Expanding Options for the Food Sensitive: Design Research and Ideation

CSE 440 Staff
7 min readNov 28, 2023

By Pahn Yenbut, Robert Snow, Andrew Tjahjadi

Source: “peanuts” by Dean Hochman

Problem and Solution Overview

Nearly 11% of U.S. adults have food allergies, with childhood food allergies on the rise (1). Meanwhile, 36% of Americans have lactose intolerance (2) and about 1% have celiac disease (3), preventing them from eating gluten. Despite the prevalence of diet restrictions, people who are food sensitive (allergic or intolerant to certain foods) may face difficulty finding appropriate meals, especially when they are traveling or in an unfamiliar place. Additionally, the difficulty can increase when ingredient labels are hard to access like in restaurants and takeout stores. Based on our research work, we designed a public touchscreen kiosk that enables food sensitive people to quickly access restaurant menus and filter out allergens/intolerances. The design gives more freedom in choice for where food sensitive people can eat, while also raising visibility of food sensitivities.

Design Research Goals, Stakeholders, and Participants

To understand the needs of food sensitive people, we chose to conduct an online survey and interviews of food sensitive people. Our survey consisted of quantitative and qualitative portions to measure the ease of obtaining appropriate meals for food sensitive people through numbers and stories. It was sent out to UW adjacent spaces and received a total of 24 responses from both food sensitive and non-sensitive people, enabling us to investigate disparities between the primary stakeholder (food sensitive people) and tertiary stakeholders (other people who consume food). After collecting survey results, we were able to craft our interview script questions to gain more detailed information about survey results. We interviewed three food sensitive individuals, our primary stakeholders. Participant one had walnut allergies, participant two had seafood, peanut, kiwi, carrot, and jackfruit allergies, and participant three had severe egg and peanut allergies. Unfortunately, we were unable to reach out to secondary stakeholders like restaurant owners, cooks, and food specialists at UW.

We picked our research methods based on our need to understand our target group’s wants and current strategies in the limited time we had. Our initial survey enabled us to gather a wide range of perspectives in a relatively short time and to recruit interviewees. Additionally, the fixed quantitative questions of the survey were helpful for data crunching and comparison while short answers to open-ended questions gave us insight. The interviews afterwards enabled us to expand on the short tidbits and data collected from the survey by asking food sensitive individuals and getting their perspective.

Design Research Results and Themes

Our results from the survey included both food sensitive and non-sensitive people, providing a point of comparison. As it turns out, results showed that food sensitive people have more difficulty finding appropriate food (64.7% of food sensitive respondents vs. 16.7% of non-food sensitive respondents). The results also showed a wide range of food sensitivities. Ten were dairy/lactose intolerant, seven had food allergies, and five live gluten-free. Interestingly, 0% of food sensitive respondents reported having a difficult or very difficult time finding appropriate food at grocery stores. Fast food/takeout stores were the most difficult (53.3% difficult or very difficult, fig. 1) and restaurants the second most difficult (43.8% difficult or very difficult, fig. 1). Despite that, restaurants and takeout stores were the 2nd and 3rd most popular options for food-sensitive people (fig.2). UW HFS (University of Washington dineries) were the 4th most popular. The qualitative data showed that most food-sensitive people listed reading ingredient labels as their strategy for avoiding harmful foods. Additionally, many listed asking staff as a strategy when they’re eating out. However, survey respondents with the most severe food sensitivities had the most detailed food avoidance strategies. For example, a gluten-free participant with lactose and FODMAP intolerances mentioned reading food labels, using food-finding websites, sticking only to known safe restaurants for takeout, and always bringing back-up food when going out. Furthermore, many food sensitive respondents wished for more awareness about food sensitivities and more availability of appropriate food.

Figure 1. Research results relating to survey respondents’ experiences with finding food.
Figure 2. Research results relating to survey respondents’ experiences with food access.

Among food sensitive respondents, results showed that availability at shopping locations is the largest barrier to accessing appropriate food (Fig. 2). This means that when it comes to stores or even restaurants, some respondents still do have a hard time finding the appropriate food, such that it poses a much larger problem than food affordability and taste. As mentioned, some individuals expressed that planning and packing food is normal for them due to the difficulty of finding appropriate food while on the move. So having or knowing what types of food are available where, would greatly benefit our user group.

Our research revealed general themes of constant meal planning and the need for more awareness. Participants demonstrated planning in the buying process (ex. checking food labels, ordering from specialty online shops), and transportation part (ex. bring food with them, even when going to events with food) to feel confident and food secure. Although some participants mentioned the planning was exhausting, it does not seem that participants struggled with it since it is an innate part of living and hard to forget. They also added that traveling to unfamiliar places can cause food instability as it is hard to plan the food that will suit their needs abroad since restaurant menus may not include ingredients or it’s in a different language. Many participants bring back-up food while traveling but they might feel unsafe on longer trips. One interviewee noted that he took extra precautions while traveling which included printing out allergy cards in multiple languages and resorting to packaged food like ramen when unable to find appropriate food. The other theme of a need for more awareness came up the most when research participants described their hardships. For example, an interviewee noted that she felt scared to eat anything when she was undiagnosed with her allergy, partly due to her parents not taking it seriously and testing her. Another interviewee noted that he saw a real chicken listed as vegan at a University of Washington dinery as well as experienced chefs incorrectly describing the ingredients list. Furthermore, many survey takers and interviewees noted concern of cross contamination which could happen at parties, potlucks, and restaurants.

Proposed Design

Our initial design is a touchscreen kiosk that lists nearby restaurants and take out shops while providing tools like ingredient filters and language select. Fig. 3 shows the main screen in the top left, with a button for language select and a search bar for adding filters. There is also a button for a map view to see nearby restaurant locations. It would be strategically placed near public transportation spaces and points of interest to increase its accessibility to food sensitive individuals traveling, including tourists and locals. We avoided a portable version because it would require individual effort to get it. Instead, this design can benefit people of different economic backgrounds since it is free to access. We also derived a “private business” version of the design, which is located in specific participating restaurants. Instead of displaying and filtering nearby restaurants/takeout, it displays the dining establishment’s menu with the filtering and language tools (but no map view). It provides an alternative way for food sensitive people to understand the ingredients and cross-contamination practices of the dinery without asking the staff.

Figure 3. Design sketch.

We developed our initial design based on our user research which showed that food sensitive people found finding appropriate food in restaurants and takeout stores was significantly harder than in grocery stores. Additionally, our respondents gave stories of trouble finding appropriate food while traveling and difficulty confirming the ingredients verbally at restaurants. Since we also found that food sensitive individuals frequently rely on ingredient labels, our design aims to bridge the gap between dineries and accessing their ingredients lists. For example, fig. 4 shows two scenarios that demonstrate how the design can help increase restaurant access for food sensitive individuals while on the move. Row one shows our design helping a food sensitive person confirm menu ingredients and order at a restaurant while the staff is busy. Row two shows our design helping a food sensitive tourist figure out where to eat nearby, even with language barriers. Furthermore, placing the kiosk in public spaces will also address the theme of raising awareness about food sensitivities. Restaurant/takeout owners may be incentivized to provide more diet restriction friendly options to attract kiosk users (since the kiosk will be like advertising for them), and the general public will be reminded that food sensitivities exist when they see the kiosk.

Figure 4. Storyboard sketches

Our next steps are further refining and testing of our design. Thank you for reading about our research and design exploration process.

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CSE 440 Staff

University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction