Improving the Experience of A Common Task — On the Go Meal Edition

Introduction

When you search up the words, ‘food containers’ in your search engine, what kind of images you get? Now try to focus on one that you think is extremely intriguing.

If you couldn’t, then what you are experiencing is seeing a market of products that are lacking their own “culture”. If you couldn’t find a product that peaked your interests then none of them resonated with you, your experiences, your background. The product’s identity, or if it had a strong identity, was not able to relate with you.

In this project, we are exploring this “lunch on the go” experience, and finding the points of intervention in a design that makes you stop and look closer, want it, and ultimately purchase the item.

Research

Gathering Information

To generate a culture for a type of products, I began by reading information on Visual Branding Language (VBL), including the strategic pyramid method; the 4 “authors” that contribute to a branding story including companies, popular culture, customers, and influencers; the components that make up a brand value; brand strategy; and brand engineering.

With more understanding on the techniques, theories, and basic methods for contracting a culture for a product, I started to conduct my own research into what kind of gap do I want to design for, or what is the role of my product going to be in this amalgam of food container products.

Research on VBL and conducting/analyzing brand related researching

Mood Boards

In a large group, we used mood boards to generate pages of images to understand the current landscape of food containers and some context of what they are like for different cultures. This helped me keep in mind the different areas of food containers I could explore in as well as the approaches that other designers have already taken.

Mood boards for cultural, historical and overall landscape examples

Task Analysis

A task analysis is noting the steps that a user takes to do an everyday task, as well as considering the rarer actions such as maintenance, prepare, and misuse of that product.

I started with describing the overall activity then breaking it down into smaller elements (the How), then using this information, it would help me in thinking about the wider context/higher level activity this task is part of (the Why).

The general procedure of task analyses

Task analysis on design student, Shannon

Overall activity — cooking/preparation, meal, cleaning

Current situation: Shannon usually precooks her meats and freezes them to eat later later, and this goes for her grains as well. When she’s cooking, she’ll use her nonstick ceramic pan to cook her meats and she puts her vegetables with the meats to cook. She only stores her meats and grains, vegetables are freshly made that day to eat. She would wash her pots, pans, and utensils right after she eats.

A “fancy” container she stopped using because it leaked

Future plans: When Shannon goes to school, she will still precook her meats (meats are usually portioned to one day) and gains (usually portioned to multiple days), but she plans to cook her vegetables the morning she needs to take her lunch to school. She plans on using 2 glass containers, 1 for her meats and vegetables and 1 for her grains — she likes to keep her food separated.

Glass containers she plans to use this semester to bring lunch

She places her food containers straight into her backpack without any bag, with a case for her utensil (a fork), and a fruit (no bag).

Task Breakdown

Breakdown of Shannon’s typical lunch preparation

Interviews/Questionnaire

To get more insight into this “on the go meal” experience and to find a design opportunity, I conducted interviews to different types of people who used meal containers.

The first person I connected with was a college student who brought lunch to school because it took too long to go back to her home. I sent her a list of questions and she responded to them with text and images. I texted her to further expand on certain areas when I wanted to know more or wanted to clarify the response.

An On The “Go” Meal Experience Questionnaire — CMU Senior Student

1. How many times in a week do/did you prepare your meals to bring to school?

a. Depended on the week and how busy I was/how prepared I was during the weekend to prep and cook. Overall, probably half of the semester I prepared meals, and that would be 4 days/week during those weeks.

2. Can you describe or illustrate the food that you usually brings (what’s a typical prepared meal like for you)?

a. Something that I can make 4–5 servings of at once. Usually this means pasta, some sort of meat dish (curry, stew) with rice that I just portion out into multiple containers to store, or soup

3. Can you describe and/or take a photo of the type of containers you usually use to bring food to school?

b. ceramic bowls with plastic lid that has a vent hole. Not liquid seal proof, so I can’t bring soup in it. Soup I bring in a small Hydroflask thermos, but that needs to be pre-heated before I pack and leave for school in the morning

4. Can you briefly describe the full process of how you bring meals to school (how/when does it start and end for you)? Feel free to include unique details of your experience.

a. I usually cook Sunday night, and portion the food into multiple containers (pictured above). In the morning or before I leave the house, I’ll grab one of the containers, wrap a paper towel around either a spoon or a pair of chopsticks, and secure the utensils on top of the container with a rubber band. I don’t have a lunchbox, so I’ll either carry the container in a tote bag (which I carry holding the food container, not by the straps of the bag,) or I’ll place it flat on the bottom of my backpack if there’s room. Once at school, I’ll store in the mini-fridge, and heat in the microwave when it’s time to eat.

