The Project

This independent project aims to explore how technology can assist users in reducing food waste at home. 

This is my final assignment for User-Centred Information Systems Development, a graduate level course on user research. Thus, this project will focus on deriving user insights from formative primary research techniques.  


The Problem

I left the nest this past September and I learned quickly that groceries go bad fast. I hated the feeling of wasting food, but shopping for one is challenging because produce is typically packed for families. I had also noticed that every time I saw my roommate in the kitchen, she was also tossing out wilted vegetables from her stash. It became evident that this was a common issue.

2.2 million tonnes of food is wasted in Canadian households each year
Canadians waste $17 billion worth of food per annum.

Not only is wasting food harmful to our wallets, it is also hurting our environment.  Food in landfills produce greenhouse gases such as methane. Growing food and getting them to stores also contributes to climate change. Household food waste contributes 
9.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year. 

(Source: Love Food Hate Waste)


A Note on the
Grocery Industry

Food waste is a global problem. Although this project focusses on reducing food waste at the household level, there are many issues in the food supply chain as well. For example, the grocery industry rejects blemished produce that is safe to eat and stores throw away food that is still good, simply because it passed a marketed "best before" date. 

By collectively changing the way we shop and reducing food waste in our homes, we can influence the supply chain. Consumers have the power to spark change. 


Causes of Food Waste

Buying too
much food.

Solution: Plan it out.

Cooking too
much food.

Solution: Use up leftovers.

food storage. 

Solution: Store it right.

(Source: City of Toronto)



Research Goal

The goal of this project is to conduct generative exploratory research to explore how technology can assist users in reducing food waste at home. Since the food waste problem in the household starts with grocery shopping habits, I wanted to focus on the problem of buying too much food. This research will study user motivations and mental models around grocery shopping. 

Research Questions

How do people grocery shop?

Why do people buy more food than they need? 

How can technology assist consumers with buying an appropriate amount of food? 



Field Observation

How do people grocery shop?

I began my exploratory research by conducting field observation of people shopping at grocery stores. Due to COVID-19, physically following people around a store is unsafe (...and generally discouraged). Instead, I watched several "Come Grocery Shopping With Me" video logs on Youtube to develop a better understanding of the grocery food shopping habits of people in a naturalistic environment. The participants were randomly sampled. They are three females who are the primary grocery shopper of the household. They come from varying household sizes (living alone, with their partner and family with kids) and income brackets. 

Participant 1   Participant 2   Participant 3

*Note: A limitation of this indirect observation method is the performative aspect of people on Youtube. However, due to the performative aspect of the participants, the videos are very similar to a think-aloud observation. From watching these videos, I was able to uncover several key generative behavioural insights on grocery shopping habits related to food waste.

Note-Taking Guide

Click here to access the note-taking guide with axial coding

Please note that there are two tabs - one focussed on open coding and the other one sorted with axial coding. 


Key Insights

The Trigger

Running out of fresh produce in the fridge sparks grocery trips. 

Fridge Scan

Participants look at fridge to quickly assess what is at home before shopping to avoid buying duplicates.

Shopping Lists

Grocery lists are created to identify items they ran out of or require for recipes.

Saving Money

Shopping lists are intended to discourage impulse purchases and help with budgeting.

Memory Reliant

Participants commonly rely on memory to recall what was at home while shopping.

No List

The one participant who did not shop with a list ended up purchasing relatively more food than those with a list.


Sales and coupons increase impulse purchases and straying from the grocery list.


Participants purchase produce volumes to approximately match their rate of consumption based on prior experiences. 



Sequence Model: Grocery Shopping

After analyzing the observation notes, I created a sequence work model to further examine the context and identify the breakdowns. The model below is based on Participant 2 combined with several insights from the other two participants and shows the sequence of steps (blue) taken to go grocery shopping. It shows the trigger for the activity (yellow), intent of action (green) and breakdown of issues leading to why people buy more food than they need (red with lightening bolt).



Job Story

When I am grocery shopping I want to purchase just enough produce so I can eat it all before it goes bad.

Motivations 😀

I want to save money by not purchasing more than I need.
I want to help the environment by reducing food waste.

Anxieties 😥

What if I don't purchase enough food for the week?
I don't want to miss out on this sale.
I can't remember if we ran out of this item at home yet...
How long can this item be at home before it goes bad?




Based on the insights generated from the field observation combined with the motivations and anxieties related to the job story outlined above, the following are some solutions for a product designer looking to tackle the problem of food waste in households: 


Idea #1: Fridge Camera

One way to reduce food waste is to have a camera attachment inside the fridge that can be accessed from the grocery store. People can remote into the camera and see what is in their fridge, as opposed to recalling based on memory and accidentally purchasing duplicates. 

At one point cameras attached to the back of a car was a ridiculous idea - today, it is a standard feature in vehicles. Perhaps one day all refrigerators will come with cameras?


Idea #2: Household Inventory Management

An app that scans your grocery receipt and picks up data such as date purchased, expected expiry and keeps a log of the food in the house. It could notify the user when something is about to expire and curate recipes for the ingredient with other things you have in the house. They could also reference their home inventory at the store and not rely on memory to recall if something is at home already. 


