Mew-X: What cats teach us about design research
After spending some time with the people here at Sutherland, you notice one thing that our researchers, in particular, seem to have in common. Cats. Not all of them have cats, but they are all cat people. Not cat human hybrids, we don’t do that kind of research, but those people who are just really into cats.
All of which makes perfect sense when you consider how similar design research and cat ownership really are. Just like most of the users we study, cats don’t communicate with you, they don’t fill in surveys, and they vote with their feet. It also highlights the difference between immersive design research and only looking at sales figures.
When you put a bowl of food down in front of a cat, they will either eat what’s in the bowl or they won’t. If you don’t know the cat, then you would assume that the cat doesn’t like the food. However, if you have taken the time and done your research, you might discover a whole host of other possibilities. For example…
Some cats only eat at a certain time of day, when they will happily swoop back in and demolish the bowl of food, which you’d assumed they’d rejected. Some cats won’t eat if they consider their food bowl is too close to their litter tray. Rearranging furniture is often enough to get them tucking in quite happily. Some cats won’t eat while a human is in the room. Some will only eat if a human is in the room. Other cats will only eat if there’s another cat is in the room, who’s threatening to eat the food they’ve just turned their nose up at.
Some very particular cats will only eat food with certain flavours. But, by their nature, cats normally like to cycle through different kinds of food, meaning that food they’re offered one day may be unacceptable the next, or their favourite food today will be a source of disgust tomorrow. There will always be outliers, like the cat that only eats food with cheese grated on top or the cat that will only eat tuna, but for the most part cats are complex little creatures with their own distinct personalities. Just like users.
If you were only using sales figures, then the bowl of food that you just put down in front of the cat is an absolute failure. The cat didn’t want it. But if you learn to understand the cat, you can find out what changes need to be made to satisfy the cat’s needs, or you can learn that you don’t need to change anything at all. That your service or product is just being offered at the wrong place or the wrong time, or alternatively that you need to give your users a scratch behind the ears before they are ready to tuck in to their dinner.