Leveling Up Customer Empathy at Fitbit & More

By Kaitlin Milliken |  July 7, 2020

In this episode, we wanted to find out: “How can teams use empathy to better understand their customers?” Irina Kozlovskaya, Director of Industrial Design at Fitbit, shares how her team uses empathy to design better products for users. Lisa Somogyi, Director of Business Development at Cooper Perkins, shares tips for practicing empathy in a remote world. Cooper Perkins is also a sponsor of this podcast.  

Additional Resources



This episode is sponsored by Cooper Perkins, the engineering practice that converts inventive ideas into innovative products. Check out their article on page six of our most recent issue of Pointers, InnoLead’s thought leadership PDF. In the article, you’ll learn more about how Cooper Perkins engineers navigate technology and product development. You can find their contribution and more at


Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead.

In this episode, we wanted to find out: How can teams use empathy to better understand their customers?

What does it mean to practice empathy? Teams think about end-users as real, live human beings — not just a rectangle on a PowerPoint slide labeled “the customer.” Who is actually using their services? What are their motivations? What does their day look like, beyond the time spent with the product? The ultimate goal is to create products and solutions that integrate seamlessly with people’s lifestyles.

And, developing a more nuanced understanding of customers can lead to financial returns. In fact, 91 percent of CEOs say that empathy was directly linked to their company’s financial performance, according to Businessolvers 2019 State of Empathy Report.

There are many ways to unlock the power of empathy [IDEA BELL], including gathering feedback from customers [IDEA BELL], spending a day onsite to see customers interactions [IDEA BELL], mapping a users journey to uncover their pain points [IDEA BELL], and talking to frontline employees who deal with customers daily.

While it’s easy to rattle off a list of examples, we wanted to better understand empathy in action. So we turned to Fitbit.

Fitbit makes wearable activity trackers and devices that measure data related to health. Their products can track the number of steps a person takes, their heart rate, and their hours of sleep. Since 2010, the company has sold over 90 million devices worldwide, and has over 27 million active users, according to Statista. In 2019, Google announced that it would acquire the San Francisco company for $2.1 billion.

Fitbit aspires to make the world healthier, by allowing users track their health and fitness milestones on an hourly basis. But, to help customers meet their goals the team has to understand each person’s motivation to be healthy.

To find out more about how empathy and design work together at Fitbit, we sat down with Irina Kozlovskaya, who leads the industrial design team at the company. We’ll be back with Irina after this break.


Kaitlin Milliken: COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of our lives — both personal and professional. And may be some pre-virus activities that may never resume. So what will fade into the past and what will return? And when? To get answers, our team surveyed members of the innovation community and discussed what comes next with futurists. We then compiled the data into our most recent report. Here to share our latest research is Lilly Milman, InnoLead’s Assistant Editor. So Lilly, what are some big takeaways from the report?

Lilly Milman: I think what our survey reflects is how the pandemic made people think about what really matters to them right now. For example, 80 percent of respondents said they have stopped commuting to work and aren’t likely to start again. You can compare that to about 78 percent responding that they will begin socializing again, although they stopped now. And 100 percent answered that they do not want to go back to a poor work-life balance after the pandemic ends.

Kaitlin Milliken: You also sat down with venture capitalist Juan Enriquez to get his view of what comes next. Can you talk a little bit about that conversation?

Lilly Milman: According to Enriquez, there are two possible paths for the life sciences industry to take following COVID. There’s absolutely an opportunity to create vaccines cheaper, better, faster. But there are also many bureaucratic obstacles in the way. And he says that this type of return to normalcy could be detrimental to the US in the long run and that innovation is crucial right now.

Kaitlin Milliken: Thanks, Lilly! You can download the slide deck with all that data, and read the full interview with Enriquez at Now back to the show.


Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back with Irina Kozlovskaya. Irina is the Director of Industrial Design at Fitbit. Her team is responsible for the look and feel of wearables created by the company. Prior to joining Fitbit, Irina worked on projects for companies including Kitchenaid, Martha Stewart, and Barnes & Noble. She is also a vice chairperson of Women in Design San Francisco.

So to kick us off, can you talk a little bit about your role and what you do at Fitbit,

Irina Kozlovskaya: I lead the industrial design team at Fitbit. And for those who don’t know what industrial design is, it’s the discipline that’s responsible for the look and feel of hardware products. And sometimes we dabble in soft goods as well. The profession is really vast. So we work on anything from the mug that you could be sipping your coffee from in the morning, to the chair that you sit on, to the car that you drive in. In our case, it’s the wearables that are on people’s wrists.

And I think the other thing that I’d like to add is, a lot of the time industrial design is perceived as kind of the beautification of products or making them beautiful. But it’s actually a lot more than that. Our job is really to create hardware solutions for user stated and implied needs. So we really try to create products that are very helpful to people.

