Things my cat taught me about evidence-based design


by Matt Fernand

Our Principal Designer, Matt Fernand, tells us about the lessons in cognitive bias he learned from his fussy-eating lockdown pet


by Matt Fernand

Our Principal Designer, Matt Fernand, tells us about the lessons in cognitive bias he learned from his fussy-eating lockdown pet

Like a lot of people in lockdown, I acquired a pet. Or to be more accurate, I ran out of excuses not to get one, most of which had revolved around it not being fair to leave a new kitten alone in the house all day.

My kids observed that if my wife and I were working from home, then this no longer applied and if I’m honest, I didn’t really put up that much of a fight. And so Peralta came into our lives. Here she is:

She’s called Peralta for three reasons: 1) My kids wouldn’t let me call her Mr Biscuits which is obviously the better name 2) We were binge-watching Brooklyn 99 at the start of lockdown* and 3) There was some kind of mix-up whereby we were told she was a boy when we collected her. So that was an awkward first visit to the vets.

*(There’s a bit more to it than that. My wife’s family has Portuguese connections and one of the meanings of peralta in Portuguese is ‘mischief’ so not a bad name for a cat, really).

You can lead a cat to dinner …

Once we got to know her, we found a bit of a problem with our new companion. She was permanently hungry but also the most insanely fussy eater.

Our new little tummy in a fur coat pulled the downlights off our kitchen units trying to burrow into the back of her food cupboard, but would roundly reject its contents when we actually served them to her.

Most of the food we tried involved chunks of stuff in gravy. She would lick the gravy off and leave the chunks. Biscuits she ate some of but left the rest.

We did eventually find a minced ‘cat pate’ that she would eat in reasonable quantities. But it was the cheapest possible food from the discount supermarket and I worried that we were raising our new little charge on food of questionable quality and nutritional value.

How we got it wrong

What changed the situation was finding out about whisker fatigue. To be honest, if buying cat pate hadn’t already prepared me for seeing two words side-by-side that have no business being next to each other, I’d have put this down to just an internet thing. But it is an actual fact.

Cats, famously, have very sensitive whiskers. When they eat out of deep bowls, their whiskers continually brush the side and this can be really irritating. Like eating with someone constantly tickling your face.

That evening I gave Peralta her dinner on a saucer. She wolfed the lot down with a palpable sense of relief.

The evidence-based design bit

So what had happened here was that we’d fallen into a pattern that I thought for years was called Primary Mode Thinking, until I went to look for a link when I was writing this and couldn’t actually find one.

Whatever you call it, it’s a thinking trap where you stick to the first solution to that you come up with, regardless of any future evidence you uncover. If anything happens that challenges your theory, you just bend your idea to fit, whatever absurdities that requires you to accept. It’s one of the ways we end up with conspiracy theories and dubious medical treatments.

We were trying to fix things by changing what we were feeding Peralta, when in fact it was how we were feeding her that was the problem. As she ate, the bigger chunks of food tended to migrate to the edges of the bowl where her whiskers would press into the sides, so she left them.

The pate wasn’t necessarily delicious, it was just that the texture meant it stuck to the bowl and so stayed in the center.

So what does all this have to do with Design Thinking?

The things my cat taught me

1 — Just because it’s the accepted thing doesn’t mean it’s the right thing

Ever had that conversation with a client about rotating hero carousels where they point out that lots of other people use them and you try to explain the difference between ‘best practice’ and ‘repeating a mistake’?

It turns out that this principle also applies to feline tableware. Just because you bought a bowl in a pet shop with a picture of a cat on it doesn’t actually mean it was actually worth the grossly inflated price you paid for it.

This is a tricky dilemma to manage. On the one hand, users like familiar patterns so it makes sense to use them. But on the other, re-using common patterns can just mean copying a bad design. Or it might just be that we do things because it’s what we’ve always done and just haven’t stopped to question them.

2 — Evidence won’t help if you’re not interpreting it objectively

Looking back it’s obvious that Peralta liked eating stuff in the middle of the bowl and not near the edge. One time we tried her with some boiled chicken pieces. She picked the pieces up, put them on the floor and ate them from there.

Short of actually developing opposable thumbs, learning to write and leaving us a note saying ‘I don’t like eating out of my bowl’ she couldn’t have made it clearer that she didn’t like eating out of her bowl. But at the time we didn’t see the pattern because we weren’t looking for it.

This is a kind of cognitive inertia, which is a really pernicious trap for a researcher. What’s dangerous about it is that it’s not the persistence of a belief, it’s a persistent error in how you interpret the evidence that leads to a belief. It’s a subtle but important difference — you think you’re following the evidence when really it’s more like you’re editing it.

It’s easy to see how that can lead to things like bad A/B testing strategies. You think you’re doing the right thing by running tests but your hypotheses might be wrong. It’s also often quoted as a cause of groupthink in ideation sessions.

3 — It doesn’t have to do what it says on the tin

Another trap for the unwary: functional fixedness. This is the inability to move on from the accepted use of a thing and adapt it to solve a problem, or even reassign it permanently to a new role in your life. Like that set of fish knives you were given but never liked or needed that’s now your go-to toolkit for opening paint cans.

We had probably had hundreds of things in the house that we could have used to serve Peralta her dinner. But none of them had a picture of a cat on. So we just kind of dialed them out of our thinking. A bowl is a bowl.

This is something that you often see when you’re redesigning B2B applications. People tend to want to fix what they already have rather than reimagining the whole service. This is the purchase order system, this is how we do purchase orders, just make it do that better.

In conclusion

In the end, what my cat taught me is how terrifyingly easy it is to get caught up in your own biases. You can be staring right at the data and not see the truth because you’re not asking it the right questions.

The whole point of biases is that you don’t know you’re biased. Sometimes the things you need to challenge are so obvious that you can’t actually see them, as Alan Klement points out in his excellent article on how WYSIATI can undermine the benefit of personas.

Other times they’re so subtle that we don’t even spot them. All those tools and tricks we assemble to break open our thinking won’t help if we don’t notice that we need them, or we don’t use them correctly.

So while certain world leaders might swear by the dead cat strategy, I’m going to lay claim to the Hungry Cat Effect as a name for looking the wrong way when the answer is staring you in the face. Well, technically the answer was growing out of Peralta’s face but I’m not sure I can bear to type the phrase Whisker Fatigue twice.