A Journey in Doggy Usability

I just read a great anecdote on Twitter that is a perfect example of usability design. It’s not the dog buddy, it’s the system. I’ll explain below.

In summary, an owner trains his dog to wait by the front door when he wants to go out. Somehow the dog got the idea that he should also lick the door. Then they moved to a new house and things got interesting.

There was only one door that led outside. However, the dog would lick any door in the house when it was time to go out. Door to a wardrobe, the bathroom door, any door.

To quote the owner. “I don’t know if he thinks the closet or kitchen cabinet leads outside, or if he’s just hoping to find doggy Narnia, or if he’s just hopelessly given up on ever being able to find the door by himself and is just doing the best he can, but every time he wants out he’s right there licking the glass door to the shower or something.”

None of the above.

This is a classic usability error. This dog learned enough to function in the previous system, but what he learned was not what the system designer thought he was teaching.

The system designer thought he was teaching the dog, “sit by the door in the current dwelling that leads to outside”. The dog leaned, “sit by this door when you want to go outside”. The connection that this door was chosen BECAUSE it led outside did not translate. The next leap, that the future house’s door to outside would be similarly chosen, was also missed. Hard to blame the dog for this. Why does rolling over when the owner makes a hand signal give you a treat? Owners have weird, arbitrary rules. You just need to follow them.

Upon entering a new house, the dog was left with a puzzle. Which door does he sit by and lick to go out? He was taught that he needed to sit by THAT door in the other house. But that door wasn’t here anymore. Would the owner teach him which was the new door? No, apparently not (because the owner thought the dog already knew what to do).

The dog did what users do. It experimented until something worked. This is the equivalent of someone pushing buttons on a keyboard or controller until they get the result they want. He started trying every door he could think of. Likely he tried several doors before the owner noticed, as they could be anywhere in the house. Eventually one seemed to work and he was taken outside. But he’d licked several doors so… Which had worked?

After more experimentation the dog figured out the real rule. You can lick ANY door and the owner will take you outside. Any door at all. So silly of him, always licking the same door previously! And look, he must be right because the owner keeps taking him outside when he does this.


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