Dogs teach us about real empathy in UX design
“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”, they claimed in the New Yorker. Trust me, we definitely know. Dogs don’t bark hate speech online, for a start. We need more Animal-Computing Interaction (ACI), and less HCI, to make the world a better place.
A great article in the Financial Times nails it: Dogs were life-savers (as were other pets) during the pandemic. Dog ownership soared everywhere. As more people worked remotely, it wasn’t that unusual to hear dogs barking in the background during Zoom calls, or see dogs sniffing screens during video conferences.
The dog-human connection has never been stronger. There is research to back claims that doggie companions improve collaboration in the workplace. Dooglers are an integral part of Google employee life. WeWork identifies dog-related benefits such as better morale, mental health, and integration (dogs are way better ice-breakers than people, second only to babies. Maybe) between people. MINI and Dogs Trust Ireland plan to let you drive safely in a dog-friendly style.
The name’s bond
As UX designers, dogs can teach us a lot about understanding the elusive notion of “empathy” we keep hearing about. If you are responsible for a dog, you will understand from the human-doggie relationship what empathy can mean. Dogs provide a relationship that is friendly, forgiving, unconditionally loving, a sense of just knowing how you’re feeling, and dependable — even when you don’t want it. Much more tolerant than people!
Empathy is often confused with sympathy by designers, to the extent of patronising and alienating users. The concept of empathy can be a hard one to grasp. We live in a world that frankly really sucks at demonstrating it for real. But, living with a dog has taught me that empathy is much more than “taking a walk in someone’s shoes” or writing more friendly error messages.
Empathy is about becoming part of a bond with another. Empathy is about being moved internally to solve a problem. It’s not about a reduced time on task score with the software or a higher score on the System Usability Scale (SUS). It’s about providing that pain-killer that lets people go home early to play with the kids. Empathy provides a reason for solutions to exist.
Now, wouldn’t it be great if we had the same relationship with well-designed software that we have with dogs: one that is forgiving, tolerant, trusting, and dependable? Instead how often do we come across designs that are cold, clinical pixels; about as friendly as a cornered rat?
UX design lessons
Depending on where you live, you may even be permitted to bring a dog to work or college with you as a regular companion(though there are other considerations with that too) as well as being an emotional support or service animal.
Perhaps UX design educators could consider using the example of dogs and humans as empathy to help understand what empathy looks like and feels like. More students might relate to that concept. Why not? (There are, after all, UX design considerations for dogs themselves, published by the Nielsen Norman Group.😜)
Furthermore, as we enter the age of empathetic (or affective) centric computing, harvesting and learning from that dog-human interaction offers huge potential for better user experiences. Why do AI and ML focus so strongly on harvesting and predicting human behaviour? The prejudices, resentments, and bad judgements of humanity are already built into data and networking. That worked out well for us in the past, didn’t it?
ACI is a growing area of interest, with many papers published by the ACM for example about empathy and understanding dog-human emotion.
Yes, there was a huge update in dog guardianship during the pandemic as people craved more company (the “pupdemic”). I hope that this trend continues, although there are signs that human empathy is failing itself again. Like user experience, a dog relationship is an ongoing journey. Researchers and designers, please follow that lead. There are, after all, UX design considerations for dogs themselves, published by the Nielsen Norman Group.😜
Ultan Ó Broin is a user experience sustainability design professional and dog person from Dublin, Ireland. All photos are by Ultan Ó Broin.
- Year of the dog (and other animals) — how our pets saved us in 2020
- A Companion Dog Increases Prosocial Behavior in Work Groups
- Working from home is ruff. Dooglers make it a little better.
- Benefits of a dog-friendly office
- Canine UX: Essential Usability Principles for Dogs
- Understanding animals: a critical challenge in ACI
- The effects of interacting with a computer-simulated virtual pet dog on children’s empathy and humane attitudes
- On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog… Unless You’re Another Dog
- A Preliminary Work on Dog Emotion Recognition