Kaitlin Milliken: So you ran a session at Impact 2019 called Empathy to Innovation. So how does empathy actually play into the innovation world?

Irina Kozlovskaya: Empathy, to me, is a really integral part of innovation. And it’s not something that gets applied at the end. It’s something that really should come from the beginning. And the reason that I think empathy is really important is because putting ourselves in other people’s shoes or seeing the world through their eyes allows us not to just expand to markets we might not otherwise grasp. But it also prevents us from having pitfalls, and gives us an opportunity to create solutions for extreme users that are then actually applied to a general public to make really commercially successful products.

So maybe I can give a couple examples of where things have gone wrong. And also some examples of when empathy actually creates incredible designs and incredible products.

Kaitlin Milliken: That sounds great.

Irina Kozlovskaya: Sure. Throughout history, there’s been a ton of examples of blind spots or faux pas that companies have encountered. And there’s a really famous one from 2001, the American Journal of Public Health published an article describing that women are actually 47 percent more likely to get seriously injured in car crashes, and actually 20 percent more likely to die, unfortunately. And what the study exposed was that the reason for this was that car features, car safety features, are designed around male bodies. And actually to further the problem, the test dummies that cars were tested on were also created around male bodies.

So women have different geometry, our weight is distributed differently, we tend to be a little bit smaller. So we were actually getting really hurt. So we want to avoid major pitfalls like this. Or maybe funnier examples, when we try to talk to our car and it doesn’t listen to us because it only responds to male voices, things like that.

But also there are these tremendous opportunities that could be taken advantage of in designing for extreme users and then expanding to a larger population. So if you look at your user-base curve, it looks like a bell. And the folks who are kind of at the edges of the bell are the extremes. So for Fitbit, for example, when we design a watch that we expect somebody to use for running, we will think about Dean Karnazes, who is an ultra marathoner. He’s a really long-distance runner. So we know if we designed a watch that’s really comfortable for him to use, we know that a person who runs a five-gallon weekend will find it comfortable as well.

Kaitlin Milliken: So you touched a little bit about how human-centered design and empathy play into Fitbit, can you expand on what that human-centered design process actually looks like?

Irina Kozlovskaya: Our mission is to make everyone in the world healthier. And so we really make sure we go out and talk to a lot of different people. It starts with foundational research, so understanding the markets, but also what’s really important to us is going out into the field and talking to users and observing them interacting with products and also understanding their world.

And the reason for that is that oftentimes folks have a difficulty explaining what their actual needs are. Or maybe they’re embarrassed to talk about something. Or maybe they know they’re struggling, but they can’t quite say why. So we go in, and we talked to them, but we also observe them to kind of get a clearer picture of their entire environment and their entire world. And once we derive ideas based on these user needs, we also test them and iterate upon them to get to a really solid concept.

And this is a process we do over and over. Sometimes we actually go back into the field and test our products with the users that we’ve talked to originally. Sometimes we bring people in-house and have smaller sessions with them in our office to understand how they’re interacting with our products. Our research team has this awesome event. They call it Research Wednesday. So if a designer is working, say on a button design, and they quickly want to run downstairs and talk to a real human being who doesn’t work in Fitbit, they can do that on Wednesdays.

Kaitlin Milliken: That’s really interesting. You mentioned some pitfalls that can come from not incorporating empathy. And I think a lot of our community, they know that talking to end-users is important. But what are some of the things that could go wrong? And how do you bring customers in a way that’s effective and has impact?

Irina Kozlovskaya: I think empathy has many different layers. In the thing that I would start with first is actually having a diverse team working on a product. So if you work in-house for a big company, make sure you have diverse staffing, because the first thing you want to do is get a lot of different ideas and different perspectives that will help you avoid these pitfalls in the first place. If you are a small company or entrepreneur, just go out and get lots of feedback from people who are different than you. I think that’s a critical part.

Going into people’s homes, as I was mentioning earlier, is also super important. As opposed to just doing surveys for the reason that I was bringing up where people might not tell you everything you need to know if you just ask them, you really need to interact with them in person. And then don’t stop there. Really bring people in over and over again and test and iterate multiple times to get to a good solution.

Kaitlin Milliken: When you say bring people in, bring in the same crop of users or fresh eyes every time you’re iterating?

Irina Kozlovskaya: I think both are helpful. One thing I would say about choosing who to bring in is bring diverse demographics in. So even if, say, you’re targeting women between ages of 25 and 35 who are into sports, don’t select them from one location. So when we do research with users, we say — and this is just a general example — talk to people from New York City, and also from Iowa. Because a woman’s experience, let’s say it’s a woman with two kids, her challenges in New York will be very, very different than her challenges in Iowa. So go for diversity in every way that you can.

