing and researching, he’d managed to create a manual machine that didn’t cost much and allowed women in rural areas to cheaply manufacture their own pads. Slowly, he started to introduce his machine to the poorest communities in India. There are now 1300 of Muruga’s machines across the country. He’s also exported to seventeen other developing countries.

Empathy for Introverts.078

In 2014 TIME magazine named him one of the most 100 influential people in the world. In 2016, he won a Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award India. He’s given a TED talk. There’s a documentary film (Menstrual Man) and a Bollywood film (Padman) about him. His wife returned to him, and they live a comfortable life where they can afford to buy both pads and milk.

All in all, pretty successful for a dropout who used to wander around town, dripping goat blood everywhere. And outside of all that, he’s made a huge difference in the lives of millions women across India—by empowering them to run their own businesses, by giving them access to improved hygiene and convenience, and by making it easier for them to do fancy things like “stay in school” and “not die of a preventable disease.”

We don’t need to start a revolution (necessarily). We don’t really even need to care about accessibility, or diversity, or other human beings, or any of those things. See, approaching projects with empathy will make the world a better place, but it’ll also make it better for you: when the sun is too bright and you can’t see your phone, or when you’ve broken a leg and can’t get around, or when you’re twenty years older and can’t read tiny type.

So travel. Read. Talk to people. Ask questions. Pay attention. Experience as much of the world as you can, from as many different perspectives as possible. And start every project by walking a mile or two in someone else’s shoes.

Empathy for Introverts.080

If you’d like to learn more about how to apply an empathetic approach in your design practise, and you can find links & resources, plus a video if you’re feeling really brave, on my website.

By sarah semark

Sarah is a designer who codes. She likes building things and fixing things, and believes that good criticism is vital to making the things you love better. She is most likely to be found working in an airport, cursing at her screen and making odd faces.