The British Columbia ministry of Health has established a program called Informed Dining (ID), which seeks to help restaurants provide nutritional information for prepared foods. Administrative staff have identified a need for people to more easily access this information. Emily Carr University of Art + Design students were asked to help. Our team used interviews, ethnographic probe kits, and competitive analysis to gain a full understanding of the problem; this research led to insights that had been overlooked by project partners, giving us an opportunity to add value to the project. We discovered that numerous potential target groups already track food intake through other smartphone apps, creating an opportunity to push and pull information between apps to give people a clearer understanding of their eating habits. Our team has recently started the development of a clickable, working prototype that addresses these issues and opportunities.

Background & Current Landscape

The ID program is an ongoing project initiated throughout the province by Healthy Families bc—a province-wide health promotion initiative—in early 2012 [3]. The program seeks to work with restaurants, cafés, and other dining establishments to provide nutritional information for meals prepared by these businesses. The goal of the program is to provide bc diners with the tools required to make informed menu decisions, giving them more control over and confidence in their meal selections [3].

With more than 2,000 restaurant outlets participating in bc and 10,000 nationally, the program is gaining momentum with restaurant participation. This increase, however, has not influenced user participation, which continues to grow much slower than anticipated. Since the program’s inception, one challenge has been to provide restaurant customers with adequate tools to interpret the nutritional value of prepared foods. The program currently employs a series of printed material, ranging from brochures to booklets. It has been determined that these materials are not convenient for people who need a faster, more accessible method of accessing food information.


We were asked to create an app to help deliver nutritional information to people in a fast and accessible manner, focusing on a predefined user group of women aged 25–45 with families.

On the Canadian government’s Ministry of Health website, we found charts, diagrams, and other information that outlines the nutritional value labeling system, which is used by the ID program in their print materials [2]. We next investigated Denmark’s approach to providing nutritional information. Their Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries outlines a keyhole labeling system that was initiated in 1989. The keyhole symbol, found on pre-packaged foods, acts as a quick reference to help consumers make healthier decisions [1]. We compared this information to what we found on the Canadian government site.

We also referenced ideo’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit. This toolkit provides an in-depth overview of many research and design techniques that work in tandem with stakeholders to produce holistic and human-friendly solutions [4].

We then visited participating restaurants in the Vancouver area to make on-site observations. At the end of each visit, we collected available information pamphlets for further investigation and reflection.

We decided that the pre-defined target group of women aged 25–45 with families omitted significant groups who could benefit from this service. We determined nine other potential user groups. Of these groups, we identified three that would benefit most from the use of the app: bodybuilders, dieters, and mature adults with health conditions. We added these three additional personas to our research. This determination allowed us to focus our data gathering on those who could provide us with the best insights.

We next familiarized ourselves with the mindset of these particular groups of restaurant patrons; we wanted to better understand their existing realities, needs, wants, and desires. To do this, we generated ethnographic probe kits with six activities that lasted over a period of one week and that questioned our participants on the topic of eating prepared foods. The activities asked participants to keep a food journal for a week; to recall a dining experience and mark out positive or negative events on a short timeline; to look back over the past two weeks and mark on a map the places they had eaten; to indicate where they might want to see nutritional information in restaurants; to play a guessing game to see if they could accurately gauge the caloric content of a meal from a photo alone; and to consider a series of reflective questions the next time they were at a restaurant. While our goal was to distribute these kits to the public who matched our target group criteria of bodybuilders, dieters, and mature adults with health conditions, due to time constraints, we were limited to asking people we knew personally (friends, family, and fellow Emily Carr students) who fit these criteria.

To gather additional information, we interviewed general practitioner Dr. Denise McLeod, owner of the McLeod Family Medical Clinic. This discussion gave us a better understanding of which nutrients matter most to a person’s well-being, and how doctors use this information in their medical practices (D. McLeod, personal interview, November 2, 2014).

Next we conducted a competitive analysis of several apps that provide nutritional information. The apps we chose to analyze were Argus, Moves, SparkPeople, Edomondo, Fitbit, and MyFitnessPal. As we used the apps, we noted each app’s ability to convey information clearly, function simply, be visually dynamic, and provide an overall pleasant user experience.

