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Healthier Eating Habits | David Chan

Healthier Eating Habits

How might we inspire healthier eating habits for families?

As someone with a family who identifies as an active and healthy person, this project is close to me. For the past several years I have taken a growing interest in researching and testing different kinds of food and eating habits. Knowing that the term “healthy” means something different to everyone made me especially curious to see what insights I might uncover.

For this project I implemented design thinking methodology to dig into the challenge question. This included observing people, objects, environments, and interactions both in the world and online. I also created a set of open ended questions that were used in a user interview. Finally, new perspective was gained through an empathy exercise in which I ate gluten free for a week. I documented discoveries, distilled research findings, and crafted insight statements. These insights are not solutions, rather potential threads for further exploration.

Solo project

Pen and paper, post-it notes, camera, audio recorder, laptop, Omnigraffle, Photoshop


What types of people did I want to observe?

  • Families with children under the age of 10

Where can I observe them in the real world?

  • Restaurants
  • Grocery stores
  • In their homes

Where can I observe them online?

  • Track Facebook posts and shares
  • Instagram
  • Blogs

What am I curious to learn?

  • What foods do people eat vs. what is considered healthy?
  • What habits and routines do families engage in before, during, and after meals? (device use, conversation)

Observation Set #1 – Families In Restaurants

I observed families eating dinner in restaurants. In several cases, while waiting for the food to arrive the parents would engage with their phone. There was little to no conversation during the meal. The children were relatively quiet and well behaved in all instances. While meals were fairly healthy, drinks for everyone were often heavy sugar juices or soda.

Family #1

Family #2

Observation Set #2 – In Home

“It’s all about survival, and that means having systems in place…”

I observed a family with two parents and four children between the ages of 18 months and 9 years old in their home during breakfast. It was interesting watching the seemingly seamless juggling of different children’s needs (dependent on varying levels of sleep, medically diagnosed dietary restrictions, and diverse age range). It was like watching a complex machine in action, a kind of controlled chaos, able to change gears on the fly. Some of the food was pre-made then frozen (like pancakes), other things were made that morning (like eggs and turkey bacon). At one point when I thought the meal was over, I found out that the mother had not yet eaten. There was regular checking in from the parents to the children to make sure everyone got their fill of food and cleaned up before needing to get out of the house and packed up in the van.

Breakfast remains of an 18 month old


One of two refrigerators at the house

A family of six requires a lot of food

Before cleanup

Observation Set #3 – Social Media

I observed and tracked food related Facebook posts from friends with children. I was not expecting the majority of posts to be shared recipe links in the form of sped up videos. Overall most of the posts and shares were foods and or quantities that are not widely thought of as healthy. There were exceptions in the form of pictures of healthy homemade food.

 with or without frosting

one persons breakfast

healthy homemade food

Observation Set #4 – Grocery Shopping

I observed shoppers in three different grocery stores. This was largely unsuccessful for the project as I was unable to find any shoppers with children and did not want to make assumptions about who may have children. This may be due to the time of day etc. that I was observing.


What lenses can be used to identify extremes?

  • Income Level (low to high)
  • Food Education Level (low to high)
  • Exercise Habits (inactive to active)
  • Age of Parents (younger to older)
  • Household Size (small to large)

Extreme People and Behaviors I Hope to Learn from:

  • Single Parent Family (How are time and economic constraints managed?)
  • Large Active Family (What does fueling for adventures on the go look like?)
  • Farmers Market Family (Why is purchasing local/organic important to you?)
  • Bulk Food Bargain Family (What is the motivation? (time savings, money savings, simplicity, etc.?)
  • No Cook Family (What is the motivation or barrier? (time savings, money savings, simplicity, etc.?)

Additional general curiosity:

  • What influences decisions on where to shop?
  • What eating habits are formed due to geography?
  • What value is placed on the food source of caloric intake?
  • How does level of cooking experience influence dining habits?
  • How does size of household effect healthy eating habits?


“I guess we really like the magazine and recipes because it is about connecting to where you live.”

I interviewed a friend that is a husband and father of three children. The mother was able to jump in and contribute as well. The biggest takeaway came at the end of the interview when he was telling me about a food magazine the family enjoys which highlights recipes that involve ingredients native to their particular geography. He made the observation, “I guess we really like the magazine and recipes because it is about connecting to where you live.” This pulled the whole interview together and made me think about how he told me they make their own sauerkraut, they raise chickens in their backyard for the eggs, he helps friends brew beer. For this family, healthy food has a direct correlation with connecting to their surroundings. As a friend of the family this was a very interesting realization for me to come to, and one that makes perfect sense.

