De-centering myself from the design

Foodlibs app; library, groceries, explore pages

I learned to recognize when I was making a part of the project for myself, and how to take myself out of the picture and design only for the users instead. In the end it makes something better for those who need it, and I am more fulfilled too.

Meal planning can help you save on food costs, spend less time at the grocery store, and help spice up your kitchen. However, it can take time to hunt down recipes, write down all the ingredients needed, or to spot the one dish worth trying among the dozens that aren’t. While planning is good, it can be better.

Foodlibs is a user-friendly app that allows you to select recipes from your food library or even try new ones that you discover while exploring, and then quickly build an easy to follow grocery list. Whether it’s your first time meal planning or your thousandth, use Foodlibs to Move on to Cooking!

For a long time now I’ve watched my dad sit down at the kitchen table with the local grocery ads and a binder of printed recipes. He’d sit there for hours at a time, pouring over the ads and comparing them to his recipes to see what we could afford to eat for that week. For a long time I never thought anything of it, but as I grew older I started to wonder if his work could be done in a matter of minutes instead of hours. Prompted and encouraged by my peers and mentors, I decided to make a tool to help him out.

Now after we’d help Dad put away all the groceries when he would get home from the store, he’d take down the menu stuck to the fridge and update it with all the meals we’d be eating that week.

When I started researching meal planning that’s what I thought it was, throwing 21 random meals onto the calendar. I was fixated on that idea, I spent two months chasing it down because I was convinced that I was right. I told myself that I understood the problem and that I had the exact right solution for it. All this research I did just confirmed what I already knew.

A misguided idea on how to quickly come up with a week’s worth of meals

It wasn’t until my third interview with Dad, when he pushed back against the idea of not having control over what recipes he sees, that I finally realized I was forcing my idea of what the solution should be, what the problem even was, onto the very people who were telling me what they really needed.

Only when I set my ego aside and listened carefully to the people who have the lived experiences of dealing with these issues, was I able to make something actually useful, to use my power responsibly. 

So I reused what I could and started again, this time around working with  people who plan and those who don’t to clearly define what the problem actually was, and what outcomes they were looking for. All this before I started thinking about what the solution should be.

Personas[1] used to keep real people at the center of decision making

[popup footnote 1: Personas are combined versions of all the people surveyed and interviewed. They share the same needs and constraints as the real people, but are abstracted from any individual person to preserve privacy and eliminate any particularities that do not represent the whole group.]

This time around I tried to learn from people’s lived experiences as much as I could, sending out a survey and interviewing some of the recipients. By actively listening instead of looking for evidence that I was already right, we were together able to accurately describe the benefits gained from meal planning, what slows or stops people from doing so, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of existing solutions and how they could be improved.

Mood board of various features and design ideas

Having nailed down the real problem, and with the persona’s desired outcomes in mind, I collected all of my ideas and inspirations to think about how I could turn them into a useful solution.

I sketched out various possibilities, prototyping them and having people test them to see if they held up to real life use. This cycle of repeatedly creating and testing allowed me to hone in on an iteration of these ideas that better served the people I worked with and will help thousands more.

A discarded iteration of the food library solution

Here again though, I had to learn to remove myself from the center of the design process. My ambitions to make something clever and distinctly beautiful were getting in the way of this tool’s ability to become an extension of the people who would use it. I needed to let go of what I wanted so I could make this be what they needed.

When I made that decision to more closely follow platform conventions, I freed myself to focus on the interaction experience, mixing and creating elements to create a more useful tool. It might not be as visually unique as I’d like, but that’s okay! This work is about making things better for people, not satisfying my whims. And besides, now that I know how to follow the rules, I’ll be better prepared to break them next time if that’s what needs to be done.

— The rebranded Foodlibs is a mix of food + library, with a touch of character —

I am very proud of the things I learned while making Foodlibs. Putting the needs of those around me ahead of my own is not only respectful, and my job, but it is also more personally fulfilling. When I work with the people who live with a problem, together we’re able to make something that is actually useful. I’m also happier as a person not just by using this lesson with work, but in life too.

There are so many people I want to thank for their efforts in helping me become not just a better designer, but a better person too. From everybody who responded to my survey, to those who participated in interviews and testing; to my professors and peers for not only their insights into what would make a better design, but for their encouragement and tolerance. To my Dad and my family for listening to me and encouraging me to do this work even when I struggled with the motivation to finish it, and most of all to my partner Michaela for her patience, encouragement, and helping me learn how to be better. 

Thank you all, and thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope you come away with a better understanding of why I do what I do, how I do it, and that if you have a project for me to do, that you’ll get in touch.