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?

Ubicomp’12 Best Paper nomination for Dog Tracking research

Clara Mancini and Janet van der Linden from The Open University’s CRC, plus Jon Bryan and Andrew Stuart from Retrieva co-authored a paper on the use of tracking devices with dogs in domestic contexts. The research found that the use of the technology influenced the both humans and dogs, changing both parties in the relationship and the relationship itself. The work was nominated for Best Paper and presented at the 14th International Conference in Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp’12) in early September. Here are the paper’s full reference and abstract:

Mancini, C., van der Linden, J., Bryan, J., Stuart, A. (2012). Exploring Interspecies Sensemaking: Dog Tracking Semiotics and Multispecies EthnographyProceedings ACM Ubicomp 2012, ACM Press, New York, pp. 143-152.

Abstract: The domestic use of tracking technology with pets is on the rise, yet is under-researched. We investigate how tracking practices reconfigure human-dog relationships changing both humans and dogs. We question the sensemaking mechanisms by which both humans and dogs engage in context-based meaningful exchanges via the technology’s mediation. We show how an indexical semiotic perspective could inform the development of interspecies technology. Finally, we discuss the methodological issues raised by doing research with animals and propose an interspecies semiotics which integrates animal companions and animal researchers’ accounts into ethnographic observation.

ACI at Minding Animals 2012

In early July, Mancini (The Open University) gave a presentation about ACI at Minding Animals 2012.

The conference, which took place from the 4th to the 6th and had nearly 500 attendees, was organised by Minding Animals International (a network of over 3,000 academics, artists, activists and advocates, dedicated to the study and protection of nonhuman animals) as well as Utrecht University’s Ethics Institute, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Philosophy Department. During the event experts in animal philosophy, ethics, advocacy, welfare, behaviour, cognition and emotions came together to discuss their work under this year’s theme: “Building Bridges between Science, the Humanities and Ethics”.

The programme, which included hundreds of talks, nearly a dozen keynotes, several study circles and panels, a few film projections and two public lectures, featured world-class figures in animal-related science. The opening lecture was by Nobel Laureate John Coetzee (Professor of Modern Dutch Literature at Utrecht University) while the closing lecture was by world-famous cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff (Emeritus Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado). Other keynote speakers and panellists included the likes of Harriet Ritvo (Prof of History at MIT), Peter Singer (Prof of Philosophy at Princeton), Dale Jemieson (Prof of Environmental Studies at NYU), Colin Allen (Prof of Cognitive Science and History & Philosophy of Science at Indiana), Raj Panjwani (Lawyer at the Supreme Court of India), and many others of comparable calibre.

Although it was important to talk about ACI with an audience of animal experts, such an audience might have either not seen the point of ACI or even see it as a dangerous endeavour. However, not only did Minding Animal’s audience seem to see the point of ACI, they seemed to see merit and importance in this new research area and its animal-centred perspective. Marc Bekoff, for one, had very encouraging words for the development of ACI, on the grounds that it seeks to make our world more “animal-friendly”, as he put it. This seems encouraging for any computing researcher who is interested in venturing into ACI: if most computer scientists don’t get ACI yet, animal scientists do!

Animal-Computer Interaction SIG at CHI’12

This year, the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’12) is hosting a Special Interest Group (SIG) meeting on Animal-Computer Interaction. The event is organised by Clara Mancini (The Open University), Shaun Lawson (University of Lincoln), Janet van der Linden (The Open University), Jonna Häkkilä (Nokia Research Center), Frank Noz (, Chadwick Wingrave (University of Central Florida) and Oskar Juhlin (Stockholm University).

Place and time: the meeting takes place at the Austin Convention Centre, Austin, Texas, USA, on the 10th of May 2012, at 14:30.

Abstract: User-computer interaction research is demonstrating growing interest in the relation between animals and technology (e.g., computer-mediated interspecies interactions and animal-computer interfaces). However, as a research area, this topic is still underexplored and fragmented, and researchers lack opportunities to exchange ideas, identify resources, form collaborations and co-operatively develop a coherent research agenda. The Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI) SIG meeting aims to provide such an opportunity, promoting the development of ACI as a distinct area of research which is relevant to both animals and humans.

Find out more: on facebook: – on the conference’s website: – on the ACI blog:


Welcome to the Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI) research blog. The blog’s aim is to bring together researchers and practitioners from disciplines relevant to ACI and serve as a discussion forum for those who are interested in this research topic. Please, do feel free to post your comments on the relevant pages and contribute to the discussion.

Although animals have been involved in machine interactions for a long time, their perspective has seldom driven the design of interactive technology intended for them and animal-computer interaction is yet to enter mainstream user-computer interaction research. ACI aims to fill this gap and, in so doing, expand the boundaries of user-computer interaction research.

An ACI Manifesto is published in ACM Interactions, 18(4), 2011. This blog presents extracts regarding the scientific aims, methodological approach, ethical principles and research agenda described in the Manifesto.

If you wish to show your support for the ACI agenda, please do so by posting your full name, discipline or specialism, and affiliation to the Signatures page.