As we started research on the original Food Oasis idea, we had three basic hypotheses:
- Technology: text messaging is a viable, accessible technology for this purpose.
- Supply: Suppliers are looking for additional outlet for their supply.
- Consumers: There is unmet demand for healthier food in food deserts.
To test these, the team from MAYA set out to push on each of these and see what we find out using our human-centered design process.
We’re not food experts, or community experts for that matter. We are pretty good at learning, though, so we went out and sat down with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, food hub managers, farmers, CSA organizers, farmers market managers, social workers, and even a team of RAND researchers doing a 5-year study on Pittsburgh’s food deserts.
We really dug into the business landscape that’s out there doing anything resembling this type of thing—grocery delivery services, online farm & CSA management systems, etc—to see how those models work, and how a Food Oasis-like system could work within or expand their offerings.
The technology was also something we had to evaluate very closely, as the pace of mobile phone technology is changing so quickly, we needed to make sure that a “low-tech” approach was still appropriate. While smart phone penetration is climbing, text messaging is still a hugely popular communication channel, and the demographic with feature phones is concentrated in food deserts.
People first, right? So we went to a Farm Stand, which is a project of the local food bank, to talk with some food desert residents about their eating and shopping habits, along with their technology familiarity. Nothing beats feedback on early concepts from real users in context.
As we imagined how a SMS system might work, we tested those concepts with real people in a lab setting to work out bugs quickly and easily. While we had their attention, we also got feedback on different levels of services that they’d expect via text message.
What did we learn?
After all this, we had some good insight into those initial hypotheses. The technology still seems completely viable, and we can make a usable, enjoyable system. Consumers, while generally intrigued by the idea, are still a bit of a question mark. The supply side seems the toughest, as businesses and suppliers aren’t looking for new outlets as much as we hoped. They are really looking for efficiencies within their existing system—and they are already pretty good at that!