Scout Labs is a project I founded and led within Scout, Northeastern University's student-led design studio. It is a social innovation initiative that uses human-centered design to create solutions to social issues in the Boston community. As a team, we firmly believe that design is a valuable tool for creating social impact, and we set out to prove this through Scout Labs. After a long summer of planning, Scout Labs’ inaugural project launched during the Fall 2015 semester.
At the beginning of the academic year we began to do background research and identify areas that we believed could be potential project topics. From income inequality to education, and from recycling to healthcare, our team brainstormed several potential areas of focus and researched each topic extensively. After much discussion, we identified two areas of focus where we could have the greatest chance of making a reasonable contribution in our neighboring communities — Education and Food. While both subjects captured our interests and had potential, we decided to further our inquiry into food consumption as it would require less institutional involvement and could guarantee more measurable results at the scale of our project.
To start, we defined our design challenge as: “How might we promote healthy food behavior through community engagement?” To begin to tackle this challenge, we wanted to understand what incentives are at play when people make decisions about the food they buy and eat. We reviewed relevant literature, spoke with experts in the field, and conducted user interviews and observation at a local grocery store.
We began by talking to Jessica Hoffman, Associate Professor of Applied Psychology at Northeastern University and co-investigator of Healthy Kids- Healthy Futures, Chris Bosso, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Public Policy Master’s Program at Northeastern University, Alicia McCabe, Massachusetts Director of Cooking Matters, and Josh Trautwein, founder of the Fresh Truck. The conversations led to many sources of literature and case studies of existing programs. Being able to look at the problem from many perspectives (psychology, policy, community development, etc) helped create a more full understanding of the problem we were facing.
To help contextualize this academic research, we began conducting in-person interviews with shoppers at a grocery store in Roxbury, a predominantly low-income neighborhood. We came prepared a list of questions around food purchasing and preparation habits, but simply allowed our conversations to unfold naturally. We learned a lot about how people think about buying food, when they go to the grocery store vs. eating out, how often they cook, and much more.
We then synthesized all of this research into these six key insights, which would act as the foundation of our project:
The decision to cook is pivotal. If you are already cooking on a regular basis you are predisposed toward a diet that has more nutritional and fresh ingredients.
If unhealthy food is less expensive and easier to access, an individual’s incentives may not align with consuming healthier foods.
Many households have one person making most of the food decisions. Mothers often play this role, and present and interesting point for intervention.
Active learning is the best way to teach improved shopping techniques.
Most people do not shop very far in advance and do not emphasize meal planning in the shopping process. Some don’t even plan until they are hungry and need to eat.
Price is a system through which people make decisions based on their existing view of food, such as taste preference, cooking skills, and cultural factors.
As a result of these insights, we determined that the most effective point of intervention is the point of food purchase itself. Because many people are unable or unwilling to plan their shopping ahead of time, if we can use the moment of purchase as a teaching opportunity we can reach a larger audience. We attempted to outline the different factors that contribute to that food purchasing decision. Four major categories emerged: structural, environmental, behavioral and visceral factors, from most permanent to most temporal. Structural factors like time and funds available for meal preparation, for example, are more concrete, whereas visceral factors like attractiveness of packaging and pricing can influence spur-of-the-moment decisions.
We saw corner stores specifically as a strategic location for disrupting both the behavioral and visceral factors that lead to the purchase of unhealthy food. We believed that corner stores represent a close tie to the community in which they operate and would give us direct access to local shoppers who would be critical in the iterative design process to follow. Also, the relatively small scope of corner stores alleviated our fear that we might have to compete with the relatively massive advertising budgets and shelving costs of larger grocery chains.
With that in mind, we refined our research question once more, which we used to guide us for the duration of the project:
With corner store defined as our point of intervention, we began conducting in-person, on-site interviews with corner store owners in Roxbury and Dorchester. After our initial visits, we discovered that many store owners have difficulty selling fresh produce due to the cost and labor associated with proper storage, as well as competition from nearby grocery stores. We also learned that most corner store customers make small purchases for immediate consumption, such as chips or soda rather than cooking ingredients. Additionally, although the primary priority of store owners is to maximize revenue, many owners also consider their roles in the community as food vendors and opportunities for social interaction among residents to be important.
Ultimately, these interviews were integral to our design concept, and we developed a close working relationship with the family owners of Chamas Mart in Dorchester, MA in order to test our concept. We designed an intervention consisting of two components: a physical display stand to carry fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthy snacks; and a series of recipe cards to promote cooking those fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthy snacks at home. We believed these two components addressed some fundamental issues. First, the display could encourage healthy snack purchases through the visceral reaction to the display signage. Second, the cards could encourage longer term behavior change by providing a gateway to cooking with these ingredients at home.
So, we started by designing the display stand. Through team critique and iteration we developed a physical form and visual style that we felt strongly about. We used this same visual language to develop a series of recipe cards for bananas, carrots, and other ingredients. Among other elements, our design uses vibrant green color, imagery of fresh produce, and simple, bold typography to help customers distinguish from the noise of other ads and other packaging in the store. Finally, and within a matter of a few short weeks, we had not only confirmed our design and constructed the display stand, but also delivered it to the owners of Chamas Mart and observed it in use for a period of one week at the end of the Spring semester.
While one week is short - too short to properly understand the results of our work - we were told qualitatively by the owners of Chamas Mart that our design concept did, in fact, create greater consumption of the items displayed (bananas, oranges, and apples), at least in the short-term. Children were especially drawn to the display stand because it was prominently placed in the store, held produce at a height low enough for most children to reach, and featured a tactile leave-behind (recipe cards) that they could carry with them as they or their parents continued to shop. It is unclear to what extent buyers actually used these items to cook at home and to what extent they continued to purchase these items long-term; however, our observations and reports from the owners of Chamas Mart led us to believe that we successfully appealed to shoppers’ visceral purchase behaviors.
Despite our inability to report concrete results, we are proud of what we did accomplish. Among other things, we learned how to structure similar projects and to coordinate stakeholders more effectively. We also used a retrospective as an opportunity to create a plan to measure results more concretely during future projects. Most importantly, though, we cemented the role of students as change agents in the community. Despite a lack of expertise, we confirmed that students can amplify the voice of community members by coordinating the resources available at and around a large university. In our case, for instance, we coordinated professors at Northeastern University and the leaders of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and Boston Civic Media to help us design, develop, and test a new business opportunity for the family owners of Chamas Mart while providing their customers - our neighbors - with greater access to and a greater incentive to purchase healthy food.