Here is an essay I wrote for my industrial design ethics class about the Juicero, a failed IoT juice machine that holds many valuable lessons for future tech startups.
(Skip to the end if you want to jump straight to the lessons)
Nestled among the top-funded hardware startups in the USA in 2016 was the Juicero juice press designed by Yves Behar. Having received $120 million (USD) in investments, the company’s founder, Doug Evans, had every intention of revolutionising the humble juicing machine, a ubiquitous household appliance that has had little improvement since Alessi’s Salif Citrus Squeezer. However, due to excessive manufacturing costs, lack of target user testing prior to its launch and the implementation of unnecessary WiFi and QR code communication, the company was forced to cease its sales in September 2017 with hopes of finding a new owner for the business.
Juicero’s failures were widely broadcast across the internet on tech blogs and news sites which magnified the factors contributing to their failed design as well as highlighting their opportunity for great success. Juicero’s founders had the makings of a successful venture and its shortcomings will be further analysed from an ethical perspective to identify opportunities for future improvement.
What is a Juicero?
Doug Evans had one simple objective, to ‘make juicing so simple it becomes part of your everyday routine’ (Rhodes, 2016). The Juicero was launched in 2016 and used Internet of Things technology to read and process subscription packs of fresh fruit and vegetables, aiming to cause disruption to the juicing world. It made sense for the Juicero to follow a similar product system model to current household appliances such as Nespresso coffee machines and Sodastream soda makers. Purchasing a one-off piece of hardware (the juicing machine) that requires frequent, repeated purchases of “consumable packages” (the subscription packs) is a highly desirable business model to investors.
The Juicero was also designed as a way to minimise the ‘produce gap’ (Carson, 2016) in the United States. This gap describes the 90% of Americans who do not consume the daily recommended serving of fruits and vegetables. This was stated by Doug Evans, the company’s founder, during Juicero’s launch in 2016. It was Juicero’s mission to make the “inconvenient” consumption of raw fruits and vegetables more simple and less messy. The weekly subscription packs of fruits and vegetables ‘chopped into shapes and sizes that will yield the most juice’ (Rhodes, 2016) were sold at $35 (USD) per week, each pack lasting about 8 days. If the packs were out of date or the produce was recalled, the QR code scanner would identify this and not proceed with the juicing. This also meant that the machine did not work without WiFi connection as it was connected to a produce database (Dunn, 2017 via Watson, 2017).
Based on the company’s objectives, the product would see a reduction of food waste produced from traditional juicing methods while promoting a convenient, healthy alternative to existing juice machines. From an environmental and social point of view, these objectives are highly ethical and well-intentioned. Unfortunately for the company, the juicing machine’s initial $699 (USD) price tag (which later went down to $399) meant that the very people being targeted to use the product were not likely to be able to afford it.
Boundless Design Possibilities
According to a breakdown of Juicero’s bill of materials by Ben Einstein, a general partner at Bolt (a venture capital firm), Juicero spent two years ‘building relationships with farmers, food packing facilities, designing custom packaging, developing web applications and also a subscription delivery service’. All of this work was done before the product was available on the market, meaning Juicero were working with the assumption that everybody wanted a $700 internet-connected, subscription-only juice press in their homes. Without the initial financial constraints a typical hardware startup might experience, the company were not forced to find creative solutions to problems as they arose, leaving their engineers in a playground of boundless design and manufacturing possibilities.
“When there are no boundaries, the possibilities may seem too large. That’s why some of the greatest art and innovation have come from a situation of constraint. Constraints require people to be more flexible and flexibility helps creativity”.
-CEO Karen Hough of ImprovEdge
When Jonathan Ive, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, is brought in to design a juicer, the results are going to be deceptively simple. The ‘Apple-like glossy finish’ of the Juicero’s exterior shell, custom power supply, QR scanning camera, WiFi connectivity and custom gearbox (Einstein, 2017) make the Juicero a beautiful piece of engineering. However, spending a great deal of money on customised parts, which is unusual for a first-time startup company, made Juicero’s manufacturing and assembly costs very high. This was a big risk for the company particularly as most of their target users were not likely able to afford such exorbitant manufacturing costs. A custom power supply also had added risk factors and increased costs as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and Electrical Testing Laboratories (ETL) are required to inspect these products in great detail. Fortunately for Juicero, their custom design and manufacturing risks did not cause pose safety risks for their customers.
Constructing the Juicero
The large costs associated with the manufacture of the Juicero machine is largely due to the huge amount of force that is required to squeeze the tiny cubes of fruits and vegetable first into liquid form and then into a glass. When the Juicero was first released to the market, users were quick to discover an alternative juicing method to the force created by the machine: human hands. The effectiveness of the custom made Juicero squeezing mechanism was put under scrutiny by a Bloomberg report in 2017 stating that the Juicero juice packs could be squeezed by human hands almost as efficiently and effectively as the machine itself.
Several of the company's investors were later disappointed by the information revealed in this report, saying they were unaware that hands were just as effective as their hardware investment. Juicero’s decision to conceal (or be unaware of) this information from investors and their customers created a great deal of backlash for the company, ultimately leading to its demise. Ethically, knowing that the fresh fruit and vegetable packs could be squeezed by hand and continuing with the manufacture and sale of the absurdly over-engineered machine was not only a breach of trust to the investors, not to mention a misuse of their funds, but also a breach of trust to their customers.
Juicero formed a partnership with ‘TerraCycle’, a US recycling company, to create a recycling service for their custom designed juice packs. On the TerraCycle website, they explain to customers that while the packs themselves are not recyclable by ‘municipal methods’, a system to have the packs shipped from the user’s home to a facility where they would turn the plastic packs into ‘picnic tables, tools, garden tiles and more’ was available. The website instructs the customer to remove the pulp from the used Juicero juice pack (they recommend composting it), rinse the juice pack and then request a prepaid shipping label to prepare their used packs to ship.