Idea #3: Discount-Driven Recipes

The intent behind making a grocery list is to help maintain a budget, but ironically promotions manipulate consumers to spend more money than they need to. An app that curates recipes based on what was on sale that week could tackle this problem. For example, if ground beef and potatoes were both on sale at Loblaw, it could suggest a recipe for Shepherd's Pie. This reduces the impulse to buy things just because they are on sale; instead they are buying things on sale because they actually need them.


Idea #4: Produce Scanner

Imagine a barcode scanner installed in your phone that could tell you when anything was about to expire - for example, if you scanned a barcode for a bag of exotic grapes, it could provide information such as how long you can keep the item and how to store the item properly. By having access to this information, consumers can make informed decisions at the grocery store, rather than take a chance and buy something that they do not know they can finish in time. 



Prototype: Produce Scanner


Identify produce you
are unfamiliar with.

Use your phone camera to scan the UPC barcode, PLU sticker or if neither are available, simply point your camera at the produce to identify it. 

Using the latest in image recognition AI technology, the app can search the web to identify your food. 

(Similar Technology: Google Lens)


Learn about your food
before purchasing it.

Know on the spot how much time you can keep the produce before it will go bad.

Make an informed decision on how much to buy during your grocery trip.

Learn how to store the produce to optimize its freshness and identify signs of spoilage when it occurs.


How does this solution reduce food waste? 

A pain point identified in the field observations was that people approximate how much food to buy at grocery stores based on previous experiences with the food. It is a process of trial and error for them. If they buy too much at first, most of it will go bad before they can finish it. In their next grocery trip they try to buy less; they keep adjusting until they discover the sweet spot: purchasing just enough produce so that they can eat it all before it goes bad.

What is the problem? Over time, they learn how much they can finish within a given time, before the produce goes bad; however, in their process of experimentation, food inevitably goes to waste. What happens if they are buying a type of produce for the first time? What if they have not purchased cucumbers in a while and forgot how long they keep? They would have to go through the same process of trial and error again to discover the sweet spot of how much to purchase.  

With a produce scanner, users will be able to identify the food that they are buying and make informed decisions at the grocery store. The app would provide information on how to store the produce to maximize freshness, how long you can keep it for at home and signs of spoilage if it starts occurring. By empowering consumers with this information, they are able to make informed purchasing decisions on the spot at the grocery store, rather than take a chance and buy something they may not finish before it spoils. By buying the appropriate amount of food and reducing food waste, the consumer can save money and the planet



Formative Usability Testing

I conducted formative usability testing remotely to gather initial impressions on the mockup created above with three representative users (primary grocery shopper in the household). Users were shown the prototype screens side-by-side and asked to provide feedback. They were given no context on the problem it solved before being asked the first question and then provided context for questions 2 and 3. 


1) What is your initial impression of this app? 

What does it do? How does it work? Where would you use it?

P1: "Visuals are good. When would you be confronted with a vegetable if you don't know what it is?"

P2: "It identifies food products by using your phone camera (must be very smart AI technology?) and teaches you how to cook them. Also how to store them. I'd probably use it in the grocery store. Maybe at home too if I had leftover groceries and didn't know what to cook."

P3: "Hmm looks like a produce identifier - something you'd want to use in the grocery store? But my initial impression is "why would I use this regularly?" - the grocery store already tells me the name of it."


2) What other functionalities would you like to see on this app? 

P1: "It would be nice to be able to scan the vegetables to add to inventory with estimate of freshness and warn when inventory may expire. Take an inventory, and optimize recipes." 

P2: "Hmmmm diet conscious people would probably use this app a lot so calorie count, dietary flags (i.e. gluten free, keto, sugar free, etc.). Also a search function that isn't just photo-recognition based. Like if someone already knew what the product was and could just search it."

P3: "A way to keep track of when I last bought it and how much I have at home would be nice. And then curated recipes that use the ingredients perhaps."


3) Would you use this app?

P1: "I would if it had the additional features I mentioned."

P2: "Yeah I would use it but again, probably more so for the recipes and dietary facts."

P3:  "I don't buy produce for myself at this time, so no. But when I have a family and have to actually cook more I would use something like that."


Usability Test Findings

Understood Context

2 out of 3 users were able to identify the correct context of use (grocery stores) without any hints.

Other Use Cases

Users also identified other use cases such as at home while looking for recipes with leftover ingredients.

2 out of 3 would use

the produce scanner app. The third user would use the app if he was not shopping for himself and had a family to feed. 



Next Steps

If I was to pursue this project further, I would continue to gather feedback through formative usability testing with different users and iterate on the design. For next steps, I would consider the ideas that the users noted they expected to see for the next version of the design. These features include: 

  • Ability to scan, log produce purchased and manage it in personal household inventory.
  • Curated recipes with ingredients on hand to reduce food waste. 
  • Text search function that is not just photo-recognition based. 
  • Information on dietary facts for the ingredients; for example, displaying carb content for keto diet.




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