Kaitlin Milliken: Definitely. Another element of your session was design thinking. What design-thinking skills should be applied to working with customers, how do you link the two?

Irina Kozlovskaya: The most important thing when you’re working with customers is to come in as open-minded as possible. Some call up with a mind of a child. So imagine you know nothing about the problem. And definitely don’t come in with any preconceived solutions. So, A. be super open to understand from the users what their needs are. B. to pivot, you might actually be working on an idea and be super excited about it. And once you talk to your customers, you realize you actually need to pivot, because maybe you’re not solving the right problem. So be super open-minded.

Kaitlin Milliken: When it comes to health, there’s a lot of personalization to it as well. How do you build those tailored experiences?

Irina Kozlovskaya: Absolutely. We start with users as I was mentioning. When we do our research, usually it’s actually a combination of a few things, foundational research, talking to experts, because sometimes that’s really helpful as well. And talking to users in the home.

We’ll bring all that information together, distill it down, and from that we actually build personas. And the persona will be going to represent an archetype of a particular user group. And we usually have a couple of them for each product.

So for example, we will say our primary user is Larry. And Larry has amazing fashion sense. And he works in an office where he needs to wear a suit to work every day and look really professional. And then he likes to exercise on the weekend. So we know we want to design a product for him that has really premium material and finishes that he’ll feel comfortable wearing to the office every day. And maybe he’ll want to wear a leather band with it. And when he works out, maybe he wants to swap out for a proof band that’s more breathable. So we know we want to create a product where he can really interchange the band’s really easily.

And say the other customer we are targeting is Lisa. And we know that Lisa is actually super athletic. She runs all the time, she does a lot of hip workouts, and she doesn’t want to bother changing her bands around and really modifying her device. So we’ll create something that’s versatile enough that she can take from the office to her workout and be really comfortable all day long.

Kaitlin Milliken: So my final question is, is there one important thing that you think designers should really keep in mind when they approach a project?

Irina Kozlovskaya: When I was actually graduating RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), which is a little while ago, a designer spoke at my graduation. Her words really stuck with me. And so I’d like to relay this advice. Her name Eva Zeisel, and she was a ceramicist, who was originally born in Hungary and became a very popular designer in the United States. She was 99 years old when she gave this advice.

Kaitlin Milliken: Wow.

Irina Kozlovskaya: So I’m going to just pass her words [LAUGHS] on to your listeners. Because I think she was really bringing a great perspective. And what she said to young designers who are really eager to enter the workforce was “don’t get caught up with creating something cool.” So we were graduating and we were going to go and disrupt markets and industries and you know, create amazing, flashy, bright and bold products. She said, “That’s great. But don’t let yourself run away with that. Really think about what’s important. What is at the core of this? Create a product that is solid and good that people will want to hold on to and use day in and day out. Something that they can live with and not get tired of, and something they’ll continue to appreciate over the years.”

And I think that’s a reason why I’m really happy to work at Fitbit. We make products that are really changing people’s lives and making them healthier and happier and I’m just so glad to have that kind of an opportunity.

Kaitlin Milliken: Keeping the customer’s needs in mind throughout the design process can help teams build both better products and a better relationship with their end users. So that’s how Fitbit approaches customer empathy. We recorded that interview with Irina in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Kaitlin Milliken: We also wanted to get insights that teams can implement during this unprecedented time period. So, we reached out to Lisa Somogyi.

Lisa has a background in mechanical engineering. In her career, she has gathered insights on the customer experience and translating those needs into product features. Today, Lisa works at Cooper Perkins as the Director of Business Development. Cooper Perkins is a technology development practice that uses engineering to solve business problems. They are also a sponsor of today’s episode.

So to get us started, can you tell us why customer empathy is so important when it comes to innovation?

Lisa Somogyi: Well, at Cooper Perkins, our team seeks to convert inventive ideas into innovative products. This inventive idea is something our client is very invested in — whether that’s a financial attachment or something that’s been percolating in their mind long before they approached us. I always seek to ground that relationship and an understanding of the passion and the personal story behind the idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s an individual founder or the head of product of a large enterprise company. That motivation behind moving that idea into action is frequently personal.

So empathy is not only the key to understanding that motivation and building the trust from the beginning, but also the basis for maintaining the relationship throughout the design and implementation process. Personally, my background is in mechanical engineering, and I’ve worked across a handful of industries. So I take the time to learn more about our partners, finding that commonality or parallel connection that really helps form mutual respect, especially in a time like right now when we aren’t able to actually meet in person.

Frankly, innovation isn’t easy. By establishing an initial understanding and trust, we’re better aligned with our partners both when we start and then also as we navigate the inherent challenges along the way, definitely being connected and knowing the user’s needs, whether that be on the client side or directly if you’re working at a product in someone’s home is really important.

Kaitlin Milliken: What are the best ways for teams to understand those customer needs?

