The Empathy Belly at Ford Motor Company

Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Despite the lack of hard evidence that Ford actually uttered those words, the phrase is wielded by lots of designers and business owners who want to justify basing decisions on their instincts rather than engage in customer research.

To me, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what ethnographic research actually is. We don’t go around asking people, “What do you want?” or the absurd “Would you use this?” Instead we work to understand their current behaviors, attitudes, motivations, and frustrations — what they do, how they feel, what they wish to accomplish, and what’s getting in their way. And then it is our jobs as designers and product owners to get to the root of the problem and craft a solution. One that will be both effective and pleasurable and hopefully a little bit surprising.

Thankfully the engineering team at Ford hasn’t taken Henry Ford’s purported philosophy to heart. Instead they work to create an environment for their engineers that gives them the deepest possible insight into their customers’ way of life. Particularly some of the customers who need the greatest empathy of all: pregnant women.

Ford uses what is called The Empathy Belly, a “pregnancy simulator” created by Birthways, Inc. The weighted garment gives a medically-accurate sensation of what it feels like to be pregnant.

The Empathy Belly

In a video about The Empathy Belly, David Stanley, Vehicle Package & Ergonomics Engineer at Ford in Australia, says:

“The pregnancy suit allows young male engineers — and female engineers, obviously — to experience what it feels like to be pregnant. And that is some of the changes in center of gravity, some of the restrictions in movement, and just get that empathy with the female customer, to help in the design of our cars.”

Watch the minute-and-a-half video:

In an interview with an Australian publication, Stanley noted that The Empathy Belly has enabled Ford’s ergonomics engineers to recognize that “areas of concern are amplified for pregnant women” and to better address those needs. Some of the challenges for pregnant women they discovered are:

“Changes in their centre of gravity, restrictions in movement, stepping in and out of the vehicle becomes difficult due to the height of the vehicle (bending down becomes problematic) and the position of the steering wheel. Seat comfort becomes paramount, and there needs to be a balance struck between the egress and ingress in regards to the seat bolster.”

According to Birthways, wearing The Empathy Belly for 10 minutes or more causes the following effects:

  • Body weight gain of 30 or 33 pounds (2 sizes)
  • Pregnant profile of enlarged breasts and protruding abdominal belly
  • Change in physical and personal self-image continuous pressure on the abdomen and internal organs
  • Postural changes of the back with an increase in lordosis or “pelvic tilt”
  • Shift in one’s center of gravity; low backache
  • Mild “fetal” kicking and stroking movements
  • Shallow breathing capacity and shortness of breath increase in body temperature, pulse and blood pressure
  • A flushing sensation and increased perspiration
  • Awkwardness in all body movements
  • Pressure on the bladder, with increased sense of urgency and frequency of urination
  • Increased fatigue, slowed pace and restricted activity
  • Changes in sexual self-image and abilities

The Empathy Belly specs

The Empathy Belly costs $700 and is sold to medical, educational and social professionals. And while it probably can’t simulate the emotional experience of being pregnant (not to be overlooked), the fact that more than 20,000 have been produced and sold should give us an idea of its impact.

I’m incredibly impressed that Ford Australia is using these and sharing the benefits. What simulations can we create for our teams of designers and engineers to better recognize and appreciate the everyday realities of our customers’ lives?

Whether it be the physical obstacles of pregnancy (temporary) or disability (maybe permanent), or the emotional obstacles that are far harder to see, it’s crucial to acknowledge that some of our customers experience things we never will. Taking the time to understand those needs is not only a smarter way to work, it’s being a considerate human being. Let’s try to remember that that’s often the same thing.

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  1. says

    There are a number of things we can do to simulate the experience of a disabled user (especially on the web).

    Try not using a mouse (keyboard only). Or put headphones into your iPhone, turn on VoiceOver, and put it into privacy mode (which turns the screen off so you can’t cheat).

    There are also sites that simulate color blindness and, really, a whole host of other techniques available.

    That said, I have no doubt there are less-obvious things to try as well.

    • says

      John, I said this on Twitter when you first commented, but I’ll repeat it here: WOW! Thank you for such an insightful comment.

      I wonder what “tricks” you or others have come across that are created or adopted by one team and then sent around the organization for everyone’s broader benefit. I got the sense from The Empathy Belly video that that was the case at Ford Australia. It’s exciting to think of products we can create internally to improve the design process company-wide.


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