Finding direction through nebulousness & complexity
Health, in bite sized increments
The building of a socially focused service
Identifying problems is easy. The world is full of whistleblowers and I, admittedly, used to be one. Diving into the messiness and coming out with something valuable is difficult. Holding true to the principles a solution needs to ascribe to in order to wholeheartedly build services built on the empathy cultivated with the population you are trying to serve is theoretically arduous. It is “easy” to build a generally good idea. Building one that subdues complexity is not. Of course, these are the problems worth solving, and the ones the world’s creatives need to diligently focus on. Our current global climate is ripe with these challenges. What an opportune time to be exiting a high caliber design school with a problem solving methodology on the tool belt. Opportunities are everywhere, but let’s focus on the one my team (Sally Hall, Conner Drew) and I have been parsing through for the last ~20 weeks.
The inspiration for the design of this service came from experiences in the field doing research with mothers on food stamps who have diabetes. This acute focus helped surround our thinking with the most drastic and relevant needs that exist in regards to diet change. The service we are building meets the needs of this acute population, however, the principles embedded in its inner workings support a much wider population: anyone that has a motivation or need to make a diet change. Therefore, in launching this service we plan to start with guidance that will assist anyone in their path towards health and, in the near future, plan to utilize subject matter experts like dieticians and nutritionists to make our offering for those with monetary constraints and dietary diseases as robust and tailored to the individual as possible. We want to truly provide tools for the problem we set out to explore.
How it works
The service operates on 2 main threads. Saving money and gradually eating healthier.
We set out to assist low-income populations eat a healthier diet by unseating the common belief that eating healthier is more expensive. This noble outset is potent, yet it proved difficult to find ways to hook people’s interest. This is where money saving comes in. Everyone wants to save money, i’m willing to make that sweeping generalization. Therefore leveraging money saving techniques like comparing product prices across and within stores, finding deals and coupons was our hook. A trojan horse service if you will.
The money saving techniques we analyze are techniques that anyone can use but when considering how difficult it is to manage all aspects of life inherent in the human experience, something as trivial as clipping coupons or looking at the price of bananas, milk and bread at Walmart, HEB and Fiestas to find the cheapest price just feels extraneous and ridiculous. However, when considering there are ~$14 billion in food related coupon savings annually dispersed and ~$3.4 billion in redeemed coupons that leaves a lot of room for savings. This is why we want to house all of these possibilities in one experience and take the pressure off of the individual. To be clear, my aim is not to present this in a way that sounds like we will be the next billion dollar startup. The amount of work at our backs is trivial compared to the amount in front of us between our current standings and our north star design. Numbers are simply stated to express opportunity.
Money saving aside there is the healthier component. We, as a nation, generally know that we are in a public health crisis so I will not spend an exorbitant amount of time on this topic. Dietary disease is at the crux of the health of our people. The way that “the system” responds to these problems is anything but proactive. Blatantly, we tell people they have a disease that could kill them and provide them with minimal resources that preach drastic change all at once. This kind of care is not actionable and, based on our research, people diagnosed largely fall back into their routines and habits. The point I want to highlight is the drastic change that is encouraged. These ideas for change are not realistic. There is a reason we teach kids addition first in school, not calculus. Then add subtraction, multiplication, division and so forth. People need a foundation for knowledge and knowledge gradually builds with more experience and more input from the world. Our service mimics this truth about how people learn. Incremental steps for gradual change. We plan to meet the users of our service right where they are in their eating habits and start by saving them money to gain trust. Gradually, as trust builds, we will invite our users in the direction of health with small steps. Changing white bread for wheat. After wheat feels comfortable maybe add some seeds. This kind of guidance will provide stability. This stability is essential for the cognitive load on people trying to make change. Especially change with something as personal and ongoing as food requires patience. This sensitive guidance is our most essential component.
Why the way it works is important
The nuances touched on in the previous paragraph hold merit because of the time we spent in people’s homes, talking to them about food, looking through their kitchens with them, hearing their trials and tribulations, successes and prides. Developing empathy. We spoke with 18 people spending ~90 minutes with each of them. Marination in their words, finding patterns and anomalies across behaviors and perspectives informs design in a way that affords a “standing the problems shoes” approach. This ethnographic approach allowed us to largely drop our own world views and gain a wide angle view of food. These people have lived with me for the past 20 weeks. When I make decisions or come to new insights I reference their perspectives, their circumstances. It is pretty astounding what immersion in a problem feels like. I feel responsible for bettering this situation.
