Please remember — Technology can’t save us from ourselves.

Thoughts regarding Dubstech UX Jam week #2 — Pet Adoption Project.

Josh Nelson
Jan 27, 2019 · 7 min read

I wasn’t able to make it to this weeks UX Dubstech weekly meet up, but I’ve spent some time considering the prompt and after much thought, it occurred to me that this question is a great example of when technology becomes a god among men and we lose our ability to think critically about the problem. Let me explain.

Here are some general stats used in the prompt:

  • 7.6 million pets are put up for adoption in the USA alone — Every year.
  • Of these, 2.7 million are put to sleep while an equal amount is adopted.
  • There are an estimated 13,600 animal shelters in the USA.
  • The cost to pet rehoming facilities is in excess of $2.5 billion a year.

We were tasked with creating an experience that will help connect people looking for a pet that matches their lifestyle.

Please note: that the following is not a negative reflection on UW, STEM Majors or even Dubstech, but rather a personal reflection into the patterns that I’ve seen within these systems. I fully support the mission of the University, applaud the efforts of STEM majors and cheer for student organizations like Dubstech.

These are heartbreaking statistics. They truly do make the soul weep with disgust, but the truth behind the matter is that the solution is complicated and significantly more complex than an app or web system can resolve by itself. What I mean by this is that yes, we can design solutions that improve the adoption rate and help pets find loving homes, but that does little to nothing to tackle the root cause of the issue — pets are being abandoned.

“We need to learn to uncover and resolve the root cause, not simply treat symptoms.”

There are flaws in the pet ownership systems that need to be resolved. Otherwise, our technological solutions simply act to enable these issues and cover up problems that lay under the surface. Another way to think about it is to reflect upon the experiences that Facebook is struggling with when it comes to fake news; their platform enabled the connecting of niche mindsets and amplified cognitive biases within filter bubbles… truly they’ve done an amazing job at connecting the world but failed to recognize that people can simply be “bad” and bad people in mass can do bad things, for lack of a better simplification.

For instance, my immediate question regarding the prompt is “why are so many pets are being put up for adoption in the first place?” If we can resolve and answer that question we can diminish the need for so many shelters and such a great bill each year for rehoming these pets.

Doing a really quick search I discovered the following reasons that dogs specifically are being put up for adoption:

  • Lack of training
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Moving.
  • Not enough time for a pet
  • Cost of pet ownership
  • Biting
  • Too many animals in the home
  • Allergies within the family household
  • Strays and rescues

For definitions on all of these or to learn more, check it out here:

These are all reasons that pets end up getting put up for adoption. And upon reflection, I can actually think of personal instances when I’ve either heard second hand or seen first hand a pet being put up for adoption because of one of these issues.

The reality is that these are more fundamental problems within the system that are causing so many pets to be placed up for adoption. They may not appear to be as sexy as a solution that matches owners up with personalities types and lifestyle but they could potentially make a significantly greater impact in the world around us.

In many ways, it’s the problem that a lot of large organizations and tech giants face today. Instead of trying to solve foundational structural issues (such as connectivity and stability) they push forward with new flashy additions that make a great presentation at large conferences to develop positive PR, but otherwise, leave their users with more bloat that bogs down their platforms. The question posed during this week’s UX Jam session in many ways goes to actual encourage this type of behavior.

Learn to ask the right questions

Additionally, however, I think it’s important that our teachers and industry leaders encourage thinking that is critical and skeptical of perceived direction. It’s great that we are encouraged to solve 1 problem 15 different ways, but perhaps it’s time that we start to review the single problem, seek to uncover 3 new problems surrounding or directly relating to the original and then holistically approach the solution through the use of systems development that leans on the collective strengths of more than simply STEM majors technical capabilities.

Thinking about the entire lifecycle.

What I mean by this is that when pets finally go from adoption to homes, there is still the chance that their owners will have major life events that cause them to either move or simply not have time for the pet.

So what does this actually look like?

  • Step 1: Help the owner adopt a pet (including all of the subsequent steps).
  • Step 2: Proactively help the owner and encourage them through initial training.
  • Step 3: Proactively encourage the pet owner to speak up about pet adoption and become a proponent of the system.
  • Step 4: Help them when major life events strike, providing a support network of pet owners that can provide assistance in some form.
  • Step 5: Comfort them when a pet’s time has come to walk through Saint Peter’s gate.
  • Step 6: Repeat as needed.

Obviously, I’ve missed numerous steps and glossed over several fascinating subjects but then again I’ve only spent an hour on this subject during the course of writing this article so grace is requested. That noted, the point stands that a truly effective UX experience not only inspires confidence to action once but leaves a lasting impression that can facilitate real meaningful lasting change.

It’s all too common that we’re asked to dream big, invent things that don’t exist and think outside of the box. But the reality is that as STEM majors we should seek not so much to design for “design’s sake” but resolve problems “because we’re empowered” to do so and capable of doing so through our understanding of technology and the way that it engages with humans.

Having not been present at the weekly meetup, I cannot speak from first-hand experience, but I’d be willing to wager a fair amount of money when I say that I’m sure that there were students who constructed complex and truly inspired AR & VR machine learning AI computational Big data algorithms that helped solve pet adoption. But what’s the point in developing these systems if the technology itself becomes the end goal, not a means to solving a real issue?

We shouldn’t let ourselves become blind followers of the cult of technology, that transforms us into wildly aspirational beings who worship technology and “cool” stuff for the sake of progress. But we should be empowered as STEM majors to tackle large problems through the implementation of technological systems that empower and encourage humanity to not only do it’s best but uplift each and every individual human to accomplish goals that positively impact the world around them.

Aspiration and ideological yes, but not without merit.

Once again I’ll state that I wasn’t able to go in person to this weeks meeting, and therefore perhaps I missed something major in the conversations that took place. I didn’t sit within the room tackling the problem within a 2 hour period of time but stewed over the prompt during the course of a shower. In many ways, it seems odd then that I’d be commentating on something that I didn’t experience. But I have had past experience in this realm and have seen first hand how blindly our future generations chase technology’s golden promise of saving ourselves from ourselves.

We need to stop. Breath, and ask if the problem we’re solving is the right one, or if there are underlying issues and root causes that we’re ignoring. And, we need to remember that technology itself cannot save us from our own failings, but can work as part of the greater solution.

Without a doubt, I’ll be looking forward to the next UW Dubstech UX Jam session. If anything, it provides a room for critical thinking and that is something that I relish.

Let me know your thoughts, do you agree or disagree with my musing? If so why?

Var City UW

Empowering the University of Washington’s Computer Science, Informatics and Human-Centered Design community

Josh Nelson

Written by

Product Designer @ Facebook || Founder of the Project Cobalt.

Var City UW

Empowering the University of Washington’s Computer Science, Informatics and Human-Centered Design community

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