Meal planning can help you save on food costs, spend less time at the grocery store, and spice up your kitchen. However, it can take time to hunt down recipes, to 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 app: library, groceries, explore tabs.
Use Foodlibs to get the benefits of meal planning

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. Encouraged by my peers and mentors, I decided to design a tool to help him out.

Family meal plan sheet, 3 meals for each day of the week.

To make and effective tool I needed to understand what meal planning actually entailed, so I observe my dad to understand his process. When he got home from the store, after we put the groceries away, he’d take down the menu stuck to the fridge and update it with all the meals we’d be eating that week.

At the start of this research that’s all I thought it was, throwing 21 random meals onto the calendar. I was fixated on that idea, spending two months chasing down solutions to it because I was convinced that I was right. I told myself that I understood the problem and that I had the exact right idea to solve it. All the research I did just confirmed what I already knew.

Sketch of design for random meal picker, you can re-roll the selections to get a meal plan you like.
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.

3 personas with identities, personalities, needs, available resources, and current options to solve their problems.
Personas used to keep real people at the center of decision making

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.

Reference interfaces from other recipe apps as well as library management and search from the Music app.
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.

Custom UI with good interaction and poor visual design.
An early iteration of my 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.

I gathered feedback from testers and peers on what was working, largely the information architecture and interaction framework, and what wasn’t, the visual design. I restarted the visuals by using the building blocks provided by the platform vendor so that the people using the app could draw on their familiarity with their device to kickstart their understanding of the app. This also has the significant benefit of better meeting my potential business needs by being much easier to construct and put for sale.

Use the Explore tab to try out recipes and add them to your library
Library tab with a list of the user’s recipes. “Each recipe has price and difficulty ratings shown at the top level to help the user make quick decisions without having to dig into the recipe details”. There is a sort menu with the options of Recently Added, Name, Cost, and Difficulty. “View your library in different contexts, either through custom collections or sorted views. Select a sort option twice to reverse sort the view”.
"Map" of the Explore tab of the app, presents user path through descending and crossing pages of the tab.
Information architecture of the Explore pages

I am proud that I became a better designer through 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. 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 to work with me on that you’ll get in touch!