Fare + Square

Master in Design Engineering Collaborative Studio. Team Members: Brian Ho, Terra Moran, Karen Su.

Fare+Square helps consumers get the best value – money, time, effort, preference, and nutrition – out of every grocery trip. It is essentially a grocery list. Different from a physical list or a less-smart app, however, Fare+Square offers grocery recommendations, expense tracking, personalized spending tips, and location-based notifications. All these features are integrated into a normal grocery trip to feed users relevant and actionable information at the right moments, maximizing utility while minimizing user input. While the assistant can be helpful for all consumers, it is primarily designed to tackle the complexities facing food insecure individuals.

At the beginning of this project, we set out toward a dream where everyone could access nutritious food. After exploring food supply chains, we realized that nominal access might not be enough to change long-term habits. After hearing from food insecure individuals, we found that many people want to eat more healthy, but don’t know how to get there. By focusing on the interface of supply and demand, where food purchases are made, we aim to build toward lifestyle overhauls with everyday food choices. Making one purchase easier – cheaper, quicker, more nutritious – is about making good food easier to access. Increasing the equitable access of food is about making every purchase easier, particularly for those that are most disadvantaged.

Supply: how is our food produced?

The year-long MDE studio tasks the cohort with designing an intervention into complex, systemic issues. The first cohort was tasked with 'Food'.

We are in the age of mass-produced food, efficiently delivered through huge distribution networks of middlemen and retailers – a system rendered opaque by the sheer untraceability of products as they change form and location through this system. As consumers, we struggle to identify all the processes and places our food may have touched before we eat it.

In response to the many issues of size prevalent in the industrialized food system, one major response has been simplified, regionalized, and more transparent food systems – such as the local food movement in Boston (where we situated much of our research). We started organizing our thoughts by mapping these two contrasting food systems. Between them was a chasm of scale. Industrialized food allows us great access, but at the cost of sustainability. Much of the benefits of local food are precisely because of its small scale.

Demand: what drives people’s eating habits?

Our initial ideas were attempts to sketch out a future that would make better food production a more sustainable option for American cities. These included infrastructural improvements that would allow local food producers to deal with issues of variability, waste, and market access. Other ideas included communal preservation facilities, turning local produce into a snack service, and building a shared knowledge-base that would allow producers to analyze of past production and consumption trends.

Underlying these ideas however was the belief that people wanted to eat local. It wasn't clear that was actually the case. But it was also clear from our research that lasting change to food systems have almost always been a response to demand-driven forces. We believed people wanted to eat healthy, but our consumer demand is influenced by so much more at the time of purchase.

Poor eating is the biggest contributor to American death and disability. Over two thirds of American adults are obese. In the last thirty years, childhood obesity has doubled, and adolescent obesity has quadrupled. At the same time, nearly 16 million Americans struggle to find their next meal. Despite our desires to eat better, our food is, in fact, killing us.

Countless sources say that high-fat, high-sugar diets are bad for our health. Yet we continue to make the same fatal food choices. Information alone is not enough.

Food at the Interface

Cities contain a confluence of food producers and consumers — and a variety of interactions between them that are in uenced by individual preferences, cultural context and the physical environment. This became our lens to finding and addressing barriers that prevent access to healthy food choices: the interface of food.

The interface here has two meanings. It describes both the experience and interactions around food, as well as the conceptual intersection of the supply and demand. We explore interfaces where Americans buy their food, and then dig into how this food acquisition occurs.

Small, everyday eating decisions lead to long-term consequences for our health and for the ecosystem of food production. Looking at food from the point of decision-making – through the interface, as we like to call it – exposes the nuances that affect many of these decisions. It also helps illuminate why the interfaces are con gured the way they are. The point of intervention – to make people healthy, to imagine a sustainable food infrastructure for our – had to lie in something that made it easier to make better everyday decisions about what we eat.

To illustrate our canvas we followed purchases through our food system.

Embedding Ourselves into the Interface

To explore the nuances of interface problems, we looked more deeply into three speci c interfaces in Boston: cafeterias in public schools, nutritional assistance programs, and local food points of sale. Through exploring these three interfaces, we wanted to explore the following questions: How are food habits formed? How are food choices in uenced by constraints? And why do some supposedly desirable choices fail to scale?

Through the lens of the interface, we explore why the choice architecture at each setting is constructed the way it is – revealing opportunities for potential intervention.

