PAWSitive UX: How Design Helps More Pets Find Their Furever Homes

by Sheena Lyonnais

posted on 10-02-2017

Stephanie Lee and her adopted pug.

Every year, millions of cats and dogs enter pet shelters in the United States, many of which don’t make it out alive. It’s a sad reality, but it’s also a motivating factor for UX designers like Stephanie Lee who see UX as a powerful tool for helping animals get out of shelters and into their forever homes.

“It’s easy for us in the industry to think that UX applies to product design and software design, but UX plays such an important role in everything—even pet adoption,” said Lee, head of experience design and strategy at

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that 6.5 million pets end up in shelters annually, of which 3.2 million are adopted and 1.5 million are euthanized. Despite the high numbers of animals entering shelters, the ASPCA found that just 23 percent of dogs and 31 percent of cats are adopted from animal shelters and humane societies. For a variety of reasons, many animals that are adopted end up back in shelters within five years.

The relationship between UX and pet adoption is not just about helping potential owners find the pet that’s right for them, Lee said, but also about giving these owners the education and tools they need to ensure their adoption story is a successful one.

“There’s a lot of emotion that goes through the entire adoption journey, and I think for UX designers to be able to empathize and think about the challenges on the adopters’ end as well as the shelters’ end and try to facilitate for both, I think that’s where successful adoption happens,” she said.

The 3 Users That Must Be Considered For Successful Pet Adoption

To truly make a difference, there are three types of users that Lee and her team design for at Adopt-A-Pet: the pets, the adopters and potential adopters, and the shelters and rescue groups that are responsible for getting pets posted and ultimately adopted.

Each user group presents its own challenges and opportunities, which is why Lee’s team has implemented a number of features designed to get as many animals as possible out of the shelters and foster care and into loving homes.

1. The Pets

It’s easy to fall in love with a cute puppy face, but there’s so much more to adoption than that. Different breeds have different personalities and mannerisms, are prone to different health conditions, and are better suited to certain situations and settings. With so many animals available for adoption on the site, this data needs to be analyzed and organized in such a fashion that the right search terms will show the right animals to the right people while also ensuring no animal is left behind.

“In the search process, we want to make sure that everybody has a fair chance to get seen by potential adopters,” Lee said.

She views the site as a virtual window, one where users can see both the pets they’re looking for and also discover the ones they didn’t know were available.

“Maybe they’re looking for a white Maltese and they didn’t know they’d be interested in a pug,” Lee said.

To facilitate this, has implemented a number of features, including:

“Getting them out of the shelter environment as soon and as efficiently as possible is our main goal,” Lee said. “They are always on top of our mind with whatever we do just to make sure we are meeting their needs even though they can’t talk to us directly.”

2. The Adopters has found there are two types of adopters: those who know exactly what they want, and those who are browsing more casually.

For those who know what they want, they can fill out a pseudo wish list with all the criteria they’re looking for in a pet and the database will pull up the pets that are closest to them geographically and best match the criteria they’ve selected. If they don’t find what they’re looking for, that’s where the New Pet Alert feature comes into play.

The alert functions similarly to flight watch functions. When an animal is posted to the site that fits the criteria the adopter identified, an alert is automatically emailed to the adopter notifying them of the match.

“It’s helped facilitate a lot of adoptions,” Lee said.

For those who are browsing, the features mentioned in the pets section are prominently featured: carousels featuring similar pets, detailed pet profiles, and nearby animals that are available for adoption.

“In a user’s mind, if they see a pet they’re really interested in they want to meet them in person, so finding pets that are closest to where they live, that’s what we see as important,” she said.

Feature planning with sticky notes.

3. The Animal Shelters and Rescue Organizations

Many rescue organizations and shelters use similar software systems to create pet profiles. Through relationships with the software companies, automatically extracts much of this data to replicate pet profiles on the site.

“That makes shelters’ and rescues’ job so much easier. They don’t have to do the work twice. Their time is better spent getting their pets out the door,” Lee said.

There is also an admin platform where shelters and organizations can manually upload all the pet information and photos. A dedicated team works with these shelters to answer any questions, collect user feedback, and support the uploading process.

“We want them to spend less time dealing with administrative stuff for as much as possible and focus on the pets,” she said.

Responsibility For Retention and Rehoming

Lee’s work isn’t done when the pet goes home. Those first few weeks after a pet is adopted mark a big transition for pet and adopter alike. It’s often during this period when problems can arise and when some adopters opt to return the animal to a shelter. For Lee, ensuring their UX strategy encompasses a heavy education period is crucial, not to mention providing users with rehoming options for their pets should something change.

“We want to be there for them and we have this guidance provided to make sure there are not more pets getting returned back to the shelters,” Lee said.

This includes resources that are specific to the adopter’s situation, such as how to introduce a new pet to existing pets, tips for properly training a puppy, what to expect with senior animals, and a whole lot more. This information is pushed through to users through a separate flow but is also available on the site for adopters to read proactively. The UX strategy and content strategy are aligned to ensure as much information is available as possible, but also that it is organized in a clear way. Pet adoption can be an overwhelming process, so it’s important the team is sensitive to how and when they’re presenting information.

“Laying out information at the wrong time, I think a lot of times that’s when you don’t get the successful adoption. For any product design, when you don’t provide the right information at the right time that’s when you don’t get the conversion at the end. For us it’s important to take into consideration how emotional this process can be and how to make people feel comfortable, trust in the process, and know that they will be supported throughout,” she said.

Beyond this, also has a feature for rehoming your own pet. They know that sometimes things happen in life where a person is no longer able to care for an animal. This feature gives users the power to help their pet find a suitable home and is another measure that’s in place to prevent an animal from ending up back behind bars. They’ve even expanded the feature to help people who have been displaced by hurricanes find temporary foster homes for their pets, such as with the recent Hurricane Harvey.

A peek at an office whiteboard.

Practice What You Pug

“I have always believed in pet adoption. I just feel there are so many pets out there needing homes,” Lee said.

Lee adopted her pug through eight years ago, six years before she joined the company as a UX designer. Having been through the process herself, she’s driven to help others find their pet too. “I can’t imagine living without him now and I want that for other people too,” she said

The mindset feeds into the work. Her team embraces a lean methodology, constantly analyzing and iterating to delivery better adoption experiences. They’re in the process of rolling out a complete re-architecture of the site based on data and feedback. She said this is where a UX designer’s greatest strength lies.

“I think for UX designers we have one really powerful tool; it’s called creative problem-solving. Being really good at balancing the needs of users, always listening to what they want, feel and need, and also balancing the business goal, in our case the business goal is the cause, getting pets into homes, that’s I think what UX designers are really good at,” she said.

“For me, ideally my big lofty goal is to change the world for animals, but I am also happy to know I have made a difference in one pet’s life, or maybe thousands of pets’ lives.”

Topics: Design, Digital Transformation