Don’t Stop Retrieving

Don’t Stop Retrieving

How a community website took a step back to explore personas, user flows, and a high-fidelity prototype that made us rethink strategy and rebrand to focus on a unique opportunity for a specific user.

The United States Service Dog Registry is a voluntary certification web service that serves handlers with disabilities that agree to go above and beyond the required legal obligations to be classified as a service dog.

Handlers complete a registration process that includes a standards agreement, survey and assessment. The website is funded by an online store where registrants are encouraged to purchase a registry bundles that include a certificate, ID cards, patches, and pins.

In 2018, we signed an agreement to build a newly re-designed version of The client provided design mockups, branding guidelines, and assets.  With a tight deadline and limited budget, we jumped right in and started building. We quickly discovered a few unique challenges:

  1. The client was the graphic designer
  2. Not all pages were designed or identified
  3. Registration journey was not planned thoroughly

After a few weeks of development, we continued to run into inconsistencies. After a month passed, it was clear that the mockups provided were missing key elements. We realized our job wasn’t to build the project. We had to help them create the full experience. We had to go back to the drawing board.

  1. Personas – We started by creating user personas. Simple but necessary. This exercise let us discuss each user individually. We discussed who they were, what they do, and opportunities to add value specifically to them.
  2. User Flows – We moved onto user flows for each persona. Here we identified what pages were needed, how they were connected and what data could be reused.
  3. Prototype – Next we built a high-fidelity prototype in Adobe XD to demonstrate the full experience for each user.

One evening, I received a call from the client. He was concern over fake certifications being sold on Amazon and it was leading to a drop in online registrations. He asked if I had any thoughts on what to do about it. So I took a look and could easily find these knock-off brands with no website. What I didn’t find were fake certificates for service dog trainers.

I knew we couldn’t stop Amazon or prevent the exploitation of this unique space. But I did have an idea. What if we switched the core direction of the website to target service dog trainers? What if we focused on adding value for the trainer while also validating their expertise? Trainers certify dozens of service dogs for specific disabilities per year. They also play a key role in transitioning the service dog to the new handler. In my view, they were the key to growing the profile base. We brainstormed some ideas on how to make it worth their while.

  1. Redesign the trainer profile to showcase location, services, certifications, disabilities served, links to social media etc
  2. Make trainer profiles public and searchable by region and specialty.
  3. Leverage the authoritative ( domain for inbound links.
  4. Allow trainers to create service dog profiles that display backlinks their business information.
  5. Allow trainers to transfer profile ownership to handlers.
  6. Provide an incentive to resell store products.

We decided to focus on the trainer profile as it will promote their business. When a dog is ready, they can ask the handler to accept the standards and transfer the profile to their account. Then they can promote the registry bundle. By giving trainers the tools to expose their business they end up building the profile base and selling our products for us.

That’s exactly what we did. As a result, the client rebranded to Service Dog Standards.

Service Dog Standards became an online membership created to connect Trainers and Service Dog Handlers who voluntarily hold themselves and their animal accountable to a higher standard by publicly agreeing a specific set of training and behavior standards that goes above and beyond the law.

We learned some lessons with this project.

  1. Don’t start without doing your homework regardless of what’s provided.
  2. Frequently take a step back and re-evaluate preconceived ideas.
  3. Being flexible helped us shift directions to take advantage of an opportunity.

I find myself saying this a lot to clients…

“We can build the project you think you want, or we can build the project you need.”

I enjoy the experience within the experience. In most projects, we have an idea of what the finish line looks like. However, the path to get there is never the same. It is that journey, that process, that exploration that brings great ideas to the surface. I’ll never skip the journey again. Lesson learned.

Update: The new SDS website is due to launch soon. I’ll post a link when it’s ready.