December 2016 Update: Looks like someone has started working on this idea! Peachy Labs out of Cornel Tech is building a computer vision system that can “fully describe food in an image, including ingredients, dish name, nutritional data, cuisine and flavor profile.”
This past weekend I had the opportunity to run through a mental exercise on developing user journeys when designing products. I had some very interesting takeaways from the work that I wanted to share.
It all started with a product idea I came up with: a plate-like food scale that would enable users to measure in real time (as they are plating their food), whether or not they are meeting or surpassing their nutritional goals for the day.
In short, the product would do the following:
- Log the weight of individual ingredients and send this data to a calorie tracker application (like MyFitnesspal)
- Enable a user to attach food product details to the weight to get total calories and macronutrients
- Determine whether or not the user should add or remove food from their plate to meet their nutritional goals
Mapping out the user journey for this product ended up being far more more difficult than I intended. I got confused as I tried to map out all the possible examples of using such a device. I found that seemingly small factors, like whether a person was cooking at home or ordering takeout, had significant impacts on the product design and usability. Specifically, I saw four main difficulties in mapping the user journey:
- Hesitating from making assumptions about the user: Assumptions are actually good and provide guardrails for how the user will act under a given set of circumstances. Identifying assumptions upfront can help you identify the cause of problems down the line.
- Trying to account for too many user scenarios at once: It’s best to identify one basic user journey. This will help identify the most crucial design aspects of the product.
- Distinguishing between “core” decisions and “non-core” decisions: When mapping a user journey, there are going to be some decisions that the user makes that are way more important than others. I have to identify which of these decisions are core to the product design.
- Allowing the product to lead the user VS. the user leading the product: Always first start with what the user is doing. Let the product then fit into that user journey and identify the key ways in which you’d want to alter or change behavior from that baseline.
In an effort to come up with a reliable, disciplined and logical way of building the user journey, my partner had me script out the story of Linda, a 20-something year old working woman.
Line by line, like a director scripting movements for an actor, I walked through what Linda was doing, how she did things and what she was thinking while doing these things. So structurally, it would allow me to map out something like the following:
- Linda walks through her front door. She has just come back from work.
- Linda puts her keys in a small bowl and puts down her bag.
- Linda takes off her shoes and coat.
- Linda sits on the couch and thinks briefly about her day.
- Linda then decides what she wants to do for the evening.
- Linda decides she needs to cook and eat dinner.
- Linda gets up and goes to the kitchen.
- Linda opens her fridge.
At this point, I found that it was particularly important to decide between core and non-core environmental conditions. The way we set up Linda’s dinner making habits absolutely influences the role and usability of a device like mine. Does Linda already have the ingredients she needs in her fridge? Did she have to grocery shop? Does she order takeout? How did she determine what to cook? What does she already have one hand? Does she even use what she has on hand?
The list goes on and on.
To keep it simple. I decided a couple of parameters about Linda’s meal-making.
- She already has bought groceries
- She already has decided what to make
- She already has the tools to make it
- She has decided to make something homemade
- She is going to make one dish. It will have four ingredients: meat, bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms.
Deciding these parameters were “core decisions” since changing any one of these parameters could immediately impact the role and relevancy of my device. From these parameters I was able to further map out how Linda makes dinner, how she weighs ingredients, how she sends this data to her phone, and how she could use an application to actively determine whether or not she’s meeting her daily nutritional goals.
In running through this exercise and deliberately mapping out the user’s journey, I ended up learning a couple of interesting things:
- There is no point in trying to come up with use cases for extraneous circumstances if you can’t even come up with a use case for a basic circumstance. You need to identify the most basic and bottom-level use of the product before focusing on any of the nice-to-haves. This validates much of the thinking behind the Lean Method.
- Mapping out the user journey is a great way to determine how a user is going to use a device but also how they won’t use a device. It’s only by taking a step by step user approach that you can identify the ways in which your product is rendered useless.
- Mapping user journeys’ is difficult. It’s slow and the more granular you can get, the more clarity you can get around determining what product to build. But it’s better to have one distilled user journey than to have 10 confused ones.
With that said, I’m embarking on a new creative project to think up 100 possible new devices and map one user journey for each product. I’m calling the project 100 Products, 100 User Journeys. I hope that the exercise will be an opportunity to practice and refine how I think about product development.