So in this process, the customer has to dispose of fruit and vegetable waste left in the juice packs, use water to rinse the packs and then ship the packets off to who knows where, to then be turned into new plastic products using energy intensive processes. This begs the question, is this process more efficient than buying fresh produce from a local market (carried home in reusable bags), juicing the produce at home, pouring the pulp and vegetable waste into the compost and then drinking your juice like a plebeian organic juice consumer?
As well as the waste produced from drinking the packets of cubed vegetables, there is also the waste from the recall of the machines themselves to consider. The company’s CEO issued a message to its customers in 2017 stating that a full refund would be given to customers who felt disappointed by the Juicero. This message came out after it was reported that a person’s hands could be used instead of the machine to arrive at the same result. However, customers were required to pay for their own shipping and it is not clear as to what happened to the machines once the customers had been reimbursed. The vast amount of money and energy that went into the production of the machines ultimately led to them being expensively shipped back to Juicero HQ and likely disassembled.
What about ethics?
While no harm to humans was caused during the design, production, use and recall of the Juicero, there were ethical factors that contributed to its design failures. Knowing that their subscription juice packs could be squeezed by hand should have been the immediate alarm bell to cease production of the machine. It should be assumed that the juice packs were designed and tested before the machine component was manufactured for market. In that case, the Juicero team were putting a knowingly useless machine into a strenuous and expensive manufacturing process. This meant that hundreds of meticulously custom machined parts and hours of assembly were wasted on a product that would eventually become unaffordable to its target demographic. If the juice packs were not tested before the machine was manufactured, then it is also a huge oversight on the design team’s part for not ensuring their machine was necessary to do the single thing it was designed to do, juice juice. Furthermore, selling weekly subscription packets of chopped vegetables that had an 8 day period of viable use, thus rendering them incompatible with the machine beyond this expiration date, entirely contradicts the founder’s initial objective of reducing the waste produced from juicing fruits and vegetables at home. If the company were not aware of the juice pack’s failed design, they went into manufacture without doing enough testing. In any case, the complete lack of user testing and iterative design was a huge waste money and resources.
Alternatives and Future Recommendations
It is not clear how the Juicero team tested their product with users before taking it to market. However, funnelling $120 million dollars into the design, manufacture and distribution of the product before hitting the market provided them very little room for improvement. With a tighter set of financial milestones, the Juicero team could have spent the same amount of money creating iterations of their product to reach numerous versions of the design. Upon the launch of the machine, additional features such as QR code scanning and WiFi connectivity could have been added to a second generation of machines, marketed at a higher price. Assuming that users required these functions was a huge oversight. Also having the option to purchase the juice packs individually as opposed to weekly subscriptions would reduce the risk of wasting expired produce. Perhaps with a stricter budget and a greater emphasis on the target user, the Juicero could have been a great success.
While ethically, the Juicero doesn’t seem to cause much harm, knowing that the company was aware of the redundancy of the machine means that somebody could have halted the production and assembly of the products and saved materials, water and energy along the way. The money saved from postponing production while a new design was developed would have been enough to fund numerous other Juicing machine startup companies, which is a highly profitable market despite seeing Juicero fail so extraordinarily. Afterall, you know that when Dr.Oz is endorsing your product, your design has failed somewhere along the line.
Ambrose, G., & Harris, P. (2014). Design genius (p. 94). London: Bloomsbury.
Aouf, R. (2017). Yves Behar defends Juicero juice machine after internet backlash. Dezeen. Retrieved 2 March 2018, from https://www.dezeen.com/2017/07/06/yves-behar-defends-juicero-juice-machine-after-internet-backlash-design-technology/
Carson, B. (2016). The $700 'Keurig for Juice' is too expensive to solve a very real problem. Business Insider Australia. Retrieved 24 March 2018, from https://www.businessinsider.com.au/juicero-fails-to-solve-for-a-very-real-problem-2016-3?r=US&IR=T
Company News - Juicero. (2017). Juicero. Retrieved 2 March 2018, from https://www.juicero.com/company-news/
Dull, B. (2016). UL Certification Vs. ETL Certification. Info.triadmagnetics.com. Retrieved 24 March 2018, from http://info.triadmagnetics.com/blog/ul-certification-vs.-etl-certification
Einstein, B. (2017). Here’s Why Juicero’s Press is So Expensive. Bolt Blog. Retrieved 2 March 2018, from https://blog.bolt.io/heres-why-juicero-s-press-is-so-expensive-6add74594e50
Huet, E., & Zaleski, O. (2017). Silicon Valley’s $400 Juicer May Be Feeling the Squeeze. Bloomberg. Retrieved 2 March 2018, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-04-19/silicon-valley-s-400-juicer-may-be-feeling-the-squeeze
Rhodes, M. (2016). How on Earth Could a Juicer Cost $700? Because Yves Béhar. WIRED. Retrieved 27 February 2018, from https://www.wired.com/2016/05/juicero-yves-bhar/
Watson, L. (2017). Juicero CEO Begs You: Do NOT Open Our Juice Bags [Updated]. Gizmodo Australia. Retrieved 24 March 2018, from https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2017/04/juicero-ceo-begs-you-do-not-open-our-juice-bags/
Juicero Recycling Program. (2018). TerraCycle. Retrieved 25 March 2018, from https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/brigades/juicero
Images from: Kristine Arth. (2018). Juicero Packaging. Retrieved from http://kristinearth.com/juicero-packaging