The gestalt around our service of incremental change was founded from experiencing people in the field that had had success in making a dietary change. These positive deviants had experienced change in a way that allowed them to build knowledge and change in behavior slowly. These were the only examples of change that stuck long term. For this reason we promise to provide value in the form of a gradual path of change towards a healthy diet.
The next phases of development require mayhem management and an astute focus on subtle behaviors. Food is so damn complicated. A different perspective everywhere you look. The majority of these perspectives are trying to share or enroll others in their ideology. This becomes paramount when it is backed by companies and money attempting to spread influence in the name of their products.
We have run one pilot test so far. During this initial experiment we gathered somebodies grocery list, found all relevant coupons and price reductions as well as healthy options we wanted to suggest and dove in. We got to H-E-B early and gathered all of the items we wanted to suggest. When our participant showed up we let her run the show. We followed her through the store in observation. All of our pre-thinking and planning got thrown out the window about 10 minutes in. There is such nuance in how people place value on food and in trying to make healthier suggestions that are very similar to what she already was planning to buy was much more difficult than it had seemed in the idealized picture I had in my mind.
The first difficulty surfaced quickly. The list she provided us was much too broad.
With this lack of specificity we were very ineffective in providing options that were similar. She had written “bread”. Think about how many different kinds of bread there are. Now think about why you like your favorite kinds. Is it even possible to offer a suggestion that will be accepted with enjoyment when you consider all of these nuances that play into preference? This is an essential question that I have been wrestling with.
A quick short story from the field:
We get in the bread aisle and she picks up a relatively healthy bread. Our criteria for providing choices was to give 3 options: any product with relevant coupons, the cheapest applicable option, and a slightly healthier option that was similar in type and price (with an aim for cheaper). She picks up a whole wheat seed bread. The cheapest option in the store is wonder bread. That criteria for offering swap options goes out the window. Im looking at the nutrition labels of similar breads while my research partner Sally asks the pilot participant questions about her choice. She tells us she likes that bread because of the texture. I think “Well, we’re fucked then.” She values this bread choice because of texture. That means to provide a similar product I would need to put them all in my mouth. I decide not to try to offer her the bread i’m holding that contains 1 less gram of sugar than her choice and put it back. This example illustrates well the mayhem of the food space and leaves me with a hardset realization that, for this service to be successful we need to intimately understand our customers.
Taking intangibility into a form that is meaningful and consumable is the highest priority at this point in the process.
Difficulties of managing mayhem
In attempt to capture all of the relevant information from the pilot I crafted a spreadsheet that would house all of the items on her list as well as all of the swaps for healthier and cheaper items that we wanted to make.
This mental run through of the process I was expecting seemed viable. There is room in the above spreadsheet for all relevant information. When we got in the store with the participant reality proved much different.
This obviously proved to be the wrong way to capture the results. The refinement of this capturing process was informative.
This refinement of the capturing process tells me, at this stage, it needs to be much more qualitative for the learning we are immersed in. To truly learn how our customers think it needs to allow for quotes and the capture of nuance.
Assumptions and how to test them
Our current hypothesis for why this idea will work rides on a few assumptions. Primarily believing that:
- People use grocery lists, and if not, they will use one
- People will choose a healthier option if prompted
- People will choose a lower price over a brand they like
- People are willing to leave brands and items they’re used to
- People generally want to eat healthier
- People will eat new items they purchase
- People will be more likely to buy a new item if they get the new item before they get the original item
As we move forward in our creation and refinement process we plan to map out our trajectory moving from operating in very close quarters with our participant’s experience to gradually removing ourselves from the in-store experience as we learn how to manage this complexity.
As we are in the weeds trying to learn about initial needs and subtle nuances we also have our eye set on the future. In the future we would like to gradually create a trusted relationship with our customers. We want them to be able to count on our advice. We see ourselves as having the potential to be an essential component of many shoppers grocery store experience. It is exciting thinking about the arduous path towards this grandiose future. Now let me get off the computer and jump back in the weeds.