Google Challenge: Lunchcraft.

How to get kids to commit to nutritious choices early on, while allowing the same freedom of decision-making, riddled in a land of temptation? And—how might we add a bit of fun while we’re at it?

Photo credit: Sam Kaplan

A localized issue.

For many of us who grew up in the States, school lunch is almost a rite of passage. In California, we had the privilege of experiencing the infamous ‘cafeteria belt,’ which offered similar unhealthy offerings we still see in many American cafeterias today; burgers, fries, boiled veggies, and milk.

Of course, if you dig a little bit deeper, you’ll quickly realize how messy and heavily-lobbied the American school lunch is. A world of difference in comparison to local cheeses offered everyday in France or Japan’s democratized school lunch process ‘kyushoku,’ where kids are taught social responsibility and help serve each other food as part of their curriculum.

Let’s talk about how American schools can take action to empower kids to make healthier eating decisions.

Process at a glance.

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the space. A desk study of articles and trend reports equip you with key context.
Framing matters. The way you approach a problem can yield different results. I decided to apply behavioral science to understand how kids make decisions.
Never stop at idea number one. Generate many, in all sorts of divergent directions. Because the extreme ones lead sometimes to the most interesting results.
Design itself is first and foremost a communication medium. It’s purpose: to excite, ask pointed questions, and generate a reaction.
Ideas even in their infancy can get great feedback from users. I see it as mitigating risk, as early and often as possible.

Architecting choice.

User-centricity also means understanding how people work. It’s possible, then, that leveraging existing knowledge from behavioral science insights can make design even more powerful.

In early 2018, Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity paired with The Behavioural Insights Team to decrease childhood obesity in schools. They found the best way to get kids to eat healthier is not only to teach them early, but also by making intentional changes in:

    • Choice architecture: designing the choice environment, by reducing friction to make healthy choices 
    • Pre-selection: making choices ahead of time reduces in-the-moment temptations

    • Incentive schemes: motivating action and creating habits with immediate rewards

But enabling kids to choose healthier isn’t enough. University of Rochester psychology professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan suggest that in order to be motivated and happy, kids (and adults) also require three basic psychological needs:

    • Relatedness: the feeling of belonging
    • Competence: the ability to do something successfully or efficiently

    • Autonomy: the feeling of being in the driver’s seat

And it works. Parents who applied this at home found that structuring choices, then giving children volition was key to creating habits that stick. 

Together, these insights feed into my design principles, and what I call the ‘Healthy Decision Model’—a checklist of factors that can motivate children to establish healthy eating habits on their own.

Healthy Decision Model: Proven factors which can promote healthy food decision-making in kids

Screen in hand.

“Should this solution for kids be on a screen?” I wondered. It’s an ethical modern day old question whether we should limit screentime for kids.

Recent studies state that “screen media activity is not simply bad for the brain or bad for brain- related functioning.”

Perhaps, as experts suggest, it’s more about “laying the groundwork for responsible use.”

There could actually be an opportunity for schools to speak through screens to empower children to make healthy choices for themselves.

“The decision has less to do with age and more to do with laying the groundwork for responsible use.”

One idea leads to another.

So how can we create a choice environment for kids to plan their meals while educating them along the way and creating long-lasting healthy habits?

Using the Healthy Decision Model, I explored a number of different concepts to inform intentional UX decisions.

“Level Up” concept mashes together RPG (role-playing game) elements where kids can create and maintain an avatar whose health is reflective of their own (Graphic by: Humaaans)

One approach is to simply do the opposite of good design when it comes to acquiring unhealthy foods. For example, the “Healthy Convenience” concept attempts to hide temptations from view. Unhealthy foods are placed at the far edges of the school, requiring more exercise and effort, whereas healthy foods are readily available and celebrated in a central marketplace within the cafeteria. Quick checkout using ‘tap to pay’ with school IDs—only for healthy foods—reduces further friction.

Alternatively, the “Level Up” concept incentivizes healthy decisions in a gamified RPG (role-playing game) app. Kids can create and maintain an avatar whose health reflects their own and is impacted by their actual healthy or unhealthy decisions at school and at home. This way, we can teach kids without forcing the choice outcome.

“Healthy Convenience” concept explores the idea of placing unhealthy food options at the far edges of the school while healthy foods gain a central ‘market’ in the cafeteria, paired with quick checkout using ‘tap to pay’ using their school IDs (Image credit: Bora Architects)

Ultimately, there are some drawbacks to both of these approaches. “Healthy Convience” is narrow and only creates a temporary fix to the problem; kids may end up spending more time at the outer edges of schools. “Level Up” fails to create a need; it is missing the trigger to make it an integral part of a kid’s daily life.

I decided the best solution is one that is sustainable and considers the system as a whole.

Introducing Lunchcraft.

Lunchcraft” is a meal-scheduling feature built on a school platform, alongside kids’ calenders and homework assignments. The feature allows kids to select their meals ahead of time and then pick up prepared boxes from the cafeteria, saving both the kitchen and kids time during the lunch rush.

Here’s how it works:

    1. Home: The Home screen is the portal to their daily life at school. This is where kids can quickly see when it is time to order meals, view homework assignments, and receive ‘kudos’ from friends (as a playful social element). 
    2. Menu: If they need class schedules, holiday calendars, or their friends list, this can be accessible via the main Menu.
    3. Meal Time: When it’s time to schedule a meal plan for the week—at least a week in advance—kids can select the Meal Time button to start the selection flow.
    4. Daily Challenge: It begins here, kids can choose to participate and challenge themselves in a mix of short-term and long-term goals such as doing an all-vegetable meal week or avoiding ordering soda all week.
    5. Choose Food Preference: Next, they can choose their food preferences. Healthy choices appear first and unhealthier choices are limited. This will automatically create prepared boxes for each day of the week. The app will also notify if they haven’t added enough healthy items, such as fruit and vegetables, paired educational fun facts to why.
    6. Select Pickup Bin: Finally, they can pick the location of where they want to pick up their prepared boxes from the cafeteria during lunch time.
    7. Level Up Points: By simply planning their lunches beforehand, they automatically get a set of points, but if they participated in a challenge or selected healthier foods, they will receive more points. Points can be exchanged for educational rewards selected by the school.

It was apparent that not only does the app need to feel non-intrusive, but it had to communicate a clear value at the onset.

With the branding and visual design, I took influences from Nintendo Switch’s wildly successful and simple approach to a clean UI and clear information heirarchy. Paired with a fairly basic color scheme (red, blue, and yellow), I made a visual pass. I went a bit crazy with the emojis perhaps, but they always say the bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff, right?

“Lunchcraft” is meal-scheduling feature built on a school platform, alongside kids’ class schedules and homework assignments

Crafting healthy futures.

I dove a bit deeper in the science here than I usually do when it comes to concepting and product design. That in itself was a risk, since the typical approach would involve looking at the competition and seeing how you could make a slightly better version of what’s already out there.

Perhaps it’s my undergraduate background in Neuroscience and Behavior talking here, but I do believe that there is room between acamedia and all that ‘agile-product stuff’ we do in our industry.

It’s not too far of a stretch to say that human behavior is less likely to change as quickly as our smartphones do—that sometimes opening a child development book is a better approach than placing trackers on children to see what they are up to—and ensuring a healthy future for generations requires a thoughtful mix of invention and intervention, through multiple perspectives and experiences.

Thanks for reading
and have a nice day!