EZ Eats

Problem and Solution Overview

It is estimated that over 32 million Americans have food allergies, and over 22 million have another kind of dietary restriction (e.g., vegan, gluten-free).

For people with dietary restrictions, eating out at restaurants could mean their life is in the chef’s hands. Due to such risk, people with special diets can be discouraged from dining out, often limiting their experiences to dishes they’ve had before — if they choose to eat out at all.

We aim to improve the dining experience of people with dietary restrictions, allowing our user group the freedom to try new restaurants and new foods stress-free.

Design Research Goals, Stakeholders & Participants

The goals for our research was to analyze all the different pain points that people with allergies face at a restaurant. We wanted input from all stakeholders of the dining experience, including people with dietary restrictions as well as restaurant staff that work with our target group.

Thus, we studied 3 people with special diets: our first two participants had severe peanut allergies, and our third participant was gluten, sugar, and vegetable restricted. We additionally studied a former waitress at a Thai restaurant.

For our stakeholder group, people with dietary restrictions, we collected a broad set of data using a variety of qualitative methods: fly-on-the-wall, contextual inquiry, and diary study. Each of these methods offered us a unique viewpoint into how people with allergies navigate a restaurant environment as contextual inquiry is immersive, fly-on-the-wall is candid and passive, and diary studies are intensive and thoughtful. For our restaurant staffer, we did an interview so we could ask predefined questions to fill in the holes of our previous research.

Design Research Results and Themes

Through our user research, three common themes emerged:

  1. Participants analyzed risks about choosing dining options or actual meals. All three of our participants with dietary restrictions had used a risk analysis for their choices and knew that the choices that they made had the least chance of any type of allergen-related emergency.
  2. Participants had a preference for “easy interactions” that avoid confrontation and discussion. They all had experiences where they encountered an awkward interaction when discussing allergies; this is important because both sides of the interaction server and customer both face this challenge.
  3. Participants made decisions that were informed by prior experiences and group consensus. These affected their perceptions of the restaurants they were eating at and the dishes they ultimately decided to order.

We found that trust was an important element underlying each of our themes and decided that it was a factor that we want to support in our design. Our participants expressed relief when visiting restaurants that they already deemed as “safe,” citing that they didn’t have to think too much about their decisions about what food to order. They also seemed to feel a greater sense of security when talking to waiters and ordering dishes that they remembered as being “safe,” even in unfamiliar restaurants.

Who is going to use the design?

● People with allergies. We want to improve their restaurant-going experience.

What tasks do they now perform?

Communicating with restaurant staff. From our research, we found that this meant having some conversation about their current dietary needs.

Identifying “safe” foods. This means finding foods that have a low or no allergen risk. This involves finding out about the ingredients used in specific dishes, as well as understanding the general food preparation process.

What tasks are desired?

Bridge the information and trust gap between people with allergies and the restaurant staff. We want people with allergies to be able to order food from restaurants without having to worry about getting served food that has allergens. We hope this can make the risk analysis people with allergies perform feel easier by eliminating ambiguities.

Easier interactions with restaurant staff. Through our user research, we found that in restaurants deemed “safe”, our participants generally preferred to have no conversations with restaurant staff, and didn’t seem to want to talk to waiters about their dietary needs unless deemed necessary.

How are the tasks learned?

Prior experience. This can either come from personal prior experience or from prior experience from trusted sources (e.g., close friends). People with allergies accumulate knowledge about the degree to which certain types of dishes and restaurants are allergen friendly.

Memorization. In restaurants, wait staff must learn and understand the exact sources and procedures for the making of their products in regards to cross-contamination and allergens, then need to be able to distribute this information accordingly to customers.

Where are the tasks performed?

Inside a restaurant. These tasks are likely to be performed at the beginning of a customer’s restaurant experience when the customer is interacting with the staff to find more information about potential allergen risks.

What is the relationship between the person and their data?

Important. People with allergies rely on their knowledge of what foods tend to be safe and which restaurants tend to be more careful about allergies. One of our participants mentioned that with certain restaurants, they can recall facts like cleanliness and how much of their allergen were generally present. This helped them decide whether their food could be considered safe or not.

