THE BLOG
11/03/2016 10:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

4 Parallels Between Food & UX Design

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By Mona Patel

As the leader of  a creative agency, I encourage my team to think outside of "outside the box." Our clients look to us for fresh perspectives and innovative designs, but that's not to say we're the only people innovating. Five years ago, the food industry became ripe for transformation. From farms to forks, the future of food is changing rapidly. People are innovating the way we cook, shop, share, consume and purchase food, as well as what we expect from the dining experience overall.

To foster creative conversation, we invited a group of esteemed culinary and food-tech professionals to join us for a panel discussion, "Food For Thought Leaders." Below, I share my top four takeaways and how they relate to the design industry:

1. The best ideas are inspired by your own problems.

Michael Wystrach loves everything about food -- except cooking it. Freshly's CEO and co-founder revealed that the inspiration behind his idea wasn't to start a company, it was simply to uncover a solution to his own problem. Mike was fed up with the paradox that you can either eat healthy or eat fast, but you can't do both. "There's a huge transparency issue," he says. "You literally have to be a Ph.D. to understand what you're eating." So he created a solution that enables him to eat healthy without having to cook or learn about nutrition.

In UX, we are taught to design to solve the users' problems, not our own. Freshly proves that this is changing. Mike is a founder and an entrepreneur, but he is also a designer. He designed a solution first, and built a company second. My prediction? This is a trend on the rise.

2. We have the internet to thank for consumer trust.

One of the most prevalent trends in the food industry today is the growing comfort with ordering food online. Scott Reich, the CEO and co-founder of OurHarvest, sees a general pattern with his user base: "People start with a smaller order size because they want to get to know OurHarvest. They want to try the product and understand it. Then we see a jump in size with their second and third orders, and then they become a regular customer."

Clearly, there's a lot of trust needed when it comes to purchasing food and unless your customers have been referred by a friend or have already tried the product, you need to design around that initial concern. As designers, how can we build trustworthy experiences for the next generation of e-commerce? Above all, design experiences that make consumers feel comfortable. In the future, can we make consumers feel comfortable purchasing a wedding dress online or adopting a pet?

3. You can learn to do anything with the right attitude.

Eric Gillin learned to cook when he was three years old from his favorite chef, his mom. She taught cooking classes and he grew up watching people learn. Now, as the executive director of Epicurious, Eric views cooking as an issue of education and knowledge. He believes that anyone can learn to cook, but that people are terrified of cooking and cooking itself is becoming much more stressful and complicated. "No one wants to mess up dinner," he says. "Because if you mess up dinner, then you're hungry. And if you're hungry forever, you die."

Cooking, like all good design, is about the end user. Just as anyone can learn to cook, I believe anyone can learn to design. There are many resources available to learn design: classes at the New York Code + Design Academy, online tutorials, podcasts, videos, books and more. HOW Design Live is a great podcast that speaks to the many facets of design. Find a brand or a designer you love and ask questions about their techniques and how they learned to design. Identify a problem in your life and design a solution for it to build a portfolio.

4. Experiences are changing.

You might be surprised to learn that one of New York's fastest growing food startups, backed by critically-acclaimed chef David Chang, doesn't have a physical location. However, the company's creative director Greg Hathaway describes this as both a challenge and also what defines Maple: "We're asking people to get really intrigued by a dish with a photo or a video, and that user experience is bringing them into wanting to order that meal." To Greg, this poses an interesting design challenge: how to bring a restaurant experience into every level of that interaction, from ordering to eating.

Similarly, private chef and Food Network personality Palak Patel sees innovation within the formal dining experience beyond the food on the table. In New York, Palak says fine dining is shifting to a more casual, friendly environment. Menus are being simplified, allowing chefs to focus on the ingredients, and consumers to focus on the moment. She says, "When I work with my clients, that's what they really want: A more intimate connection with the people they're with, sharing a great meal. That resonates."

This idea is something we have to adopt when we design anything, not just meals. Good design is about giving the user what they ask for. Great design is giving them what they didn't even know they wanted. Think past the surface level: If you're designing a dinner table, don't only think about what goes on the table. Who's around it, and what's on the wall behind it? What does it mean to that kitchen or that family? Will birthdays be celebrated on it? Thanksgivings? Design for that.

Mona Patel is Founder and CEO of Motivate Design, a user experience research and design shop. She is also the author of the bestseller Reframe: Shift the Way You Work, Innovate and Think.