ACI Lab organises workshop on Co-Designing with Dogs

On the 12th and 13th of April 2013, The Open University’s Animal-Computer Interaction team hosted the first ever workshop on Co-Designing with Dogs. Among its key participants the event counted four dogs who attended with their human trainers from UK charity Dogs for the Disabled. The workshop was the first in a series of four within the More-than-Human Participatory Research project, led by the University of Edinburgh and funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

One of the aims – perhaps the most important aim – of Animal-Computer Interaction as a research discipline is to develop a user-centred approach to the design of technology intended for animals. Not only does this mean developing technology which is informed by the best available knowledge of animals’ needs and preferences. Crucially it also means involving animal users in the development process as legitimate stakeholders, design contributors and research participants.

Of course, anyone who wishes to involve animals as design contributors and research participants in the development of technology is faced with a non-trivial challenge: that of recognizing and accounting for the animals’ individual agency and specific contribution to the process. Humans are so used to relying on verbal communication and to assuming shared meanings between interlocutors that it is hard to see how it might be even possible to recognize and account for another’s agency and contribution when verbal communication cannot be relied upon and shard meanings cannot be assumed.

The aim of the Co-Designing with Dogs workshop was to investigate issues surrounding the participation of animals in ACI research. Particularly the workshop aimed to explore ways of supporting their autonomous agency and allowing them to contribute their design preferences throughout the design process. To explore these issues in concrete terms, we focussed on a specific case study, kindly provided by Dogs for the Disabled, whose delegates were the heads of canine training, Helen McCain, and client liaison, Duncan Edwards, and their dogs Willoughby and Arian (respectively Helen and Duncan’s companions), and Cosmo and Winnie (both training assistance dogs).

Assistance dogs are trained to interact with everyday technology (e.g. switching lights, opening doors, loading washing machines, etc.) on behalf of their assisted humans. However, the technology they are trained to use is not designed for them and thus presents them with an array of usability and experience challenges. This is where ACI comes in: we plan to design a series of plug-on, dog-friendly computing interfaces for various domestic appliances to support assistance dogs in their tasks, thus improving their welfare and professional life. But in order to do this we need to know how to involve dogs as autonomous and competent contributors in the design process. The workshop tackled this problem by focussing on two objectives: trying to understand how a dog might see the world, and using that understanding as input into a design and ‘projected’ evaluation exercise.

Guided by Dogs for the Disabled‘s delegates, the main activities of the first day aimed at helping human attendees to understand how dogs might see the world. We humans did a number of training exercises that pushed us out of the human perspective and towards a canine perspective. It was an enlightening experience, which informed the design exercises of the following day. Having learnt that switches and door handles are particularly difficult to negotiate for assistance dogs, we set out to re-design those interfaces from a more canine perspective. To do so, we had to go back to the functional components of those control systems while re-thinking their affordances in terms of experiential choices spontaneously expressed by dogs in their daily natural behaviours. Of course, coming up with radically new ideas wasn’t enough: we needed to think of research methods that would allow dogs to assess those ideas and bring to our attention ideas of their own.

Needless to say, the Co-Designing with Dogs workshop raised many more questions than it answered: What does it mean to participate in research? Do animals need to understand what’s going on in order to participate? What does it entail taking animals’ autonomous agency seriously? Is giving animals a choice between different designs enough? How can we enable them to express design ideas of their own? Where do we start from when we want to ‘design-with’ animals? Do we start from the functionalities needed to support a task or from the behaviours freely expressed by animals in situations that have nothing to do with the task? And I could go on.

But isn’t asking such questions what really counts? Isn’t turning our attention to animals – in a genuine endeavour to understand what they might want of interactive design and how they might want to co-design with us – that can ultimately recognise them as research participants rather than mere research subjects? Isn’t looking at animals with commitment and responding to animals with respect that can enable us to see them with more clarity and co-design the future with them?