In our home, we have made a shelter for stray cats where they come, live & feed themselves whenever they want. We have dedicated the upper floor of our house to cats only. At times, we have had as many as 20+ cats living there at the same time. So, I have been observing and living with cats since my childhood. After working for some years in design, I have realized that there are quite a few design lessons we can learn from cats. So, what are the design lessons I've learned from cats so far?
1. Be curious and explore:
If you have ever owned a cat, you would have noticed that cats have a very curious and exploring nature. I'm pretty sure you have heard proverbs about cats and curiosity. In fact, there is a very logical explanation to the exploring and curious nature of cats. Ecologically, cats are predators; hunting rats and other small animals. However, they are also a prey to other predators like coyotes, large hawks and large snakes etc. In order to survive, they need to be aware of all possible threats around them. Also, they need to explore all possible corners and hiding places to hunt for food. It is extremely important for a cat to know every nook and corner of its territory (your home). They keep updating a mental map of their territory everyday, to be aware of both possible dangers and opportunities.
As designers, we similarly need to have a curious and exploring nature to be aware of all possible threats and dangers to our products and business. The curious nature also forces us to think more about the 'Whys' and the 'Hows' of any product experience. Curiosity helps us look at the problems with different perspectives and think of solutions we've never imagined before.
2. Insist on the best
Cats think of themselves as Gods in fur coats. So, they have high expectations from their humans to take good care of them. They are very picky in whatever they eat. If they like a specific type of meat, they won't settle for anything less, no matter how expensive it is. So, when your fluffy ball of fur raises its nose over a food bowl and refuses to eat, don't take it personally. They won't eat it, if they don't like it. It's that simple.
As designers, we too need to insist on the best possible solution or experience for our users. The definition of the best can vary depending on the users, business goals, process or the problem at hand. However, anything less than the best possible solution is not a good solution. Never settle for anything less than the best.
3. Think inside the box
If a cat fits, it sits. In the design world, we always keep hearing 'think outside the box' and that may not be a good advice. Most people are not very good at unstructured, abstract brainstorming. If you ask your team to brainstorm a great product idea in the next one hour and ask them to think outside the box, the chances are you won't have anything at the end of the session. A study by Harvard Business Review found that by systematically constraining the scope of thinking, people are more likely to generate better ideas. Setting up right constraints forces you to come up with the right questions.
So, generating great ideas and solutions means setting up the right kind of box. You cannot generate great ideas only by thinking 'outside the box'. You first need to understand the box. What type of box is it? How big is the box? What is the material of the box? In design world, this can translate to questions like: What markets are you operating in? How much resources do you have? What are the technical limitations that affect your solution? What are the business limitations?
4. Push boundaries and be flexible
It is great to think inside the box, but have you ever noticed that a cat doesn't limit itself to what is possible? When it comes to fitting inside boxes and containers, the laws of Physics don't apply on cats. Cats are literally liquid. They can fit themselves in boxes much much smaller than their sizes. The key to this is their flexibility & prioritization. First, they learn the size of the container and then prioritize which body parts should go inside first. Their flexible bodies allow them to sit inside literally anything.
So, we need to first understand the box and then, we can push boundaries and be flexible to do the next big thing. Don't let yourself be entirely defined by the limits and constraints.
5. Don’t be afraid to fail
Have you ever seen a cat guided by the fear of failure or judgement? I doubt not. They aren't discouraged by the risk of looking dumb. The internet is literally filled with videos of cats making fools of themselves and failing miserably. To outside world, they may look like careless idiots who do all sorts of dumb things. But only if you pay close attention, you would realize they have a very specific strategy. Prototype and iterate. Cats generally have a very experimental nature. They keep iterating until they reach the optimal solution. And they are never afraid of trying new things.
As designers, we should be more like cats and should not be driven by the fear of failure. You have a very bold solution to some problem? Go build a prototype and test it with your users. Even if you fail, you will learn something valuable.
6. Simple is better
As a cat owner, you may have had an experience where you bought them a very special and lavish bed and they are drawn towards it, as it is something new. However, after a while, you may find that your cat is sleeping in an empty card-board box instead of the new lavish bed. In the cats' world, expensive doesn't mean better.
Follow the same approach in your design. Keep your design as simple and minimal as possible.
Perfection in design is achieved not when there is noting left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove.
7. Focus and always pay attention
A cat never loses attention. No matter what they are doing, they are always attentive and focused on the task. When they are focused on something important like stalking a bird or a rat, they don't care what's happening around them. They keep laser sharp focus on that particular task. But at the same time, they are also attentive of their surroundings.
Our world is filled with distractions that can make us lose focus of what's important. So, being focused but attentive of your surroundings is the key.
8. It's okay to ignore sometimes
In a world full of distractions, attention is a very precious commodity. We are always distracted by one thing or the other. There is so much that we can learn from cats in this regard. Although cats are very attentive and focused on their surroundings, they only pay attention to a limited number of things, ignoring the rest. That may mean completely ignoring you when you are calling their name. They may twitch their tail slightly as a response to you, but if they aren't in the mood, they'll completely ignore you. So, what's the takeaway? It's okay to ignore sometimes. That email can wait. It's okay to say no to certain things so you can focus more on the others.
9. People love positive feedback
Cats know that most people are not experts at pleasing them. Therefore, they give us their feedback. By purring, affectionate rubs, or just by meowing. All this feedback helps us do more of what they like. They are like four legged psychologists. Similarly, we can give positive feedback to our users or coworkers, encouraging the behavior we want with positive reinforcements. Try to respond more positively whenever some user is having a problem or your coworker has done something wrong. The positive feedback mechanism helps us establish a better understanding and communication.