The set of questions I developed started broad and went deep in order to pace with a growing level of trust and rapport through the interview.

1. Tell me about your family.

2. What does a typical day look like?

3. What does the word ‘healthy’ mean to you?

4. What advice would you give to families looking to build healthier eating habits?

5. How would you describe your relationship with health and nutrition?

6. What resources do you look to for feeding your family?

7. What routines or habits does your family have related to food?

8. Who participates in meal decisions and preparation?

9. Tell me about your family’s favorite meal.

this chick is all grown up now and helps provide eggs for family breakfasts

empathy exercise

To begin, I brainstormed ten different ideas for empathy exercises, each looking to uncover a different type of insight:

1. Eat on a set limited budget for a week. (How does money influence eating?)

2. Eat only home cooked meals that take less than 25 minutes each to prepare for the family for a week. (What is it like to operate with limited


3. Shop only in gas station convenient stores for all groceries for a week. (What is it like to have limited grocery options?)

4. Mimic celiac by eating only gluten free for a week. (What unseen challenges are faced by those with celiac?)

5. Prepare a different main dish for every meal for every family member in my home for a week. (What is it like to have a variety of tastes or

needs in a family diet?)

6. For one week, prepare new (to me) meals without any outside resources including cookbooks, online recipes, etc. (What is it like to prepare

new meals without traditional resources?)

7. For one week prepare meals not requiring use of a refrigerator. (What is it like to limit a kitchen resource most of us take for granted?)

8. Skip breakfast for one week. (What is it like to feel limited by time or resources in which a meal is skipped?)

9. Buy no groceries for a week, eat out only as needed. (Can I make it through the week on food at hand without needing to eat out?)

10. For one week, eat every meal in a car or public transportation. (What is it like to only have down time to eat while on the go?)

I decided to follow through with exercise #4, for five days I ate gluten free. I was curious to experience some of the challenges someone newly diagnosed with celiac disease faces. Specifically I was investigating purchasing food to prepare meals as well as eating at restaurants.

I discovered that geography and income are potential barriers to an easy gluten free transition. Grocery stores that are traditionally more expensive had well labeled large sections dedicated to gluten free food. Many manufacturers are also updating labels to make it clear and easy to identify gluten free options.

In restaurants I found that servers were very helpful and willing to check with the kitchen if they were not sure about gluten content in food. The server responses did not always inspire confidence. If I had celiac I would be weary or more cautious about the “It shouldn’t have any wheat or anything like that…” and “I’m 99% sure except the sauce” answers.

 Overall, I was impressed with the availability of information and foods available. Two other ways I would further expand this study would be:

1. Eat gluten free while traveling. This would encompass airline travel (airports and planes) as well as staying in an unfamiliar city (stores, restaurants, etc.)

2. Eat gluten free in a more rural setting (compared to Los Angeles). This could be done in conjunction with #1 above.


I enjoyed this process as I am a fan of the related process of affinity mapping in UX for collecting, mapping, visualizing, and making usable sense of data. This is a very satisfying part of the overall project process for me as the insights feel like a reward for the research work along the way (observing, interviewing, etc.)

In order to craft insights, I wrote out individual insights with a sharpie on post it notes, then spread them randomly on a table.

individual insights

the random notes

I then time boxed five minutes to rapidly place seemingly connected post it themes together.

grouping themes 


At the end of the first five minutes, I took another five minutes to think about the categories that had emerged and further organize the post its. At this point I developed the three main categories: Connect, Healthy, and Barriers. Barriers contained three sub categories: Money, Time, Complexity.

main and subcategories identified


Once I had the categories and grouped insights in place, I thought more about the individual insights and how they fit into the overall theme of healthy eating habits for families. I then wrote down a few lines connecting the main insights for each of the main and sub categories. From there I refined into insight statements.

 ready to craft insights

The first iteration of crafting insight statements: 

  1. The definition of healthy varies greatly and is influenced by many things including but limited to advertising, family and cultural traditions, existing habits, and social media.
  2. Food can be used as a way to connect or disconnect from those around us. (eat together tradition etc, connect, parties, eat the same thing, tradition etc.) (disconnect- down time to avoid talking or eye contact, devices, different styles or beliefs of eating etc.)
  3. Three major barriers with shifting toward healthy eating:
    • Time
    • Money
    • Complexity


The fourth and final iteration of insight statements: