"Even when miles apart, my heart belongs to connect with my furry friend, for love knows no distance in the boundless world of whiskers and purrs." - A participant from our diary study

The PurrPal allows cat owners to feel reassured about the wellbeing of their pet through ownership and analysis of their pets’ data–in addition to facilitating the user’s emotional fulfilment.
Why bother to design an IoT product for cats? 
66% of US households have a pet. Of those 86.9 million households, 46.5 million have cats (World Animal Foundation, 2023)
95% of families consider pets to be part of their families (Spot, 2022). People are motivated to have pets for emotion-based reasons.
Most importantly, all of our teammates are cat owners, as frequent travellers, we are enthusiastic to design a product for our cats that ensure their health when we are away.
Our IoT product won 1st place in a competition of eight Michigan students design teams!
My Role:

Product Designer, Researcher

3 UX Designers, 1 Engineer

6 weeks in research,
6 weeks in design

Stephanie Brenton (Sr. UX manager)
Design Brief
Feature 1 : Automated Feed
Set it and forget it – the auto feeder dispenses food on schedule.
Adjust meals from your phone, no matter where you are.
Detect amount of food dispensed and consumed.
Feature 2 : Cat Interaction
Watch, listen and talk to your cats, providing interaction from a distance.
Motion-Triggered sensor records moments of cat activity, ensuring you don't miss any adorable moment.
Keeps you connected and engaged with your cats, even when you're away.
Feature 3 : Smart Data Traking
Alerts when food reservoir is running low, ensuring you're always prepared to refill it.
Ensures your cat's comfort and health by measuring the environmental conditions
Food consumption tracking and irregular behavior detection.
Design Journey
The Challenge:
How might we design an IoT system to help cat owners reassure their cats’ (like these 4) well-being while they are away?
Eventually, we decided to create an IoT-enabled smart device that seamlessly integrates into pet owners' lifestyles, ensuring responsible and convenient pet care through data-driven insights and environmentally conscious design within our 3 months of design journey.
Design Phases:
My Role:
As the team leader, my job was to make sure that our team was efficiently designing the core functionality of PurrPal in the limited time we had, rather than getting lost in the "optional" features. Then use the Wizard of Oz and other means to simulate features that we couldn't implement within 3 months.
My other responsibilities were:
User Research
The Challenge:
How might we understand cat owners’ care patterns and our potential opportunities?
Conducting the following 4 methods in the research phase of designing is crucial to gather user insights, understand needs and preferences, identify pain points, prioritize features, validate assumptions, and engage potential users. This user-centric approach helps ensure that the final product aligns with user expectations and has a higher chance of success in the market.
Contextual Inquiry:
We inquired about behaviors users encountered while feeding their pets in addition to how users were able to recognize when their pets were encountering health issues.

Quick & dirty
Casual early-stage research
Establish directions of interest -
Cat Products
Quantitative Survey:
We Conducted our survey with Qualtrics, our target participants are cat owners, and we received 143 responses

Survey Key Findings:

● Time Priority vs. Challenges

Cat owners prioritize quality time with their cats, but they often face time constraints as a major challenge.

● Manual Food Management vs. Automatic

Most cat owners still manually feed their cats, primarily due to the limitations of existing automatic feeders, especially with wet food.

● Quality Time vs. Owner/Cat Interaction

Pet owners highly value quality time with their cats but don't prioritize interactive products. This highlights an opportunity to develop and promote more engaging automatic products that cater to their desire for quality interaction with their pets.
Diary Study
We asked 8 participants to do a 7-day diary study with pre-briefing, post-interview to Inquiry into their daily routine, cat care, challenges,  joys.

Diary Study Key Findings:

● Feeding Behavior

Cats' and owners' schedules are often misaligned, leading to cat hunger, especially with irregular schedules or travel.
Auto-feeders can’t replace cat bowls for wet food.
In multi-cat households, there is food theft.

● Quality time

Interaction between pets and owners varies. Cats display various attention-seeking behaviors when they want their owners' attention.

● Purposeful methods

Owners tend to use inexact feeding methods toward purposeful ends. Some owners use specific, personal systems to better serve their cats.
Their ultimate goal: keep cats happy and healthy!
User Journey
Our user research enable us to come to some valuable conclusions about our users. The themes and patterns we saw led us to construct a journey map and an empathy map.
Empathy Map:
Meet Jack, a freelance photographer who works irregular and unpredictable hours in a major city. He feels deeply connected to his cats and is motivated by feelings of love and affection. His worry for his cats’ well-being could be considered his primary pain point.
Journey Map:
Meet Molly, she works long hours out of her home and lives alone, meaning she’s the sole caretaker of her single cat. Her major pain points include forgetting to feed her cat as a result of the stress of daily life.
Her day can be broken up into four phases: - Pre-work, - At work, - Immediately post work, - And wind down.
Ideate & Design
Ideate Process:
Sorted all ideas into sketches/ idea matrices/ affinity maps for major themes.
Initial System Components:
Our designed auto feeder has four components to monitor eating habits, enable remote interaction, and maintain the cat's comfort.
- The weight sensor helps owners monitor their cat's eating habits and detect abnormal patterns.
- The camera and motion sensor allow remote monitoring and capturing moments, while also regulating feeding patterns.
- The speaker enables remote communication, comfort, and interaction with cats.
- The environmental sensor ensures the cat's comfort and well-being by monitoring temperature and humidity.
Prototype & Iteration
Iterations of Prototype:
We iterate our prototype from sketch to low-fi paperboard prototype to high-fi foam/plastic prototype.
Iterations of app
We also iterated the companion app shown below. The app is designed to provide users with information about their cat’s daily activities, feedings, as well as store pertinent health information to help track their well-being over time. Below are snapshots of two pages from lo-fi to hi-fi wireframing.
IoT System Structure
Here is a map showing how the components (like photon and sensors) of this Iot product interact with users/cats/other smart devices.
* The arrows show the direction of the interaction, for example, the cat/motion sensor interaction is one-way, and the interaction between the Purrpal app and the camera should be mutual.
* The purple interactions are shown in the demo below.
It’s Demo time!
Wizard of Oz:
Behind the Scene:
Here showcasing what looks like behind our prototype and all the C++ codes that support the functionality of all the photons and sensors.
Watch our mini vlog: My Day with PurrPal
Impact & Reflection:
Our IoT product won 1st place in a competition of eight Michigan students design teams!
Ideal System:
- Integrate with the smart home system, and automatically activate the humidifier and A/C when the humidity or temperature is abnormal.

- Adapt to more smart wearable devices, such as smart watches/glasses, so that the owner can learn about the cat's well-being under every circumstance.

- Create a community forum within the app for cat owners to connect and share tips and advice.

- Create a gamification aspect to encourage owners to engage with their cats and promote healthy habits.
Limitation of Design:
- The design faces the challenge of other mature competitors on the market in offering unique features and encouraging a deeper connection between cat/owners.

- Second, we should Introduce more human-focused interactions.

- Third, PurrPal software is currently limited to mobile apps, but other devices like smartwatches or Homepods compatibility could be a potential improvement.

- Last, the design overly emphasizes smart sensors as differentiators from other competitors, downplaying the primary function of storing and dispensing food.
Future Steps:
- Establish connectivity between the auto feeder and other smart home devices for better environmental control and cat comfort.

- Implement a self-cleaning function to address hygiene concerns.

- Integrate other smart home technologies to enhance overalluser experience.

- Conduct testing and heuristic analysis on the interface and physical form to improve and iterate upon the design, including the consideration of new physical features.

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