What other tools does the person have?

Word of mouth from trusted sources. People with allergies can use the information that they have heard from other trusted sources to inform their dish decision-making process when eating at a new restaurant. One of our participants mentioned that when they were eating at a new Thai restaurant, they recalled some dishes that their friends with similar allergies had and used that information to inform her decision.

Verbal communication with waitstaff. People with allergies are always able to directly talk to their server to communicate any allergen information. One of our participants mentioned that they can always talk to their server, even if the interactions feel a little awkward.

How do people communicate with each other?

Group consensus. From one interview, one of our participants mentioned that discovering new restaurants often happens when eating out with family or friends.

Direct communication. Inside restaurants, interactions between the restaurant staff and the customers are usually quick verbal exchanges. In each contextual inquiry and interview study, our participants mentioned that they would talk to waiters about their food allergy before ordering a new dish.

How often are the tasks performed?

At least once per new restaurant visit. For restaurants that have already been visited by the customers with allergies, this may not be necessary if they are ordering a dish they are already familiar with. From our diary study, our participants talked about how they did not feel the need to check in with food that was catered at events when the food was something they were familiar with.

What are the time constraints on the tasks?

Fast (a few minutes). In restaurants, conversations about allergy information should be as fast as possible, to ensure fast meal service. This sometimes can take longer when there is some disconnect between the waiter’s knowledge of the menu and the actual dishes. One of our participants mentioned that asking what is contained in a dish can take up to a couple of minutes depending on the restaurant because waiters do not always know and they need to find someone who does.

What happens when things go wrong?

Medical emergency. People with allergies may eat food and then have to visit the hospital or go through some stressful medical emergency protocol. One of our participants said that if their restrictions weren’t met, they would experience more pain, and experience side effects that ultimately could shorten their lifespan.

Mental trauma. The person who experienced the allergic reaction may have more distrust toward trying new foods. They may also be more reluctant to try foods from a similar sort of cuisine. One of our participants mentioned that they are the most comfortable with trying food that comes from places that they have already built up a relationship with, and that experiencing some allergic reaction would destroy that trust.

Chaos and commotion in the restaurant. Watching somebody else having an allergic reaction is stressful, and could potentially lead to chaos / worry in the restaurant. For restaurants, this could hurt their dining atmosphere and potentially degrade their reputation. One of our participants who worked as a waiter in a Thai restaurant would actively suggest anyone with a severe nut allergy not to eat there.

Proposed Design

Both of our designs are meant to work together to make the users experience in the restaurant as seamless as possible.

Our first design is to help customers inform restaurants of their dietary restrictions. This is done using a bracelet that would have a users dietary information loaded onto it as their own profile. This bracelet would come equipped with an RFID chip inside allowing the user to tap into a kiosk once they arrive at a restaurant which would then send their profile over to the restaurant. This information would then be shared with the customers’ waiter as well as the chef and any other parties that may be of concern. With this information, the restaurant staff can take the correct precautions when preparing food for their customers in return making the customer feel more comfortable with the food they will be served. This design solves one of the big problems people with dietary restrictions have, the awkwardness and feeling like a burden when saying something to their waiter about their needs when they feel like they can just get what they already know and are comfortable with.

Our second design is used to help users with dietary restrictions find and try new foods that they are able to eat but may have not known they could before. This will be done by using a tablet in every restaurant. This tablet will be able to be scanned by the customers’ bracelet and then will filter the menu based on their dietary needs. Users will now be able to see every option they have in one convenient place without having to read through everything on the menu to find something that they can safely eat. People right now usually go to the same places and order the same food all the time because they know it is safe and they do not want to risk trying new things. This design takes that worry away from the customer and lets them enjoy every option that fits their needs.

Interviews, brainstorming, task analysis, scenarios and storyboarding were each done by every member in the group: Rohan Guilani, Sigala Hernandez-Radosevich, Josie Lee, Trey Tamaki, Aileen Zeng.




University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction

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CSE 440 Staff

CSE 440 Staff

University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction

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