Evolving animal personas as design tools with interspecies design

How learnings from interspecies design make non-human personas more effective in protecting and engaging animals

A zebra and its beautiful contrast of black and white stripes
Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash

Just like user personas, non-human personas represent key stakeholders in design—the animals and environments impacted by human creations.

With only a few years in design conversation, however, non-human personas are still very much developing.

How do we ensure they fulfil their purpose in protecting non-human’s from human’s creations?

In my earlier article, I shared two non-human personas—one for environments and one for animals. This article explains how interspecies design informed the animal persona to make it more useful as a design tool specific to animal needs.

Through my research into life-centred design—expanding human-centred design to include all peoples, animals, and environments in design thinking—I noticed consideration for design impacts on animals was underrepresented when compared to consideration for environments, and animals were often considered as part of the environment.

Animals’ mobility and sentience, however, give them needs and abilities that are different from ‘fixed’ environments, making humanity’s relationship with animals unique from our relationship with environments. This suggests we need to evolve non-human personas to be more specific to animals and environments to make them more effective in equally representing both.

But while there has been much development in design thinking to include and protect people and the environment, tools to include animals in design are most lacking. Animal personhood and nonhuman and animal rights are evolving on the legal front, so how do we designers ensure our work protects their ways of being?

This inspired me to look into what work had been done regarding how to consider animals in design to evolve animal personas.

To champion multi-species ways of living on the planet, interspecies design is an emerging practice that explores the design consideration of animals.

‘Animals’ in this case might include creatures of varying scales, from large animals (amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) to insects and microbes; on land, sea, air, or underground; domestic, livestock, captive, or wild; and whether ‘proven’ sentient or not.

Interspecies design combines the emerging practices of Animal Computer Interaction design, Animal Architecture, and Posthumanism to give proper consideration to animals.

There has been much research into interspecies behaviour by great designers and scholars, such as Steve North, Hanna Wirman, Anne Galloway, Patricia Pons, and Donna Haraway. Their research has fed into the evolution of animal technology, including technology designed specifically for animal interaction, like large buttons for dogs to open doors for disabled humans, and Pettech products like PetChtaz, a video product with a paw interface allowing pets to ‘call’ their owners.

While interspecies design began with animal-computer interaction, two streams of work appear to be the key focuses (with much overlap):

  • Protect — Designing solutions for human problems that protect animal ways of living
  • Engage — Design solutions to be used by animals, whether via human-led or animal-initiated experiences and for specie-to-specie and cross-species interaction

Designing to protect

Two examples of practical solutioning from design consideration for animals:

  • Window material to prevent bird collisions — The windows in buildings caused 599 million bird deaths in 2015 and continue to contribute to their decline. Students at the Sustainable Design School in Nice utilised the unique optical attributes of a few species of birds to invent a window material with properties only the birds would notice to help them avoid colliding into them
  • Biodegradable and edible can ring holders — Plastic ring holders for drink cans have created perilous dangers for wildlife, particular sea animals getting entangled in them with fatal consequences. Saltwater Brewery, a craft beer brand based in Florida, worked with We Believers, an ad company based in NY, to produce biodegradable six-pack rings from the by-products of the beer brewing process, such as barley and wheat, meaning animals can eat them and benefit from their nutrients

Design fictions, such as animal experience simulators, have explored helping humans empathise with animal experiences:

  • Animal Superpowers which create wearables for kids to experience animal abilities like magnifying vision to see like an ant
  • Interface masks by Neuroscientist Björn Merker swap a human sense with animal senses like echolocation, Infrared Sensing, and Geomagnetoception to experience how animals perceive the world
A ‘bat’ mask for humans that emulates the feeling of bouncing sound waves.
Image credit — Jose Chavarria

Senior Lecturer, Researcher and ‘maker of experiences and oddities for Human and Non-Human Animals’, Alan Hook designs prototypes with animals to propagate interspecies empathy, with a focus on utilising animals’ love for play.

The Interspecies Toolkit

Hook also worked with Microsoft to develop the Interspecies Design Toolkit as a Speculative Design proposal complementing the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit. The toolkit helps structure this emerging practice by defining various areas for consideration.

