Behind the Design: Dognition App Connects Man + Best Friend

Do you ever look at your dog and wonder, “What goes on in that furry head of his?” (He probably does the same to you.) gives owners insights into their four-legged friends’ behavior and personality. The remarkably well-designed web and mobile app—a collaboration among scientists, marketers, web designers and UX pros—uses cognitive science to reveal how an individual dog interacts with his people and surroundings.

Dognition home

The app stems from ongoing research by Dr. Brian Hare, an animal behavioral scientist and author who founded the first-of-its-kind Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. Dognition uses an online questionnaire (completed by the owner) and a series of dog-human games that test a dog’s skills and abilities, then matches the dog to one of nine profiles.

Dognition profile

Dr. Hare (so aptly-named, we must admit) co-founded Dognition to extend his research into the public realm and to give dog owners a meaningful and engaging way to get to know their companions better. Dognition CMO Becky Minervino says the tool is “first and foremost a way to discover the way your dog sees the world, whether you’re a first-time dog owner or have a long-term companion. Dognition reveals how dogs take in information and solve everyday problems.”

Dognition partnered with Durham, NC-based creative agency McKinney to develop the app; the teams had just 5 months from concept to launch. (Dognition went public in February to coincide with the publication of Hare’s book “The Genius of Dogs” and the popular Westminster Kennel Club dog show.) McKinney designers were involved from the beginning: naming the product, creating a visual identity, building the app and designing the resulting reports. Instead of relying on kitschy photos of dogs, the designers went for a bright color palette that relies on infographics to guide users through the many steps.

Cognition Science

Experience designer Carmen Bocanegra says the biggest challenge was developing and testing the assessment tools. Dognition is a “citizen science” project—not only do dog owners get reports on their dogs’ personalities, but they also contribute data on their dogs to a larger research effort. That means the science must be as accurate as possible—owners must follow instructions for each of the assessment games and honestly report their dogs’ performance. The team created how-to text for each of the five sets of games, video demos and a series of screens that take the owner step-by-step through each assessment.

Dognition Survey

“We started prototyping and user-testing the assessment and the games early,” Bocanegra explains, noting that they continue to refine the instructions based on ongoing feedback. “We partnered very closely with their director of research to understand how important the scientific method is. But [what works in the lab] doesn’t work in the consumer world. We wanted to maintain clean data but make the experience user-friendly.”

As agency of record for Dognition, McKinney’s creative team continues to work with the client to develop new games and additions to the app. (In addition to purchasing the profile, owners can subscribe for a monthly fee and get ongoing games that are matched to their dogs’ profile.)

The project also proved an excellent opportunity for McKinney’s Ten Percent program—like Google, the agency encourages its employees to spend 10% of their work time exploring, inventing and innovating. McKinney took an equity position in Dognition and so has a stake in the app’s success. “We wanted to go beyond assisting and sampling the wares of startups, straight into co-developing a venture—if the right opportunity came along, which Dognition certainly was,” says McKinney chief innovation officer Jim Russell.

Bocanegra, who used her dog Ernie as a test subject throughout the app’s development, says it was easy to get enthusiastic about the project. “We all felt really invested in Dognition,” she says. “Playing games with dogs and their owners doesn’t really feel like work.”

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