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Toy Libraries at Dog Parks

user experience, cognitive design, environmental design


In this 10-week long project, we were asked to pick a topic to observe and interact with– we picked dog parks. Through our observations and conversations with stakeholders, we had to narrow our scope down to identify a problem to design around. After identifying the problem, we continued conversations with stakeholders, assessed other dog parks, and built prototypes for a possible solution to the problem.

Our observations and solutions were based on Doyle Dog Park in La Jolla, with supporting observations at Maddox Dog Park in Mira Mesa, Dusty Roads Dog Park in Ocean Beach, Nobel Dog Park in La Jolla, and Capehart Dog Park (all in the San Diego, CA region).

THE PROBLEMDog boredom & cleanliness

Dog parks are typically dusty, barren lands. The grass usually has died over the years of energetic dogs running around and their owners chasing after them. There’s no playground set as a park would for kids, simply open space for dogs to enjoy. Due to lack of stimulation at dog parks, dogs often seek other sources of entertainment and interaction, like digging at roots and playing in dirt.

A combination of factors at the dog park– lack of money, government support and park maintenance and discrepancies in dog etiquette and training– have lead to this less than satisfactory dog park experience for both owners and the dogs themselves that puts dogs in not ideal situations where they could get dirty or harmed.

THE SOLUTION: Toy libraries

A borrowed and adapted concept from the lending libraries found in some city neighborhoods, toy libraries at dog parks play on the “take one, leave one” ideology to provide more activities for dogs, increase community engagement, and support the community.

“Take one, leave one” ideology

With the toy library, the community can use the toys in the box with the “Take one, leave one” ideology, thus providing a rotational selection of toys for the dogs to use.  Some owners bring their own toys, others don’t. Balls and other simple dog toys can be found scattered around the park. Owners that have not brought their own toys may pick up a found ball and toss it, or the dog has found the toy and brought it back to its owner in desire to play. In both of these cases, the owners will leave the found toy in the park. The toy library would centralize the toys and turn this passive interaction between the toys and owners/dogs into an active one. The existence of the library would also encourage owners to use the toys to engage and prevent dogs from digging where they shouldn’t. The toy library provides other activities than the park’s natural affordances, helping owners have an easier time keeping their dog safe and clean.

Social infrastructure

The toy library plays into the current established social infrastructure of Doyle where the community is the primary support for the park (park equipment, clean up, maintenance). They bring in chairs when the local Parks & Rec. department didn’t install enough. They rake the fallen leaves scattered around the park as the city doesn’t provide maintenance. They clean up the park when others have disrespectfully left trash behind.

Our interviews revealed two major core social groups at Doyle, the “big” dog owners and “small” dog owners, split up due to the common division of small and big dog areas. The toy library could also encourage the two social groups to interact more as they share toys between each other. 

How to train your dog

A secondary design element to the toy library are added tips for dog owners on how to train their dogs, hosted on the side of toy library acting as the community bulletin.* The tips place further emphasis on social responsibility (clean up after use, dog etiquette) and can help newcomers to the park integrate more smoothly with the existing community.
*(Not shown in our tested prototype, but shown in proof of concept).



In the scope of this project, each member was instructed to create a user personas. Doing so, we had more personas than needed to represent our users. However, our user base could be summarized into three main user groups: Big Dog Owners, Small Dog Owners, and Frequent Visitors. Below, each user group is represented by a simplified persona.
(Each original user persona can be found in the process portfolio.)

Affinity Diagram

First division:
The affinity model ensured each team member was familiar with the data points we collected and categorized each specific point in the data field. Because the affinity model does not have pre-defined groups, the data flowed more organically into their eventual categories, allowing our team to find relevant issues within our space. The model is good communication design: it structures chunks of information and sorts them into relevant themes and manageable sections which leads the team through the data. We used one sticky note per detail of observation gained from field data gathering. Notes were also marked “(S)” or “(B)” if a comment was made by a small or big dog owner, respectively.

The initial division was made if the category had at least 3 notes and seemingly over overarching significance in what dog park goers enjoy or dislike about their experience. We had the resulting diagram, shown below:

From left to right, top to bottom:
Dog socialization, proximity, mental wellness (2x: blue), equipment, community park etiquette (4x: green, pink, pink, yellow), socialization, community rules, routine, environment, kids (3x: pink, green, yellow).

Second division:
After digesting the diagram above, we rethought the information we had and noticed strong similarities between observations and subsections. Our second organization resulted in the following four subsections:

From left to right:
Park maintenance, community etiquette, park environment, community/socialization

Prototype Sketches

Initial sketches on what the toy library would look like, addressing problems like materials, door designs, height, affordances, and more. We had four rounds of sketches, categorized below, which were created concurrently with each iteration of our prototype. The first iteration was primarily brainstorming on all the possibilities our group thought the toy library could look like. The second iteration came after our prototyping, producing ideas to improve the prototype we had built.  The final iteration of sketches came after our test of the cardboard prototype, honing down what features we felt were most necessary to fit in Doyle Park’s environment.


We had three main stages in prototyping: the paper prototype outlined the general shape, idea, and form of our product; the cardboard prototype allowed us to have a more physical, but lo-fi, version to test in the dog park for more feedback, and then our final prototype.

The paper prototype (below) and its many design elements gave us an idealized version of what we wanted the toy library to be. But with financial, construction, and timing limitations in building our prototype, we had to leave out some of the aspects we cared about, like the community board and windows. For the life-size prototype, we needed to slim it down to the toy library’s core purpose in solving the problem: holding toys for the community to share.

The cardboard prototype (below) became our first testable prototype, highlighting the toy library’s main function of toy storage and addressing the ways of possible installation in the park. The prototype was brought to the park for testing, demonstration, and feedback with stakeholders. The testing validated our concept for the toy library, but also brought in concerns like how dogs enjoy running in-between pole-like objects, meaning our legs is a risk to the dogs. From the results of this prototype’s testing, we went back to the drawing board for the third then final iteration of sketches before arriving at our final prototype.

Final Prototype

Our final prototype brought out the design aspects we had developed in our final sketches and notes: no legs and to be able to be opened from both sides. The toy library sits on the fence that separates the big and small dog sides of the park, becoming accessible for any owner to use.

The prototype was installed with twine and zipties, the fence’s own wire spikes poking through the bottom of the library to help support the basket. The woven material allows air to circulate in the library, so mold and foul odors cannot grow. Mesh pockets were sewn inside to compartmentalize cleaning equipment (rag, hand sanitizer, brush, hand wipes).

Some of the big dogs are tall and have the possibility of reaching the library when leaning their front paws against the fence. To address this, a carabiner acts as a latch for the toy library, so dogs cannot snoop into the library without their owner around.

During our final prototype’s installations, we had dog owners come up and ask what we were placing. Some of the dogs were able to play with the new toys provided and one owner turned in a ball her dog had found and been playing with. In all, our team would say the toy library’s installation was a success!

View the process portfolio here


In collaboration with Audrey Chung, Cameron Lee, Daniel Lew, Ferris Yeh, Hunter Zeng.
With appreciation and gratitude to Prof. Taylor Scott.