I never wondered about cat furniture design until recently. I took care of my friend’s cat for the past two weeks while he was out of town. To be a good host, I purchased a cute and comfy-looking cat bed from Amazon to welcome my little guest, Gakki. Its color matches my bed sheet and looks perfect and in harmony. I had the fantasy that we both sleep in our own beds and have sweet dreams. However, the moment Gakki arrived in my room, she immediately fell in love with my old suitcase located in the corner. I tried many ways to seduce her onto the perfect-looking cat bed, but she still refused to even touch it. I even put some treats on the bed and then put the bed on top of the suitcase, that’s when she finally came over to eat the treats and then hopped off after only 5 seconds. After 20 minutes of effortless seduction, I finally had to admit that she just didn’t like it no matter how good I think the bed is for her.
I wished this would happen.
Instead, Gakki was obsessed with this suitcase.
How frustrating to be a cat’s parent at this moment! You spend money on your cats and try to make them happy, and they behave like independent teenagers. They have their own attitude and are creative with new things. On the good side, because of cats’ independence, people might be discouraged and stop wasting money on buying them cute products. At least I will not buy cat furniture again, because she will never use them properly.
This frustrating experience made me wonder how to design something that cats would love to use. As a user experience designer, I truly believe human-centered design is a universal approach that can be applied to any physical, digital, or service design process. Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative solution out in the world. When it comes to cat furniture design, the users are not human but cats. The first challenge in designing cats products is to building a deep empathy with the cats. So, would the product designer follow an approach called cat-centered design?
Fortunately, I got a chance to connect with Jackson Cunningham, the founder of a high-end cat furniture company, Tuft and Paw. He told me that they do apply “cat-centered” design process even if they don’t use this term. And they do follow the five stages of human centered design to design the cat furniture.
The first stage of the cat-centered design process is to start with a problem and gain an empathic understanding of the problem you are trying to solve for cats. To find out more about the problems with my human clients, I usually do interviews, surveys and observation. Since, we can not engage with cats in conversation, the best way is to spend time observing them to gain a deeper understanding of the issues involved. For instance, cats seem to enjoy destroying the couch by scratching it. Do they mean to destroy furniture? Why do cats scratch? Empathy allows designers to investigate assumptions and gain insight into cats’ needs. I started observing Gakki when I was with her. She is an energetic cat and enjoy spending her nap time on my chair , bed and old suitcase.
Designers gather a lot of information from observation, and it is time to do something with it.. During the define stage, researchers and designers analyze the observations and synthesize insights in order to define the core problems. They consult cats behavior experts to learn the reasons behind each observed phenomenon. Conversations with experts help the designers to gather ideas and establish features and functions that can solve the problems.
Let’s apply these steps to a known observation: cats like to squeeze in tiny cardboard boxes. There are two usefuls insight we can take from this behavior. Most cats enjoy playing with cardboard as a material because they can dig their claws into it to scratch or stretch. Additionally, the enclosed space can make cats feel safe inside it. Another cat owner’s problem is that a cat scratches the carpet. But this is not the cat’s fault—the cat doesn’t know it’s ruining the carpet, they only scratch because they are trying to get a horizontal stretch. If you use techniques to teach the cat to use the new post, they will no longer scratch the carpet. Inspired by this approach, I analyzed and made the assumption based on my observation. Since Gakki spent most of her time lying on my chair, she might not like the soft cushion in bed.
In the ideate stage, designers can start asking questions “How might we…” to help look for ideas for design opportunities. Before generating ideas, they do a competitive analysis. They collect the information on the best and worst products, and interview cat shelters and veterinarians to analyze what makes them good or bad. It is important to get as many ideas or problem solutions as possible at the beginning of the Ideation phase. Designers sketch out design ideas during the brainstorming session. Later, considering the product constraints, they should pick some design ideas to create prototypes and test.
The team produce a number of quick and inexpensive prototypes. The purpose of building a prototype is to test if the design can solve certain problem. So, they need to define what they want to test before prototyping. I did a quick adjustment on this bed, which is to remove the cushion.
The most challenging phase is the test stage. It’s not easy to do usability test with cats. The Tuft and Paw team test inside a cat cafe or cat shelter; and they use some tricks to encourage cats to interact with the prototypes. Cats have all sorts of preference (angle, material, and size), but you can get most cats to scratch on a scratcher by sprinkling catnip on it, or spraying it with catnip spray. If that doesn’t work, you can try dangling a wand toy (or treat) just over the top of the scratching post so the cat has to reach up to get the toy or treat; in the course of getting the toy/treat, they usually realize that they’re leaning on something that is fun to scratch. Positive reinforcement (with treats, sweet-talk, petting, or play) will let the cat know that good things happen when they use the product, and that always helps establish a new habit. I put her toys and favorite treats inside the bed, and placed her in front of it. Bang! She stepped in the bed, and stayed for more than three minutes, which is a huge achievement.
Gakki was in the bed!
When users are not human, human-centered approach still can be applied with little adaptations. Every cat is unique and has its own preference. We have to respect the cat’s need. We like pat our cats all the time but cats like to hide and spy. And if you give them the opportunity to be comfortable, then they will come visit and be social when they are ready. It’s never a good idea to force the cat to do things they don’t like. A happy cat has a happy owner.