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Eat Mentor

 

Back in the day, I made a mistake. Like many of us, I prioritized work over myself. That came with a cost: 50 extra pounds. By changing my eating habits and mindset, I found my way back to health and wellness. Besides completing a triathlon, this helped me become more confident and productive than ever.

In 2013, I decided to bring my personal experience and super-powers together: Design a product that would help people find their path to health and wellness. The idea was not unique, but simple: connect dietitians with people who want to lose weight, via a mobile app.

I would like to share my experience on how to design products, over the story of a product I designed— Eat Mentor. I hope this leads to more conversation, learning and inspiration. I hope this casts more light on what I do and what product design is.

1. Discovery

Personally, I could not correlate any word with the purpose of life. Professionally, I could not say this enough: You cannot find a solution to a problem that does not exist. You cannot design a product to an opportunity unknown.

The Self

This one is for every aspect of life.

I believe in “I” as much as I believe in “you.” We, ourselves, are the point of origin where everything begins.

Before you start anything, think of your Why- asking and answering as objectively as possible.

When I began to seriously consider this project, I asked myself many questions: Why should I do this? Why am I the one to do this?

I answered my questions, creating a list. The answers were long. My answer was personal experience. My answer was my passion for health and wellness.

The Network

We might be good. We might be great- but even the best of us will fall short at some point.

I knew I would not be able to undertake this challenge alone. I checked my first and secondary networks to see who could I team up with. From whom could I find support? Then, I got in touch. I talked to everyone, met up with friends, conversed over coffee. I found advice. I found support. I found a team.

The Problem

Personal experience helps to spot a problem. Thorough research helps to define a problem.

If it was not for the research that I completed, I would not know that three out of every four American adults qualified as overweight. I would not know that people tried to lose weight by solely exercise and diet, which is oftentimes unsuccessful. Exercise is not effective as a standalone option and 75 percent of all diets fail. I would not have learned that the most effective way of losing weight is accountability and tracking, nor that a dietitian could be a great solution, albeit coming at a steep cost of $200 an hour.

The Market

It’s not a bad idea to go after niche and small markets. I’ve actually done that many times. While there are downsides, it has its pros, and yes, it is possible to make good living off of it.

That being said, if you want a substantial achievement, you must go after something big. This time, I was going after something big.

My research showed that the dietitian market was $1.1 billion and online dieting already exceeded $1.4 billion. That made a combined market of $2.5 billion. This was sizable, but not huge. However, I also knew that a market could expand- just as the taxicab market was expanded by Uber. I decided that the market was sizable, had a future and had space to expand.

The Competition

Bad news: There was fierce competition. Good news: There was competition. Bonus: The competition was decades old, meaning giant ships that were harder to steer quickly as the market fluctuated.

Competition is something to strive for. If you are alone in a huge market, you are either extremely lucky or delusional.

Competition seemed tough at first, but as with any challenge I face, it got me more excited and motivated. There were many million-user apps, million dollar investments and multi-million dollar companies. Apps were free trackers and communities. I found tracking cumbersome, as much as 10-plus clicks to log a single meal! I found accountability was social, which is not necessarily sufficient motivation. Those who could offer one-on-one accountability were nowhere near affordable.

The User

“Everyone!” I hear in cheers when I ask about users. Small startups, as well as established companies, have a similar answer.

You want to design a great product? Know your user. You want to build a great company? Love your user.

At the beginning, you seek a particular type of person. A person who is passionate about your product and will go the extra mile. It’s important to find and know who that person is. How old is s/he? Where does s/he live? Where does s/he work? What does s/he do in his/her spare time? What does s/he read?

When you know that person, you will know where to find him/her. You can go out and talk to that person. You can ask questions, listen, learn, study- until you find the right fit.

It took many trials for me to find my influencers. Every time I had a profile, I went out and talked to as many as I could. Had chats over coffee. Gave away many movie tickets. Arranged many phone calls. Asked a lot of questions. When I did find them, I learned that they had tried to lose weight more than once, in many different ways. I knew that they signed up for a gym, every year. I knew they’d be referred to a dietitian, sooner or later. I knew the cost would either turn them off, or make it an unsustainable solution for the long term.

My users were not only those trying to lose weight, but also those trying to help people to lose weight. Just as I did before, I went out and interviewed as many dietitians as I could. Sometimes I booked their time, sometimes I bought them lunch. I asked heaps of questions. I tried to understand what took up most of their time. What were the biggest bottlenecks they faced? What were common client types they had?

Analyze

Accumulating information is an important step in the process. Proper analyzation of the information is even more crucial.

Soon after the discovery, I sat down to analyze all information I had gathered. Over and over, again and again. Afterwards, I went and cross checked it again with my trusted network. This was to ensure that my potential delusions were not far from potential reality.

The analysis might be a long process in itself. I’ll give a glimpse into my process for this project.