Design principles

  • Recognise exclusion
  • Learn from other species
  • Design with one, speculate for many

The species spectrum

  • Human
  • Domestic
  • Livestock
  • Captive
  • Wild

Human engager personas

Below is an elaboration of the toolkit’s human personas that represent human-animal engagement:

  • Farmer
  • Animal Welfare
  • Consumer
  • Captive parent
  • Pet parent
  • Hunter

Types of Animal exclusion

  • Physical — the relationship between physical traits and abilities (arms, legs, etc.) and interaction methods (using hands versus using beak) and the physicality of human designs (product, service, architectural, etc.)
  • Cognitive — comprehension and communication
  • Social — the presence of animals being recognised by humans and respected

Observe and empathise

To empathise with animals, the Interspecies Design toolkit suggests observing animals to learn about their interaction needs to prompt innovation.

You could warm up first by role-playing with friends as an animal to get familiar with non-verbal communication.

If you have a pet or legal access to safe interaction with an animal, practice empathising with animals, by allowing your pet to initiate and lead play, following its lead, to explore how that interaction is different from the usual experience of human-led interaction.

Observe to identify:

  • Similarities and mismatches with human behaviours can then be used as prompts for innovation by exploring:
  • Trust factors between humans and animals
  • How do animals complete the same or similar tasks to humans?
  • Barriers to animal accessibility to engage/interact with humans and the human world
  • The animal’s types of interaction, and which are most common (noise, licking, touching, brushing against others, etc.)
  • How do animals sense and navigate environments, and how these abilities change with different environments?
  • What elicits different types of responses?
Image credit — https://interspeciesdesign.co.uk/toolkit/toolkit.pdf

Designing to engage

While animals have interacted with technology since the sixties, Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI) was first introduced in 2011 by Clara Mancini.

Animal-computer interaction design explores how human technology affects animal experiences with the aim to improve their welfare, support their activities, and foster interspecies relationships. This is to inform interspecies design as well as research ethics, such as using kind and safe wearables to collect data on animals.

Michelle Westerlaken created Felino, a digital toy that allows humans and cats to play together.

Exploration into technology for animals has already produced interaction innovations such as nose plate interfaces, biteable pulleys, paw-activated buttons, and haptic vests, but this research was mostly based on human-initiated interactions.

In 2019, Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas (a Lecturer/Assistant Professor in Animal-Computer Interaction in Scotland) and Andrés Lucero (an Associate Professor of Interaction Design in Finland) delved into animal-led interactions. They explored interconnectivity for dogs with their dog-to-dog internet project. Designing Technology for Dog-to-Dog Interaction progressed their earlier work on dog technology within the home to explore animal entertainment and well-being in scenarios such as enhancing the lives of pets left at home.

Types of ACI systems to employ

  • Screen and Tracking Systems
  • Haptic and Wearable Systems
  • Tangible and Physical Systems

Types of play to leverage

Behavioural research has identified three main types of animal play:

  • Social
  • Locomotor-rotational
  • Inanimate object play

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”― Mahatma Gandhi

Drawing from the expert research above, I designed this animal persona template to aid in protecting an animal’s needs, habitat, and way of life, and as a reference for how an animal engages with the world to inform animal-computer interaction design.

An example of an animal persona

This animal persona consists of three main sections:

  • Image and voice — This section provides a summary for instant understanding and empathy. Add a representational image of the animal and a quote, written in first-person ‘by the animal’ that captures both their individuality and significance to the ecosystem. If the persona represents one individual animal, infuse the quote with their character and nature. Avoid humanising them too much by speaking with terms that reflect their values and world.
  • Protect — This section informs designing products and experiences in a way that recognises and minimises potential impacts on animals. Summarise the habitat and environment they need to thrive, their needs and joys, and challenges to their thriving existence. Tick the boxes representing the product lifecycle stages that potentially impact the animal.
  • Engage — This section informs designing experiences that the animal engages or interacts with. Summarise how they navigate, communicate, and interact with the world. Clarify their barriers to engagement and inclusion with the human world and identify any key humans they interact with.

After the animals to consider are identified, a persona could be created for each one for reference during the design process and during all decision-making.

Download the animal non-human persona.

If we can design to engage animals, how we might expand environment personas to include more interaction thinking? How can we draw from modern expertise and traditional wisdom to improve the value and practicality of an environment persona? How might we use these to develop our relationship with the land through design?

Feel free to evolve this idea and share back your thoughts.

I’ll share more of my research into life-centred design soon — in the meantime:

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