As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching. Watching how people do things is a great way to learn their goals and values, and come up with design insight. We call this needfinding. This assignment helps you train your eyes and ears to come up with design ideas. Your goal is to uncover user needs, breakdowns, clever hacks, and opportunities for improvement.

The design brief I have chosen is ‘Change’.

The mission: Design an interface that facilitates personal or social behavior change.

We’ve all been there: We know we should be eating more healthily, and generally we enjoy home cooked food – but after a busy day at work we just didn’t have time to plan dinner and come up with ideas, so we go for convenience food, the same old staples that we’ve always made, or even a take out dinner that’s neither good for our health nor for our wallet. If only we had thought about it in time, found a recipe suggestion and made a shopping list before we left the office – based on our personal preferences and dietary requirements of course – it could have been easy to pick up some ingredients and cook a healthy dinner at home.

So this will be my focus for the course: Helping people find healthy food choices and prepare home cooked dinners.

For my first assignment, Needfinding, I observed how people choose what’s for dinner, how they find out what ingredients they will need, and how to cook it.

The goal is to observe the successes, breakdowns, and latent opportunities that occur when computers are used, not used, or could be used to support your chosen activity. 

Participants of my study:

User 1, who regards cooking his passion, and likes to cook dinner for his wife and daughter. His wife prefers low-carb food, so he needs to keep that in mind for his choice of recipes.

User 2 loves to cook with her friends and enjoys cooking healty and low-carb food. However she often finds it hard to make healty choices as she works long hours.

User 3 is gluten-intolerant, which limits her choices, so she is constantly on the lookout for tasty recipes that make her feel less restricted.

In addition to observing participants, I asked them to answer some questions:

  • how do you choose what to eat for dinner?
  • at what time of day do you typically start to think about dinner preparation?
  • how much time do you spend researching options?
  • do you like to experiment or do you prefer tried-and-trusted?
  • how often did you cook at home last week?
  • how do you create a shopping list?
  • how important are step-by-step instructions?
  • are there ingredients you try to (or have to) avoid?
  • do you follow a specific diet?
  • How important is nutrition info, i.e. calories, carbs, fat, protein?
  • where do you find diet advise?
  • Do you keep a food journal?


User 1 wants to cook a nice dinner for Saturday night. He starts thinking about options around lunchtime. Without consulting a cookbook or app, he decides to make some meat and vegetables but isn’t yet sure what exactly it’s going to be. In general, he is an experienced cook and knows that a small portion of meat and fresh vegetables will make a healthy meal if cooked the right way. He doesn’t follow a specific diet, and is not too concerned about exact nutritional values. “But my wife is.”, he says.

User 1 buying meat at the butchers
At the butchers he sees veal he’d like to cook. He will decide later what sides will go with it. On a weekday, this would have been too time consuming. If he’d had a recipe suggestion and accompanying shopping list, there wouldn’t have been a need to come up with inspiration himself.
User 1 checking out quinoa
He thinks quinoa and vegetables would be nice, but isn’t quite sure how it needs to be cooked. He checks the labels. On a weekday, he wouldn’t have spent that time, but would have chosen something he knows how to cook, like pasta. Opportunity: With a recipe suggestions beforehand, he could have confidently gone for the healthy option.
User 1 choosing vegetables from a broad selection
User 1 now tries to make up his mind what vegetables to choose. He ends up buying zucchini, broccoli and tomatoes, because he knows his family likes it. He also buys feta cheese because he thinks that would make a nice addition. For each item, he needs to consider who likes or dislikes it, and remember that e.g. his wife doesn’t eat paprika. Opportunity: A personalised recipe suggestion could take that into account.
User 1 browsing for recipes on his iPad
Later, User 1 tries to find a recipe for the quinoa. He searches online via his browser for “quinoa, feta, tomatoes, zucchini” and gets a lot of search results, but none is a perfect match. He chooses a recipe for quinoa, lentil & feta salad from BBC Good Food, because he prefers a reputable source, it has a nice picture, and he thinks it will be close enough. Opportunity: Recipe images are important.
iPad screen showing quinoa recipe with ingredients list and instructions
This is the recipe he chose. It gives him confidence how to cook the quinoa, but he sticks to the ingredients he bought. He will come up with a reasonably healthy meal, but won’t know how many calories his version has or how it supports his weight-loss goal.

Overall, he spent about 10 minutes thinking about what to make, 30 minutes shopping, and another 10 minutes to find a recipe. Preparing the meal took another 30 minutes. He would love to follow the same approach on weekdays, but his time doesn’t allow that. He typically cooks at home on 5 days per week. He prefers spontaneous inspirations about what to cook, and goes grocery shopping without a list, but sometimes finds himself in the grocery store out of ideas and going for the same staple foods that he knows well. He would like to lose some weight, but finds following meal plans or keeping a food journal too tedious. Instead, he just tries to cook lighter dinners on weekdays and only indulges during the weekend.

