Why We Need to Know Cybernetics // Part II — Resilient Product Design

Product Design & Automation Systems

Read Part 1 here

PetNet’s feeding system was filled with issues and could have benefited from a systems design approach.

In the first post of this series, we conducted a short survey of cybernetics, explaining the theory’s importance to understanding how systems shape everything around us, from personal health to disruptions of the global economy.

For this post, let’s look at how cybernetics relates to product design.

My focus on cybernetics is actually an extension to my recent writing on Calm Technology, which is among a higher level set of approaches to the practice. I’d express the hierarchy this way:

With all that in mind, let’s look at how this connects with systems design, using the problems with PetNet we covered in Part 1 as a case study.

The Cybernetics of an Automated Pet Feeder

Via PetNet’s (now defunct) support Twitter. This is the account’s last published tweet.

Briefly summarized, PetNet was a well-funded startup which promised to feed customers’ pets while they were away from home; it ran up against a cascade of problems when the third party server which hosted its feeding schedules went down. As a result, many pets were left starving, with no easy way for their traveling owners to care for them.

It was “a textbook case of overestimating or misestimating the entire field of automation (e.g. control theory / engineering),” as my colleague Michael Zargham put it to me recently. “In practice automation systems are multi-layer systems with automation of a day-to-day task on one end, and the ongoing upkeep and maintenance of the automation systems, including failure protocols!” (There’s even a whole hilarious comic about this.)

Mapping Out Failure States to Avoid Them in the Future

Without a mental map of the systems a product depends on, it’s difficult to design contingencies when these processes encounter problems. PetNet’s developers should have applied control systems theory, so that the dogs and cats in the product’s care could be cared for within points of foreseeable turbulence — with backup plans so that they’d still be fed.

Let’s map out how we might look at this from a failure state perspective, starting with the existing PetNet system and the ways in which it can fail:

Our overarching goal is to keep the app working even when it fails, by designing backup systems and removing or minimizing these failure states. Detailing all the particular nodes on this chart (app, feeder, electric grid, Internet connectivity, etc.) the creators of PetNet could have then crossed out the lines where service could be disrupted, and plan accordingly. For instance:

With PetNet’s control system mapped out in detail, the developers could have created a roadmap of features they would need to truly meet the core promise of their product — feed the owners’ pets when needed, no matter what.

They would have considered backup plans for when something went wrong, and then created a branching pathway to ensure functionality.

It can even be expressed in terms of a To Do list:

Remote Pet Feeder: A Cybernetics Checklist

It’s possible to see many of these ideas proposed by PetNet customers on Twitter.

Creating Cybernetically Harmonious Products

Good example: The OP–1 — teenage engineering’s ultimate portable music-making device.

In search of harmoniously designed products, a few years ago I got to meet Jesper Kouthoofd, CEO of teenage engineering while on a trip to Sweden.

teenage engineering is an amazing Swedish company that creates portable synthesizers, drum machines, and other music equipment. They have a cult following because of their usability, innovative design methods, and their focus on portability and ease of use.

Kouthoofd told me that every updated device of theirs is designed to work just like every older model. When some of their first devices that came out — not all of the buttons did anything yet. They were reserved for future use.

teenage engineering totally understands multi-generational design.

A lot of audio systems understand this as well. From supporting MIDI to audio support, most old electronics can be used with new electronics. Devices don’t just stop working because they are a couple of years old. Musicians need to be able to use a device from any era, and musicians and device-makers know that. There is a lot we can learn from music software.

As for PetNet, the startup went out of business shortly after its systemic product failure. The founder is now running another pet-related startup. Hopefully they’ve learned important lessons from PetNet’s outage, but I can’t be certain. The new startup puts pet data on the blockchain (a topic we’ll get into in a later post)!

Products often fail not simply because their fail states weren’t mapped out in advance. Typically, that happens because they were created by a startup which didn’t have its own structural fail states mapped out either.

Let’s talk about that in Part 3.



Design advocate, speaker and author of Calm Technology. Former Research Fellow at MIT Media Lab and Harvard BKC. Co-founder DAO DAO.

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Amber Case

Design advocate, speaker and author of Calm Technology. Former Research Fellow at MIT Media Lab and Harvard BKC. Co-founder DAO DAO.