Participating Restaurants

We found that partnered establishments did not widely advertise the availability of nutritional information; many of the restaurants did not prominently display the ID signage. As well, existing nutritional pamphlets and booklets were made available only upon request or at the till, making the process inconvenient for most customers. The printed information itself was not laid out in an approachable or accessible manner. We also discovered that some staff members were not aware of their business’s participation in the program, leading us to believe that the ID initiative is of peripheral concern to some of these establishments.

figure 1. Six activities in the ethnographic probe reveal the thoughts of restaurant patrons and their customers.
figure 1. Six activities in the ethnographic probe reveal the thoughts of restaurant patrons and their customers.


Respondent Insights

Responses gathered from the ethnographic probe kits indicate patterns in participant thought processes. We noted that people, while interested in having nutritional information available, are unwilling to go to great lengths to retrieve that information; they do not want this service to interrupt their dining experience. We also found that although people make meal selection based primarily on food images and descriptions, they are unskilled at accurately estimating nutritional content using this information alone. Additionally, responders expressed an interest in having information available in a way that allows for casual, pre-emptive decision-making. Several of the target groups already use smartphone apps to track their food intake, often in relation to already established food-related goals, which gave us an unexpected opportunity to explore.

Conceptual Development

First, we laid out all of the information we had gathered, including the client’s desires and needs of the target users, and grouped similar findings and information together. Next, we took these ideas and arranged them hierarchically according to our stakeholders’ priorities. We came away from this exercise with a list of primary concerns to address:

  • The information must be easily accessible, ideally having at-a-glance info with an option for a more detailed view
  • The information must be easy to understand; data visualizations should be used to simplify and make tabular data
  • The information and food selection criteria should be presented hierarchically to reduce cognitive load; this hierarchy could relate to the user’s unique goals or limits
  • The app should give the option of searching for nearby restaurants, highlighting those participating in the ID program
  • Where applicable, the app should be able to push and pull food-related information to and from similar apps on a user’s smartphone
  • The app itself should be friendly, providing the user with moments of delight to enhance the user experience and promote future use and interaction

After determining what was needed within our app solution, we then produced physical mockups. Creating paper prototypes before moving to a computer environment gave us something tangible to present to testers, to see if they understood the basic flow of the proposed system, while allowing us to remain in a revision headspace, unattached to a final solution. Feedback concerning our existing grid layout, features, and accessibility avenues informed changes we incorporated into the third iteration of our paper prototype.

Having completed final testing on this prototype, we are now prepared to address the visual design of our app. Our project partners at ID provided branding details for use in our visual design. While some of the colours and typefaces are suitable for printed material, certain design decisions must be made to ensure the final visual aesthetic for the app remains approachable, friendly, and legible. Analyzing and restructuring problem areas of the brand guidelines to apply to mobile devices will be addressed in the near future before final high-fidelity mockups are made.

figure 2. Informed Dining application. Screens from the final prototype.
figure 2. Informed Dining application. Screens from the final prototype.



The use of co-creative methods and iterative design—allowing ideas to diverge and converge multiple times with the help of the people we are designing for—has greatly influenced our project’s development. We find ourselves with a far more refined and considered solution than what we would have been able to develop on our own. An additional benefit of co-creation is that the final design is more likely to be suited to the overall system and its users [5]. The value our solution intends to deliver extends from providing nutritional information to assisting with the bigger picture of a person’s overall well being. The processes our project entailed demonstrate that, in the end, the product itself is not significant—the worth of the product lies in the value it can add to the lives of those who use it.


I would like to thank those who have contributed to this project: my project partner, Helena Levison, for her unique way of thinking and her gift of curiosity; my instructors, Haig Armen and Eugenia Bertulis, for their guidance and patience; and our project partners at Informed Dining, Heather Bretschneider, Lisa McKeller, and Regan Hansen, for the opportunity to work with them on a provincial initiative.


  • [1] Denmark Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries. The keyhole symbol, 2010.
  • [2] Health Canada. Food and nutrition, 2012.
  • [3] Healthy Families BC. Informed dining, 2012.
  • [4] Ideo. Human-centered design toolkit, 2009.
  • [5] Sanders, E., & Stappers, P.J. Convivial toolbox: Generative research for the front end of design. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2012.