User 2 

User 2 cooks dinner at home about 4 nights a week. She typically doesn’t start thinking about food preparation before she drives home from work. Quite often, it is in the supermarket when she finally decides what she’s going to eat. She likes to be spontaneous and improvise with what her fridge has to offer or what she finds in the supermarket. If she does create a shopping list, it is with whatever means she has available – it might be her iPhone or it might be sticky note or even just a mental note. She follows a low-carb diet, doesn’t keep a food journal, but is interested in nutrition info, if it happens to be available. (Note: I didn’t have the opportunity to directly observe User 2 as she isn’t based in the same city as I am, but she kept a photo journal of the activity for me.)

Busy computer screen with many open windows
User 2 doesn’t spend much time researching options, but if she does, she finds inspiration online and in magazines.
„But actually, I’m getting tired of searching recipes online. Too many. Not always trust-worthy.“ she says.
Her breakdown: She is willing to research recipes beforehand, but finds it overwhelming, considering everything else she has going on at the same time.
Opportunities: Reduce clutter. Establish trust.
not much produce left in the Supermarket
Shops will close in a few minutes, and don’t have much fresh produce left. Convenient choices lack appeal and are quite expensive.
„I have no idea what to eat. All I know is that it I actually want my food to be healthy and low-carb. Also, it would be great to have some left-overs for tomorrow’s lunch…“
Opportunities: Inspiring, healthy recipes that can be personalised. Filter by common diets / food choices like low-carb, paleo, vegetarian / vegan, gluten-free, and also likes/dislikes.
shopping basket & frozen pizza
The combination of missing inspiration, lack of time to think about dinner beforehand and a stressful day lead to cravings, but she ends up making a healthier choice: She remembers she has some lettuce and tomatoes left and decides to make a salad with oven vegetables.
She ends up buying the stuff she usually buys. „Wish I would have had an easy yet healthy recipe, not too expensive and quick to prepare without 10293 steps to follow.“
Opportunity: User should be able to find recipes based on how much time he wants to spend preparing food. „I have no idea what to eat. All I know is that it I actually want my food to be healthy and low-carb. Also, it would be great to have some left-overs for tomorrow’s lunch…“
Opportunities: Inspiring, healthy recipes that can be personalised. Filter by common diets / food choices like low-carb, paleo, vegetarian / vegan, gluten-free, and also likes/dislikes.

User 3

User 3 and her husband take turns cooking dinner, but he’s not home today so she will be on her own. They get most of their groceries via a weekly delivery. User 3 is gluten-intolerant, so she eats a gluten-free, mostly whole-foods diet. She likes to try new recipes to bring some variety and make her feel less restricted. She also keeps a food journal, but finds it sometimes tedious to record her meals.

On the London Underground, iPhone without signal
After a tiring day at the office, User 3 decides not to go out for dinner as planned, but eat in and cook a light dinner.
On her way home, User 3 tries to look up recipes on her iPhone, but the London Tube has no mobile signal for the most part.
Opportunity: Make recipe suggestion available offline. Importance of personalisation / filtering based on diet.
Fridge with some produce left
User 3 remembers she has some staples in the fridge, and decides to use those for her dinner. She makes an Omelette with tomato, cheese, and spinach.
Opportunities: Find recipes by ingredients.

User needs:

  1. On weekdays, User 1 doesn’t always have time to plan dinner in advance and sometimes finds himself out shopping with no idea about what to cook. He needs a way to get a dinner inspiration that doesn’t require planning.
  2. On weekdays, User 1 has not much time to shop for food. Sometimes he forgets to buy ingredients he needs for the meal he wanted to make. He doesn’t have time to write a shopping list, but would like to have one available when shopping.
  3. User 1 sometimes finds it difficult to remember and accommodate the food preferences of his wife and daughter. When looking for recipes, he would like a way to see only those recipes that match their preferences.
  4. On weekdays, User 1 likes to eat lighter dinners, but doesn’t have a large repertory of light or healthy recipes. He ends up making salads. He would like a way to find more low-calorie choices that are quick to make.
  5. When looking for inspiration, User 1 relies on reputable sources and appetising photos. He needs a way to visually select recipes when browsing online.
  6. User 2 is busy during the day, and only really starts to think about dinner choices after leaving work. She needs a way to find recipes without spending time searching.
  7. User 2 is interested in finding new, healthy recipes, but doesn’t always have the time to look through all options online. She needs a way to filter out the “noise” of irrelevant recipes when browsing.
  8. She finds that some sources are less trustworthy. She needs a way to decide whether to trust a recipe source.
  9. User 2 follows a low-carb diet. She needs a way to find recipes based on that restriction.
  10. User 2 was looking for „quick“ recipes. She needs a way to find recipes based on time it takes to prepare them.
  11. She just started her career and is still on a tight budget. She needs a way to filter recipes based on cost of ingredients.
  12. She also doesn’t have much time for lunch preparation at work, so she’d appreciate a way to find recipes that make good leftovers.
  13. User 2 has a good intuition about how many calories she takes in. She would still like to check nutrition info for her recipes.
  14. User 3 doesn’t always need to find recipes, but when she does, she might not be online. She needs a way to have suggestions available offline.
  15. Recording every single ingredient into her food journal is tedious. She needs a way to easily record nutrition info for a meal.
  16. She orders a weekly delivery of groceries and hence has most staples available generally. She would love a way to find new recipes based on what’s left in her pantry and fridge.