Catwigs: A conversation with your project

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Catwigs is a project which started at Bristol Hackspace. I’d been complaining that some of the ‘user scenarios’ that people like me work on can end up being wildly unrealistic (“As a user, I’d like to spend more money on goods and services” or “As a user, I’d like to use technology ‘X’ [insert current technological enthusasm of participants here]”).

One very direct, sensible question to ask about an idea is “does it actually solve a problem?”. If it doesn’t, why are you doing it? Valid reasons include “to have fun” or “because I like it”, but what if they’re not there? Like wigs for cats, many ideas do not solve a problem. Cats don’t need wigs.

It seems very easy to go through the motions of working out why people might want the thing you are making, without actually thinking very deeply about it. Richard Sewell and I were talking about this, and at Hackspace and over email in the next few days, we started to think of other things that people may fail to take into account. For example, how are people going to find the thing?

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Is it going to be easy to use?

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will people come back to it?

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is it the right thing to do now?

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and hang on, what on earth is it?

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(you’d be surprised how difficult that question is for a lot of projects).

We spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to express these ideas. Here’s an excerpt from an email from Richard in August:

“Or a small set of real-world comparisons – so Entertaining gets ‘Tax return’, ‘Sitcom’,
‘Fireworks’. Solves A Problem gets ‘Cat wig’, ‘Garage door opener’, ‘Antibiotics’.
Something like that.”

(‘Catwigs’ is an obviously great name, and perfect for this project, though we didn’t realise at the time that catwigs are an internet thing)

Catwigs then, has become a checklist of things you might have forgotten to think about for your project. The instructions are to create an analogy between your project and the given card. So for example, for this one:

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You are asked to argue how how your project is similar to one of the three items on the card. Let’s say I’ve got a great idea for a new start-up, penFinderLE, which bluetooth-LE-enables your biros so you can always find them. Does it solve a problem? well, occasionally, for a few forgetful people with a lot of pens, a lot of money and an interest in technology, but it’s not going to solve a serious problem that affects millions of people. This line of reasoning makes it more like a garage door remote than antibiotics (perhaps even edging towards the uselessness of catwigs?) so we place the card roughly horizontally, maybe with the arrow facing slightly downwards.

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Analogies take effort to make and so encourage you think about something you’re probably very familiar with in a different way. Arguing about the analogy with other people working on the project is even better, because it draws out any ambiguities and differences of opinion.

Analogies are quite time-consuming to think up though, especially if you’re you’re dusting off long-dormant drawing skills to illustrate them like I was, and so need to think of things you can actually attempt a drawing of. They are also difficult to scale (what’s half way between antibiotics and a catwig?) and hard to internationalise as they rely on commonalities in peoples’ ways of thinking.

Both of us are keen on the random, card-based technique of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, so we made some cards. This is me testing an early version on themselves on the way back from EMFCamp:

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The final piece – thought up by Chris Lynas at Hackspace I think – was to give them an obvious directionality, so that you could at least approximately judge the results of a catwigs session at a glance.

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We tested them in a very rough form with people at EMFCamp and Hackspace, until we had a reasonable set of 22. We had these printed at Moo, taking inspiration from Giles Turnball’s excellent and useful “Strategies for people like me” (Now available to buy as blockbox.cards).

So, here they are. We’ve tested them on a bunch of people, both at Bristol Hackspace, at BBC R&D and in various pubs and over coffee. We think they’re useful towards the start of a project, particularly in a group, and even more particularly if there are potential problems with the project which aren’t being articulated. These are the instructions:


“Shuffle and cut the cards. Deal 7 or all of them.

For each card, choose the orientation that matches your project.

See which are obvious and which contentious.

Discard any that are irrelevant.

Reorder by priority.

Do you still like your project?”

The idea is to use them to have a discussion. A fun discussion, ideally. And to kill your project if you don’t like it any more, or to tackle any potential problems if you do still like it.

Richard and I would like to thank Bristol Hackspace and IRFS at BBC R&D, and many other
friends for helping us test and improve Catwigs.

http://catwigs.org