Designers like to define users through personas so we can build applications that are better suited to their individual needs and address specific pain points. Designing for the “other” creates better accessibility and richer experiences.
But, what if the “other” is a different species? With my ACI projects, we approach the animal user with many of the same human methods - research, interviews (of zookeepers, biologists, and in some rare cases, the animal), participatory design, observation, testing, and evaluating. But there are sizeable barriers. How do you interview an orangutan? We look at behavior and usage time, and I was also able to work with an ape individual who uses sign language. During my digital enrichment projection project with that user, he mostly signed for treats which the other researchers used for positive reinforcement.
One of the interesting takeaways I’ve noticed from my projects is the importance of individual preference. For instance, one orangutan may favor depictions of cats, while another individual may prefer chasing butterfly projections. Through research and interviews with caretakers and experts, some assumptions can be made. For instance, research shows that young and female apes tend to be more apt to exhibit play. There are research studies that talks about types of play, objects, and group setting for shared use of applications, but there are still many assumptions to be made when designing new devices for animals. Many ideas and insights occur in the midst of project use, so having the flexibility to change the code or incorporate new objects helps create a participatory approach better shaped to the individual.
And sometimes the orangutan just wants snacks ...
My projects with animals mentioned above are closely monitored and regulated by committees at Zoo Atlanta and Georgia Tech which oversee the ethics and well-being of the research of animals. My personal journey to this project came from having worked at Zoo Atlanta for 10 years, which provided me with established relationships and knowledge of limitations of working with animals.