The Categorization

It’s easier to make meaning of information when said information is organized. I like to throw everything on the floor and start categorizing them. There is no single “right” way of doing that. This time, I wanted to see facts, hypotheses and assumptions.

Fact: Three-quarters of American adults qualify as overweight.

Fact: Eating habits have the biggest impact on weight loss.

Hypotheses: Anyone who wants to lose weight would consider going to a gym.

Hypotheses: Anyone who wants to lose weight would consider working with a dietitian.

Assumption: People should keep detailed records of their daily food intake.

Assumption: People need to visit dietitians on a regular basis.

I’d keep that information and bring pieces together when making my design decisions.

The Status Quo

Only those who push boundaries achieve true freedom.

We are built for progress. That’s what keeps us alive. We are also bound by concrete and imaginary limits. That’s another thing that keeps us alive. My way of staying alive is to challenge myself. My design mindset reflects this.

One thing I do with every project is to challenge the status quo. I look at my assumptions list and challenge every assumption I see.

I challenged each and every assumption that could be made from that day to the foreseeable future. Were there better ways for users to track what they eat? Did users need to visit dietitians regularly in person? Did they need to wait a week for feedback?

The Revisit

Where you start and where you end up are rarely the same place. With the revisit, you are looking to understand how your initial idea stands up post-research.

At the beginning, the idea was to connect people with dietitians. That would be via a mobile app which employed pictures and messaging. I did not know if pictures would be sufficient to track food. I was curious- what made dietitians so effective, and yet so costly? I was wondering if there was a pattern accounting for over 80% of the process.

After the discovery, I concluded that pictures were sufficient to track food. Why? Because eating patterns matter more than ingredients. I found out that dietitians were incredibly effective because it was tracking and one-on-one accountability that made the magic happen. I was convinced that by taking pictures of what you ate and direct messaging a dietitian, you would be able to achieve the healthy lifestyle you desired.

2. Design

The Brand

There is no single best time to think about your brand, but there are better times to think about it. A better time, for instance, is when you know your users and market better.

After the discovery, I wanted a stronger emotional connection to my project. A stronger connection for both myself and the people I was talking to. I listed and categorized all products in the market. What I was looking for was a space in which my brand could stand out. Then, I thought about my target audience. I concluded that my product should communicate simplicity and functionality in a snap. My research brought Eat Mentor on top. Simple, definitive, personable.

I recommend you to check the Igor Naming Guide.

The Must, the Should and the Could

As Einstein once said- the simplest, but not any simpler.

Product design is a never ending process. You learn, you design, you deliver. You keep on repeating this cycle. During this process it’s very easy to get carried away- about an idea, about a feature or about an opportunity. This typically complicates things. The simpler, the easier to iterate.

I developed a personal strategy to overcome this. For every alteration or addition I consider, I ask if it’s a must, a should or a could. Musts are absolutely required for my product to succeed in the short term. Shoulds are important, but the product will still work without them. Coulds are nice to have, perhaps at some point in the future. This helps me to focus and stay on track.

What is the absolute minimum set of features for my product to work for users? Tracking and messaging. What is the absolute minimum set of features for my product to work for dietitians? Browsing and messaging.

The Flow

Here is the first flow I drafted of the Eat Mentor app:

First drafts are usually more complex than what they should be. Once you’re done, sleep on it. That’s what I did. Was “login” really required? Did my users need a tutorial? (Tip: Answer is always no.)

Simpler is better.

The User Interface

The app’s main purpose would be taking pictures and viewing the meal diaries. I decided it should not take more than a tap or two to take a picture. Also, the app should display meals in a manner in which users could easily view their eating habits.

I don’t like learning curves. I applied the same strategy for messaging. Therefore, I kept it as close as possible to popular message services: SMS, iMessage, Whatsapp.

I began drafting the “day view,” where users would land after their first time using the app. I needed a date picker and proper representation of the date picked.

For some reason, I began with a date picker on the left hand side. I probably thought that would give a better feeling of “recent on top.” But soon after, I realized that I could not find the space I needed to present meals, which had higher priority.

I drafted other alternatives. Bottom placement was an immediate turn off. How about top?

Top placement worked the best. Here, pay special attention to the dates. I had to show the most recent date first. I thought users would find that natural. I later learned that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Here are early sketches of other views, i.e pictures and messaging.

Pro tip: Always sketch with a thick pen. This will ensure you focus on the big picture, rather than getting stuck with details, most of which are an unnecessary waste of time in the beginning stages.

The Dietitian Interface

When I interviewed dietitians, I often heard about eating patterns. I realized that the biggest problem was not necessarily the content of a specific meal, but rather overall eating patterns. For instance, it was very common to have a light breakfast. That meant bigger portions in the afternoon or evening.

With that knowledge, dietitians needed to see the week’s meals and user’s eating patterns at a glance.

A list of users on the left and an overview of the week on the right. It’s easy to see the amount of food intake and gaps between meals.