Lisa Somogyi: One of our guiding principles at Cooper Perkins is “listen, think, then build.” It’s really easy to start a conversation based on assumptions. Sometimes our clients don’t even know exactly what they need in a partnership. Maybe they’re new to product development. Maybe they’re exploring new technology and don’t know the complementary skill sets required to bring their project to fruition.

In these early stages of exploring the overlaps of our team capabilities and the specific project needs, why it’s more than just the technical requirements that are important. During that time, I’m also trying to understand our partner’s needs. And that’s in order to nurture a collaborative relationship. Do the practice of repeating back what I’ve heard through my own lens to make sure we’re on the same page.

Another key is to bring in different perspectives during those early project discussions. Everyone offers a different experience. And by bringing in my teammates who have more relevant background, we may uncover or — even better — remove obstacles our clients didn’t know how to articulate. So by taking the time and having multiple ears to listen, we’re able to scope a project more accurately, and therefore addressing that true need. And by including a broader audience that really enables our clients to understand our project management style as we define the expectations, include tangible outcomes, and identify areas of risk all prior to starting the project.

Kaitlin Milliken: Listening, as you mentioned, is really important. One thing that many of our listeners’ companies may do is focus groups, and some folks consider them to be stale, not necessarily an accurate gauge of consumer behavior. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Lisa Somogyi: User experience and feedback is really important. The focus groups aren’t always guaranteed to offer the right representation or that insight, defining the goal of that research itself, and how to interpret the feedback. That may be the hardest and most critical aspect to producing beneficial outcomes. I’ve had to do this myself and depending on the product and the quality of the feedback gathered, it can be really tricky and challenging to filter the data into actionable conclusions. At Cooper Perkins, we look to our clients to bring their customer perspective into the design process. We also recommend our clients take a phase, when it’s appropriate in the project, to go externally and obtain this user insight. Frequently, you know, it’s our goal to interpret qualitative information into quantitative features.

So for example, establishing calibration routines to get the right feel and sports equipment, or defining that threshold of acceptable potency of smell while designing indoor cooking appliances, or understanding ergonomics for ease of motion while integrating maneuverability into large crowds. And other times, during medical device development, we’re trying to identify the balance of assistance required to, say, administer, or self-administer highly viscous medications. So, I mean, regardless of the application, creating that right user experience really depends on insight into that particular user group.

Kaitlin Milliken: Something that you touched on a little bit earlier was the idea of gaining those insights remotely. Things are starting to open back up, but lots of people, they’re working from home semi-permanently. They may not be super open to having folks come in and observe them in their home. Do you have any best practices for working with customers when you can’t be in the same room together?

Lisa Somogyi: I mean, it is a tricky time and we don’t even know what’s coming next. We’re already working with clients remotely on a regular basis. Our team engages with regular check-ins and that’s a practice and that connects back to what I was talking about, understanding the needs of our clients early and we help determine that cadence when we start a project.

But a couple pointers. I’ve recently adopted, you know, trying to remove distractions during calls and communications with customers. For me, multitasking is really tricky. Being extra intentional about engaging everyone. Also offering visual content, pausing during a presentation for questions, providing an opportunity for everyone on the call to add input. You know, there’s a popular and proven method of camera-on during all video calls.

Kaitlin Milliken: That’s some really helpful advice which segues really nicely into our final question. Do you have any other advice for teams that are looking to level up when it comes to customer empathy?

Lisa Somogyi: On my mind right now is tapping into my own personal curiosity. That inner curiosity that I own. You never know when you’ll find that connection with a client or collaborator. So it’s important to practice identifying that common thread, between seemingly unrelated items. This goes beyond learning about customers, their interests, their backgrounds. It’s also really important to reflect on your own personal interests.

For example, for me, by exploring the connection between my hobbies, social matters I care about, I find it easier to make a sincere connection with others. I mean, how many times have you gone into a genuine professional conversation that you left already looking forward to the next one? That’s customer empathy. And I think of that as a way to establish the foundation for long term partnerships.

Kaitlin Milliken: So empathy can help innovators identify common threads and patterns among customers. Using those insights to improve products can lead to big wins.


You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Irina Kozlovskaya for sharing her insights. That’s it for season four of our show! Scott Kirsner and Kelsey Alpaio provided editorial guidance for this season. Molli DeRosa was our intern who made many of the episodes that you hear in the last month. Kristof Torok and Andy Donovan helped get our show to more listeners.

If you enjoy this podcast, be sure to subscribe to Innovation Answered. We also have plenty of web-only content to hold you over at We’ll be back with more episodes in the fall. As always, thanks for listening, stay safe, and we’ll see you soon.


Special thanks to Cooper Perkins for sponsoring this episode. Visit to learn more about creating innovative products for partners across industries.