5. Do you carry your food container in a bag? If so, what kind of bag?

a. Tote bag; see above

6. Do you carry any utensils with your containers? If so, what kind of utensil(s)?

a. Yes; see #4; spoon for soup, chopsticks for anything else

7. What are some wearies/downsides you have of bringing prepared meals to school?

a. I have to remember to bring the container back home, and also wash it. When I bring soup, I have to remember to heat up a portion to put in the thermos, and that makes a few additional dirty dishes I have to clean later on.

8. What are some benefits/positives you have of bringing prepared meals to school?

a. It’s cheaper, and usually I look forward to lunch because I’m excited about what I made.

9. Do you enjoy preparing meals? What’s the best part of the experience?

a. Depends on my mood! That’s how I feel about cooking in general

10. Is preparing meals a habit (something you just routinely do) or a ritual (something you routinely do with deeper meaning to you) of yours?

a. A habit

Key points of interest from the questionnaire:

  • She prefers using ceramic, glass and thermal containers → thermos needs to be preheated
  • Wraps paper towel around chopsticks/utensil and attach to container using rubber band
  • She holds her food container by the bowl not bag handles + food container always placed flat in her bags → afraid of leakage
  • More containers = more washing and needing to remember to bring to school AND back

Interviews on Meal Preparation— Worker, Grandma, Mom

I realized while I was interviewing the CMU student, even though she had lived in the US her whole life, her Asian culture is still very prevalent in her daily lifestyle. This is especially reflected in her meal preparation — she uses chopsticks instead of Western utensils and ceramic and thermal containers which is more well-known in Asian countries for bringing meals.

I wanted to investigate more into the Asian culture behind preparing and storing food in Asian cultures, so I asked a Chinese worker in Shanghai, my Grandma in LiaoNing, and my mom also in Shanghai about how they store their food.

After video calling each individual, noted some key insights that could be helpful in my exploration in enhancing this “on the go” meal experience.

Key Insights From The Worker:

  • He usually just brings what he made the night before. Most of his co-workers do the same — it’s not very popular to meal prep for multiple days
  • Everyone in his workplace order takeout and interchanges with bringing meals (most people think its more work to bring food but it’s healthier and cheaper)
  • Prefers glass or ceramic containers because they are “safer” than plastic when microwaved
  • Everyone including himself usually has a bag for the food containers (usually comes with the set of containers when purchased)
  • Cooking is more of a habit for him: he’ll do it when he feels like it or if he has the time
  • Food usually is rice with 2 other dishes (usually has sauce)

Key Insights From My Grandma:

  • She just stores meals that are cooked for her in the fridge in bowls (no cover) or in pots on the stove (then transferred into fridge if longer than one day)
Currently empty fridge, but usually like the bowl on the right, she would store her extra food like that
  • She prefers ceramic bowls and fears that plastic containers are unsafe when microwaved
  • If she were to use food containers, she prefers something with many subsections that she can freely organize herself
  • She eats stew every week so she would want a container that is large and leak-proof with everything else. Also she would eat Mantou (type of Chinese bun) or rice with another dish (3 “dishes” in total)
  • She wants containers that can open easily such as lids that have protrusions to easily lift up or screw on caps to prevent leakage

Key Insights From My Mom:

  • She usually cooks multiple types of dishes to eat with my dad → prefers containers that she could organize neatly in her fridge (containers that could take up half the shelf and fit nicely together to save space)
  • Dishes are usually with sauce
Dumpling stacked container

She also showed me a dumpling container she recently got and she really enjoys. She says its nice how you can easily protect the delicate food inside and organize it neatly and compact in the fridge. She wishes that the container could be larger so that the left and right gaps of the stacked container would be filled too.

Research Conclusions

Based on my findings from the task analysis, questionnaire, and interviews, I realized that those around me that bring their meals to go or store food for later all share the Asian cuisine culture. And from these conversations and even based on my own meal preparing experiences, I’ve come to realize that many of these generic containers do not fulfill all the needs of Asian cooking.

From my research findings, some conclusions that I want to incorporate in my product:

  • have versatile separations in their food containers to separate the saucy dishes
  • needs to be leak-proof (Asian dishes usually have more sauce, and many people like to cook stews)
  • have an area to easily place utensils (including chopsticks)
  • should be naturally oriented facing up to prevent spills and easy to transport (many people currently just wrap plastic or paper around their utensils to bring with them)
New mood board from these findings

Persona

Furthering the design scope from my research and by focusing on the input of one person, I created a person that would represent my key insights and potential opportunities to design for.

Persona based on target user questionnaire

Contextual Images

Since I could not easily see the place or experience how our target user would eat their meals during the pandemic, I got as many contextual images and videos to mimic this as closely as possible.