I decided that Registered Dietitian interface was secondary in priority, since there would be less dietitians to begin with and it would be easier for me to communicate with them as needed.

The Communication

It’s not only the app or website that makes the user experience. The user experience is the average feelings/impressions left on a user within a period of time using your product. Communication is one of the most essential parts of that process. How will the app communicate with the user? What (email/message), when (immediately/after a period of time), how (personal/automated)?

I wrote down all that might be necessary to send/receive. Looking at patterns, it made the most sense to divide communication channels into two: Triggered and Periodic. Triggered would be sent/received over an action, immediately or after a certain period of time. Periodic would be sent in periods, i.e every week at 8pm.

A triggered user action: send a welcome email immediately after user registration is complete.

The Wireframe

Once all sketches are in place, it’s time to begin wireframing. This helps move things around easier and build the base for the visual design.

Wireframes get me to take sketches one step further. Not only by means of layout, but also by means of content.

Pro tip: Use real content. Never Lorem Ipsum or another filler text. This will get you to think about context better.

Shown above are the wireframes of the day view, picture browsing and messaging/conversation view.

The Visuals

I wanted the app to have a fresh, sharp and professional feeling. I picked a color palette to reflect that. I also thought it would be better to use sharp corners, rather than curves.

I applied the palette and imagery, and the results were promising. Note: iOS 7 was not introduced at this time.

The Prototype

You should put your app in front of as many people as possible and listen to what they have to say. They could be your friends, but the less well they know you, the better. You’d be surprised the amount of feedback and perspectives you get from strangers, which saves you time and money.

In this case, it did not take long for me to spot a common feedback comment from people to whom I showed the app: the calendar. While I was designing the app, I managed to convince myself that people would be familiar (or quickly adapt) to the “latest first” pattern. However, that was not the case. Almost everyone who looked at the app wondered why the dates were backwards. It confused them. I was still curious about testing the learning curve, so I took the risk and went ahead to the next stage.

On the dietitian end; things looked mostly fine. During my user testing, it took minimum explanation and less than 5 minutes to understand and adapt the interface. There was feedback about the position of messaging icons. I took note of this for the next iteration.

The Specification

Prototyping is quicker and more effective than it’s ever been. In some cases, it can even replace the “User interface specification.” However, I find the spec is a good and essential practice to communicate to the development team (especially a remote one). It’s faster, developers have less chance to miss a detail and you can always refer to a prototype when it becomes more complicated.

I use a very simple approach for the spec. I use Keynote and explain every interaction in the simplest possible way. It looks like this:

The Alpha

Alpha release is when your product meets the public. It’s not only a great way to test the interaction, but also the user acquisition. Find your influencers, get them on board and give them your product. Then listen and learn.

The first release of the app had what was absolutely required: logging and browsing meals, as well as messaging. Things worked well, besides a couple of technical challenges. I was lucky to have a solid development team. This makes you less afraid of making mistakes, which is another key to creating great products.

The Iteration

Shortly after the first Alpha was released, Apple announced iOS7 and its new user interface. I was not expecting a facelift of this scale, but unexpected things happen all the time. Agile approaches rule in these kinds of situations.

During the Alpha phase, user feedback revealed that the “latest first” calendar view was not the ideal design. I wanted to eliminate every possible question marks. I wanted my product to be intuitive. I decided to bite the bullet and simplify the design.

Besides the look and feel, the major difference in design was the new calendar. Future dates are disabled, and dates with a dietitian feedback are marked in different color. This was easier for users to learn and use.

Earlier, instead of the app, I would spend at least half an hour per user on the phone for assessment. Since “musts” were in place, we could focus on “shoulds” and implement them on the app.

Implementing the assessment in the app saved me a thirty minute phone call (at least) per user.

3. Measurement

How do we know if the product we built and the design decisions we made are on the right path? No one can know that for sure, but we have strong indications with proper measurement.

Product-wise, the results we were getting were promising. Dietitians loved and adapted to the system quickly. They had all they needed: assessment, meals, patterns and a communication channel. How could we measure success of the product? Some ideas we had:

Number of pictures taken in a certain period of time (daily, weekly and monthly)

Weight loss in a certain period of time

Number of messages sent/received

Net Promoter Score (NPS)

After a couple of months, our KPIs and NPS were promising;

Every user who signed up lost weight

Male users lost two to four pounds within first two weeks

Female users lost one to two pounds within first two weeks

Every user maintained the weight they lost during their use

NPS score was over 9

Conclusion

After almost a year long adventure, I learned more than I thought possible about health, wellness and weight-loss business. The learning process that influenced me to create this product also caused me to stop building this product. There are both personal and professional reasons involved, and I won’t get into details. What I can say is, for the right people, there is great opportunity in similar products. These products have the potential to touch millions of lives and create thousands of jobs.

Writing this article has been a challenging learning experience in itself. It got me out of my comfort zone, and forced me to review and explain my design thinking. It is far from perfect or complete, but I hope it will be a good step towards learning more and improving.

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