There are of course a myriad of directions for possible interventions to address problems within these three interfaces. We played around with dozens. Examples include building the minimum viable satellite kitchen installment to provide warm breakfasts, packaging behavioral study results to create a $50 school cafeteria upgrade kit, creating a local food vending machine to increase accessibility and education about local produce, and designing a software assistant to help people shop on food stamps.

While these interventions are speci c to particular sites, like schools or local farmers markets, each also addresses larger themes. Easier ways to buy healthy food, for example, help not just SNAP participants but all consumers. Looking at food through the interface can help all of us eat better.

Our final choice was made to further this goal explicitly. Can we create an intervention that aims to benefit the most constrained in our cities, but can create positive e ects for everyone? Can we improve the interface of food to help people make healthier decisions?

Understanding the Experience of Living on Nutritional Assistance

We believe lifestyle changes are built from everyday decisions, which can be improved by delivering the right information at the right time. This led us to the approach of meeting people where they already are – on their phones. Phones could help us provide more immediately actionable and lightweight information than the USDA website or a grocery store coupon book that’s mailed to your house. And for many low-income customers the smartphone is the only real source of internet access.

Building on our thesis of intervening at the point of everyday decision-making, we researched the experience of buying food while on nutritional assistance. We researched by standing at grocery stores and farmers markets, talking to people we knew on food stamps, interviewing food policy makers and market sta that engaged regularly with customers on nutritional assistance, and by utilizing the City of Boston’s focus groups with low income individuals. From these sources we were able to establish a systematic view of purchasing groceries while using nutritional assistance.

We explored the human experience of grocery, considering the elements that in uence and shape the process of shopping. This included—among other things— transportation, coupons and price tags.

An ordinary grocery trip involves a series of rote decisions. For someone on nutritional assistance however, each of these choices represents constraints that complicate each layer of this journey. Individuals and families on SNAP may not own a car, may work multiple jobs, and have to work harder to save every extra dollar while making sure it is covered by SNAP.

To capture as many of these nuances as we could we illustrated these choices as a user journey, which we then augmented with personas and annotated with specific hurdles.

Designing a New Interface

To build software for an audience we ourselves were so removed from, we had to draw a lot, and test fast. Our designs therefore evolved from hundres of hand sketches, that slowly grey in fidelity.

Even for color choices, keeping in mind accessibility constraints, we prototyped with dozens of colors until we landed at our final chocies.

A core part of our features were unintrusive notifications delivered at convenient times – perhaps on your way home from work to tell you about a good deal right on your route. We were cognizant of how opaque many artificial intelligence systems tend to be, and it is this sort of lack of transparency that causes so many of the issues we saw in the food system as well. And hence we worked hard to illustrate the information sources our software would use and how it might make its choices.

We believed that sustainable change in our eating habits comes from the regular movement towards one better decision everyday. For many of us this could mean one less soda, or purchasing a couple of pieces of fruit on our next grocery trip. And for someone on SNAP it could just as easily be saving 20 minutes or $5 a week that might make it easier to eat better, or to eat at all. To create one better decision every day, we need to provide the right information at the right time, presented in an actionable format.

Many of the constraints of eating on nutritional assistance are defined by the workings of large political and economic systems that we realized were outside our core area of in uence. We were not, for example, nding ways to get more money into food stamps. We were also not in the position to make food cheaper. We are however able to help people get the most out of what they do have. This could mean making grocery planning more convenient or connecting people to existing funding opportunities like the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP). Does this solve the di culties of being on nutritional assistance? Hardly. But it makes each trip a little bit easier, and we continued to believe in our thesis that this small improvement would add up to big changes in how we eat.

Fare+Square is designed to get the best value out of every grocery trip, with value defined as money, time, effort, preference, and nutrition. This is done via the core function of a grocery list. Users can browse for items and deals on their phones, add specific items to their grocery list, and reference that list as they walk into a store. Different from a physical list or a less smart app, however, the list also shows other items that may be relevant. Some of these recommendations include cheaper alternatives, good deals, and possibly even healthier replacements.

Detailed views of features from left to right:


The work of our entire studio, including this project, was published as Food Systems, a self-started publication that describes the process, research and design outcomes of different projects on food systems: regional food hubs, community kitchens, digital assistants and agricultural benchmarks. I was also on this volume's editorial team.