How user would carry utensil (left), what container is used, and bag to transport (right)

Ideation & Prototyping

Now that I have understood my target user better, the environment they experience their meal, as well as what they want to experience, I began my ideation processes with sketching. I explored what my user “would want to see in a product”, “what they would actually need,” and beyond with more experimental approaches.

Getting basic food dimensions (left) & analyzing what works and doesn’t in an existing product (right)
10 min idea dump (right) & going into details
Explorations

Stick and twist container — Concept 1: What User Would Want

Focusing down on concepts — stick and twist container
physical prototype

Snap Container — Concept 2: What User Needs

Focusing down on concepts
Physical prototyping and testing

Spring Container — Concept 3: Experimental

Focusing down on concepts — spring container
Physical prototyping

Focusing On One Direction

After a group critique on my 3 prototypes, I received many useful feedback:

  • The chopsticks vertically positioned resembles the Chinese cultural way of sending the dead (vertical chopsticks in rice) — unlucky
  • Key aspect of “attaching” chopsticks to a container is being able to keep it clean and protected

From these comments and my own thoughts on which design is more suitable for my user, I decided to pursue a design similar to the Snap Container.

Leading up to revised design
Discovering details for revised design

Revised Concept — Snap Guard Container

Concept physical model
Concept description

Turning Point

After discussing with other designers, I realized how this function even though may be interesting create, it does not fully satisfy the conditions of my persona:

  • it becomes harder to clean in the interior lid section
  • the snap lid can be easy to break
  • the chopsticks hanging outside seems easy to break

Overall, I felt like it did not fully enhancing the experience of my user yet. My next iteration continued to focus on how to integrate chopsticks into the food container, but this time:

  • changing the design of the chopstick’s length
  • seeing what is an enjoyable method of attaching chopstick’s into the container
  • easy placing in and taking out of utensil + easy to clean after

User Experience Context Narrative

User eats at a flat desk and does work or watches videos on laptop → user takes off lid and opens to find utensils
User takes out utensils, fold lid in half to reduce space when placed on desk, and begins to eat → user can easily lift food off table
user can set chopsticks on lid when taking a break, user can lift the container comfortably if food is very hot

Final Working Model

Final working shots
Features and details

Refining Physical Model/Interaction Details

After creating the first physical model, I modified the dimensions of the piece so that the base was taller. When rounding the corners of the design, the container decreased in space and extending the food container laterally would make it more difficult to eat (the liquid based food would be harder to scoop with larger surface area).

I crafted a new model so that this change was shown and I testing out its dimensions that so the hold was still comfortable.

Modified dimensions

Concurrently, as I was discussing my product to others, it made me realize that being able to add other utensils and napkins would elevate the experience even more.

I decided that I would design custom utensils such as forks and spoons that would fit into my lid. The downside of these custom utensils is that it would be flatter in dimensions to be able fit (specifically, the height is 0.5cm). The main featured utensil would be chopsticks, as that is what my persona uses most often, but these additional utensils would be an additional benefit in case of needed use.

Left: examples of typical forks vs. flatter. Right: creating a custom flatter fork that fits in lid

The placement of the napkin was a surprising finding. Originally, I had thought I would need to create a larger compartment for the napkin inside the lid, but after experiencing the food container again with the goal of incorporating the napkin, I discovered that it locks in perfectly at the joints of the lid.

Discovering a place for the napkin

Branding

While I continued to develop my food container, I further explored my persona’s brand aesthetics and visual preferences.

She stated that Muji is a representative brand for her lifestyle and she enjoys minimalistic but quirky objects.

Container branding inspiration

Looking at these references, I explored the form of my container, looking at the overall profile as well as details and features, and finding the balance of something that looked “simple” but embodied many details that would elevate the on-the-go meal experience.

Visual form sketches

The brands that I was looking at, especially Muji, had very detailed curvature that enveloped almost every crevice, and overall had a very “full” appearance, therefore that was what I wanted to embody in my design as well.

Final visual model
Evolution of final prototypes (right to left): working prototype, basic form prototype, detailed form prototype.

While thinking about the overall shape, I also took into consideration the details and features that would elevate the experience and bring more functionality. For example, a foot on the body that would allow easy lifting and an indented corner on the lid to allow one to remove the lid comfortably.

From this, I took my physical model and rendered it to explore the materials. For my container, I already had a good idea of what I wanted from the references that I was looking at and from how the container functioned.

Below is my final presentation of my journey. It illustrates what the real food container would look like in real like and how it would be used.

Final Product Presentation

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Industrial/Experience Designer, Human Computer Interactions and Physical Computing at Carnegie Mellon University

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Patricia Yu

Patricia Yu

Industrial/Experience Designer, Human Computer Interactions and Physical Computing at Carnegie Mellon University

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