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Update 10/5/16 - Shelf Life - An App for keeping track of the food in our kitchens

Food is often wasted in the home when it's lost in our overloaded shelves forgotten about until it's too late. There's an app for that.

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UPDATE 10/4/16

Thanks to everyone here I've gotten tons of helpful feedback. For my refinement I've decided to incorporate some options based on the feedback and focus on how Shelf Life can be adjusted to a plausible app for today that would (hopefully) one day work up to its full potential as an automated system based on RFID.

I'd appreciate feedback you have on this update! 

Phase 1 - Manual entry…sigh..

So avoiding manual entry is a key component to my concept. My research has shown that existing "tracking" apps fall short partially because of this immense load on the user - it is tedious and time consuming. But the most realistic option that can be implemented RIGHT NOW is to allow manual entry as an option and strive to make the process as user friendly as possible. So imagine adding a feature for manually adding a food item, but with auto complete to quickly select products and all that goodness, and a database of information like nutrition, expiration, and other important details that are auto-added when you add a food item.

Other, slightly better options: Photo recognition or QR codes.

Photo recognition is becoming more and more accurate and API’s like Google’s cloud vision api ( Make it assessable to developers. What if you could just snap a photo of each item as you put it away and have it added to your inventory?

Then there’s QR codes. It’s possible we’ll be seeing QR codes present on more food items soon (See the Smart Label initiative( , which claims “More than 30 major companies have already committed to using SmartLabel™ and the number of products providing ingredient information in the consistent SmartLabel™ format will continue to grow to more than 34,000 by the end of 2017."

So scanning in food items with QR codes can also be an option.

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HOWEVER both of these solutions are ignoring my research that 1. people dislike manual entry and 2. people will forget to remove items once they put them in, making the system inaccurate

so phase 2 attempts to bring my RFID idea into play and hopefully make this system plausible and as hands off as possible.

Phase 2 - Implementing RFIDs, various methods

As you can read below, using RFIDs is ultimately where I’d like to get with this app because it allows the user do as little work as possible and get a full inventory of their kitchen. We can’t jump into the RFID idea right away because they’re just not on products. So the RFID integration plan would be:

Step 1: Manually add tags

Manual entry sucks! But it’s the best we can do right away. When users bought the “Shelfies” for their kitchen, they could also buy a sheet of tags. Scanning the tag would prompt the user to enter a food item, and then they stick the tag on their food. Still slightly annoying to start, but then whenever the food is taken out it’s logged automatically.  If you buy a new version of that same product, the tag can be transferred to it. The tags are cheap enough so that if they get thrown out with the product it’s not a huge deal, but they could also be reused. 

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A new feature 

My teammate, Jonathan came up with another great feature that could make the tag step worth it. Rather than have to select ingredients for a recipe in the app, the user could also scan and take out the ingredients they want to use and have recipes suggested to them.

Step 2: Buy in from grocery stores

I got a lot of feedback suggesting ways to integrate receipts from the grocery store. After all, it’s a list of all the products you’ll be adding to your pantry later. What if you bought a sheet of RFID tags with a QR code that you could scan to “log” all of the tags. Then on the bottom of the receipt, there would be a QR code you could scan. Your phone would then map products to available tags, so it would say “Put tag number 13462 on Honey Nut Cheerios. Put tag 13463 on Mozzarella String Cheese”. Still involves some manual work but it eliminates the need to manual scan every tag and enter the names of the product, which could save some time.

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Step 3: Buy in from brands

The best option is to have the tags already on the products, ready to go. It could start with a few brands and hopefully expand to many. No work on the user’s end. Benefit to the brands because users will seek out their products for the Shelf Life compatibility.

The last two steps need a great deal of business deals with big organizations, not my strong suit. That’d be the biggest hurdle to getting where Shelf Life needs to go.

What do you all think?


Original Post:

So this project is actually the product of my senior thesis I presented this past spring. I took a design thinking approach to solving how consumers could waste less food in the home, doing many interviews and secondary research. I found that consumers often forget about the food hidden away in the back of their cabinets until it is too late. People also overbuy if they can't remember what they've bought, leading to more waste. The result of many iterations and prototyping was Shelf Life - an app and physical device that work together to keep track of the food in your kitchen.

Through my research I found that many existing apps for food tracking had one big flaw - manual entry. Having to enter all the food items you bought at the store in an app, and then remember to remove them when the item is gone was a major prohibitor for use.

So I started thinking about how to make the process of entering and removing this info seamless, invisible even. What if every time you took items in and out of your cabinets or fridge their barcodes were scanned just like at the supermarket checkout?

With Shelf Life, little companion devices called "Shelfies" hang out in your kitchen storage and wait for items to past by, adding and removing them from a database connected to your phone. Once you've got access to this data, the possibilities are many. This leads to a real life kitchen inventory that can store information about your food, like when it goes bad, what you need to buy, or what recipes can be made to prevent waste.

I built out a real, working prototype of this system for my presentation. Because barcode scanners are hard to hack and are limited in their information (it's really just a number, and there's not complete, open database that connects this number to the product it represents) I used RFID tags. There has been evidence in recent years that are making RFID tags a favorable, smarter replacement to barcodes. Another option is Smart Labels.

We could also work out a program with a supermarket to add the RFIDs directly to their products in exchange for their products being used with our app, or something else.

You can check out my full report here:

Obviously this is still a little futuristic, but the prototype represents a real product that could exist a few years down the line. 

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

My existing prototype could be set up in homes. We'd have to manually enter information for different food items since there is no database currently with this information, but it would be interesting to see if putting RFID tags connected to the app on the most common wasted food items prevented waste.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Feedback on my idea, ways to move forward with today's tech

Tell us about your work experience:

I'm a UX designer with a background in visual design, front-end development, and design thinking. Happy to contribute to other's ideas that could use help!

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

How far along is your idea?

  • It’s launched and we’re working on gathering more feedback – it’s existed for over 6 months

How would you describe this idea to your grandmother?

It's an app that keeps track of the food you have in your kitchen by scanning smart barcodes as you move things in and out of your cabinents

[Only for launched ideas] How does your idea differ from what you're already doing?

The "plausibility plan" is completely new - I haven't integrated manual entry or the "buy your own tags" method

How is your idea unique to the space?

No other existing app uses RFID to automate the process of inventory management. My idea addresses the time consuming, tedious, and off-putting process of manually adding food items to an app inventory that current apps include. It also addresses the issue of removing food items the manual entry poses - sure users might be able to keep up with manually adding their food every time they shop, but they'll be even less likely to remember to remove it.

Who needs to play a role in your idea in order to make it successful?

Really need to form relationships with product manufacturers and retailers to get them on board with adding RFIDs to their products or QR codes to receipts

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

Identify prototype households, measure current waste production, implement the prototype, and see how waste productions has been affected. then scale!

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

I want to start running prototypes of Shelf Life using manually added RFID tags in a few different living environments - single people, shared apartments, families - to test the effectiveness of waste reduction and iterate the design


Join the conversation:

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