When Your Stakeholders Are Real Dogs
Pitpat, an activity monitor for dogs, has seen demand increase for wearable devices over the past few years. Designed in collaboration with veterinarians, the product focuses on improving the health of dogs through exercise. Similar to a Fitbit or Apple Watch workout, badges and gold stars track when exercise and weight goals are hit.
“In the U.K., around half the dogs are overweight or obese, and that's because owners don't exercise them enough and feed them too much,” says Andrew Nowell, CEO of Pitpat. “We give the dog owner an exercise guideline based on their dog's age, weight and breed.”
Ruff around the edges
But designing a wearable for a dog is not the same as for a person. Nowell, who was a consultant for human-based wearable tech, has found designing for humans is a lot easier. After all, dogs roll around in dirt, jump in water, scratch themselves and bite each other.
“The device has to be small enough so that it doesn't bother the dog and still be able to communicate with a mobile phone. That’s a harsh technical challenge,” says Nowell.
There is also a battery charging challenge. People forget to charge their own Apple watch or Fitbit; it can be even easier to forget when a dog is wearing it. That’s why Nowell decided it would be better to design a product with an extended battery life, which is replaced and not recharged.
There is also a lot more to consider when counting step activity for dogs. “Humans are typically five foot something to six foot something, and they run at a similar rate,” he said. “Dogs, on the other hand, are different—Chihuahuas have a really fast gait, while Great Danes have a big lolloping stride. When you've got 250 breeds with different shapes and sizes, it is a technical challenge.”
The first version of the device was bone shaped. Nowell says, “We developed the [simplest version] we could to get it to market. We knew it wasn't perfect, but it allowed us to get out there and validate the [product in the] market.”
There was an immediate demand for the product. Data from the users provided information to build a better device.
“We always adapt and learn from our customer base,” says Nowell. “They give us feedback to make it better.”
The device is a continuous work-in-progress with testing, getting things wrong, learning from the data, and improving. As the number of dogs using the device increases, it helps Pitpat understand what certain breeds need.
“Mechanical design and firmware development challenges are revealed when you've got one hundred Border Collies using it compared to one Border Collie,” Nowell says.
The second iteration has focused on making the device more robust and easier to manufacture. To improve the durability of the device, the bone design was replaced by a dome to limit the impact of being bitten.
“Nothing is truly chew proof—a dog can chew anything—but we wanted [to ensure] it wouldn’t shatter if it were bitten. You can run this over with a 2-ton Land Rover, and it will come out the other side” Nowell says.
The Pitpat team used a waterfall project management approach to develop the hardware. Several phases of development were needed: when one finished, the other started. Nowell says, “You need to know your electronics to then be able to do your mechanics.”
Risk management was key. “We always try to de-risk by building proof-of-principle models and not trying to set everything in stone,” says Nowell. “We try to get 90 % of the way there, leave a bit of flexibility and then build a prototype to prove it or not.
“We delayed this second version because we were trying to do something that had a high level of technical uncertainty. We were pushing the barrier. We built 50 prototype models as we were going through the process.”
Managing stakeholder expectations was important. “It was a constant compromise—making sure we’re doing a good job, but we’re not spending an extra 2 weeks to get a 2 % better result.”
The newest edition, released this year, focuses on dog nutrition. Over the years, calorie algorithms have been refined to accurately measure how many calories a dog burns based on activity. Owners will now be provided with recommendations on how much the dog should be fed based on age, weight and activity levels.
The data, which the device has been collecting, has also been very beneficial for the veterinarian industry.
“It's interesting because we've kind of surpassed some of the veterinary research now, especially over things like calories,” says Nowell.
“We've got tens of thousands of dogs, and we know how they exercise, what's normal for a 6-month-old Cockapoo or some other breed. We’re able to collect all of this data and learn over time.”
Nowell sees the device as a major advancement in preventive care and believes the future of pet tech is strong. On average, a dog goes to a vet every 2 years when something is wrong, but by owners placing a wearable on their dog, it will help to reduce preventable illnesses.”