Stanford University
CS 377A: Introduction to Cybernetics and the Design of Systems - Syllabus
Fall 2006

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Course Summary

Better design may arise . . .
. . . from better processes,
that may arise . . .
. . . from better models of systems, goals, interaction, and collaboration,
that may arise . . .
. . . from better understanding of cybernetics and its relation to design.

Cybernetics provides a theoretical framework for modeling systems, goals, interaction, and collaboration. Design involves processes of interacting and collaborating in the modeling of systems and goals. The design of complex systems, in particular, benefits from the application of cybernetic frameworks. A more rigorous understanding of modeling, systems, goals, interaction, and collaboration leads to better outcomes and more efficient and effective design processes.

Course Description

CS377A introduces students to the discipline of cybernetics (the science of feedback) and suggests how it may provide a theoretical framework for designing systems, modeling human-computer interaction, and thinking about design processes in general. In readings lectures, discussions, and project work, the course focuses on applying cybernetic frameworks to the design of complex, interactive systems.

(Systems may be physical, virtual, social, or some combination; however they are always grounded in a social context. Examples include software applications and web services, instrumented environments for learning, business, and government, and communication systems for work or play.)

Students will learn not only the history and principles of cybernetics but also expand their notion of design, extend their repertoire of design methods, and gain a valuable perspective from which to critique design activities and outcomes.

The design professions have long focused on the form of objects. But with the development of complex military systems during World War II and also complex business systems thereafter, a focus on the relation among elements in a system began to emerge. This “systems thinking” approach to design held the attention of the design professions from the mid-1950s to the early-1970s. Recently, the growth of the Web and networked digital communications has sparked a renewed interest in systems thinking within the design professions. The number of elements and people involved in most commercial software development projects often requires a systems thinking approach for success. In turn, systems thinking can benefit from the theoretical framework that cybernetics provides.

In the 1940s cybernetics began as a formal approach to the description of any physical system in a framework comprising boundaries, information flows, and goals. Around 1960 an explicit transition occurred as the discipline shifted from examining systems that are physical and objective to those that are psychological and linguistic, while still applying the same framework. As a result, cybernetics has developed the means to model and apply metrics to the otherwise subjective human activities of conversation and collaboration. By offering enhancements to the models of task analysis, workflow, and interaction design, cybernetics extends the toolset for designing successful and human-focused systems.

The course does not require a technical background and is relevant to those interested in design, computer-human interface development, semiotics, philosophy, or the nature of understanding.

Course Objectives

The primary objectives of the course are:

1. To summarize the main events in the development of cybernetics and explain the associated major concepts and frameworks
2. To introduce a systems thinking approach to design, in particular methods of modeling, and to examine models of the design process
3. To show how cybernetics applies to the practice of effective design
4. To help students gain facility representing user intentions and actions and modeling system components and interactions
5. To help students improve their design processes and achieve greater focus on human needs

Course Requirements

The primary activity of the course is the reading of selected materials and development of descriptions and models related to the readings. Students will present their model and interact with the class to evaluate a model’s scope and limitations. Through shared reflection on the purposes and limitations of representations and collaboration, students develop skills for understanding and managing complex design problems, whether human-to-human, human-to-machine, or human-through-machine-to-human.

Guidelines as to the possible forms and complexity of the models as well as samples will be provided early in the course. There is sufficient breadth for a range of interests and backgrounds to participate.

The final class will consist of presentations of class projects. Each student will choose a system he or she believes needs redesigning. Possible subjects include:

a common software application or application class—word processor, spreadsheet, email client, instant messaging client, browser, browser companion app, PIM or PDA, search interface, courseware, content management system, etc.

a common human-to-human interaction scenario (job interview, family discussion, quarrel among friends, disagreement about a moral issue, etc.

The student will construct a model of interaction scenarios from a cybernetic perspective, explain why the system needs redesigning, and propose a process by which it should be redesigned. The class will critique each design using criteria that the class itself will develop during the course. Students will turn in a paper documenting their work.


Performance in this course will be graded according to the following criteria:

Class Participation – 30%
Class Assignments – 30%
Class Project Documentation – 30%
Project Presentation – 10%

The course is 3 units and can be taken for a letter grade or pass/no-credit.

Course Outline & Schedule


  • Overview of the Course—Class 1—September 28
    Brief history and overview of cybernetics
    Framing cybernetics in terms of interfaces, design, and living systems
    Introduction to models, their use in thinking, and role in design
    Assignment for class 2: Create a model of a system

Primary Models

  • Feedback and Circularity—Class 2 —October 5
    First-order cybernetics
    Assignment for class 3: Model a system in cybernetic terms

  • Metrics for System Viability—Class 3—October 12
    Requisite variety (RV) in sensing, comparing, and acting
    Assignment for class 4: Use the concept of RV to explain the failure of a system

  • Regulation of Goals—Class 4—October 19
    Second-order cybernetic systems
    Assignment for class 5: Model a second-order system

  • Conversation—Class 5—October 26
    Interaction to two second-order systems
    Assignment for class 6: Propose a system and concept for your final project

  • Bio-cost—Class 6—November 2
    Modeling the effort an organim expends to reach a goal
    Assignment for class 7: Outline of final project due, in-class review

Applying the Models

  • Order and Dis-order—Class 7—November 9
    Application of cybernetic models
    Assignment for class 8: First draft of final project due, in-class review

  • Design Rationale—Class 8—November 16
    Application of Cybernetic Models
    Assignment for class 9: Second draft of final project due, in-class review

    Thanksgiving Recess —No Class—November 23

  • Meta-design—Class 9—November 30
    Design as argument, not just artifact
    Assignment for class 10: Final project due

  • Ethics—Class 10—December 7
    How shall we act?
    Student project presentations
    Class feedback and wrap-up

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