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A Texas supermarket's innovative "Zócalo Food Court" gently leads not-yet-health-nuts toward healthier eating

Inspiring people to make gradual changes using instant visual nutrition feedback, healthy meal options that taste great, in-store education

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Who is the target audience for your idea and how does it inspire the end user to lead a healthier life?

My idea focuses on the Texas region, and envisions partnering with a specific grocery chain with strong Latin American ties; but the concepts are applicable to all regions of the US. I've framed my detailed idea description as a hypothetical newspaper interview dated one year from now, which captures the philosophy of inspiring and helping people to make gradual changes through a combination of high-tech nutrition tracking, healthy meal options that taste great, and in-store education.
A Texas supermarket's innovative Zocalo Food Court gently leads not-yet-health-nuts toward healthier eating

By Ken McAlpine, Senior Food & Health reporter for Money Street Journal

On July 19, 2016

Tish Martinez has pledged to eat 500 of her next 1000 meals in RIO Supermarket's new Zócalo Food Court. Tish is Zócalo's president. She vows, "I won't get bored with the food, and in a year I'll be healthier than ever!"

After a moment's reflection, Ms. Martinez adds, "Where will fast-food chain executives be dining?"

Martinez and Zócalo are on a mission to prove that delicious, convenient, affordable meals can be healthy. Says Ms. Martinez, "We all know now that the US faces a huge epidemic of food-related illness and obesity. This crisis is fed, literally, by fast food, highly processed food, junk food, ridiculous portion sizes, and a lack of proper nutritional balance."

"RIO is positioning Zócalo Food Court as no less than Texas' antidote to this epidemic. And we want an inclusive cure that cuts across all ethnic and socio-economic groups."

This is a large promise to fill. So how does Zócalo intend to pull it off?

To find out Zócalo's secret sauce, I fly to Houston and meet with Tish Martinez for lunch at RIO's debut Zócalo location.

The Zócalo Food Court is a large, mostly self-serve venue for dine-in and take-out meals. The supermarket food court features several serving stations offering both hot and cold meal options. The selection is eclectic, reflecting Texas' cultural diversity. The physical space feels inviting, as if it is a calming oasis in the midst of the supermarket's usual hubub. Colorful Mexican tiles add a nice touch. At first glance, the salad-bar-on-steroids concept of, say, a Golden Roundup restaurant comes to mind.

As I begin to serve up my lunch, I quickly realize: This sure is no Golden Roundup! The serving stations, and even the cafeteria trays, are tricked out with sensors and digital electronics that instantly tally the nutritional metrics of my food as I serve up the selections. A visual info-graphic display, projected next to my cafeteria tray, shows my meal's calorie count, plus another number labeled "Nutritional Balance Index" (NBI for short).

Ms. Martinez explains that the NBI quickly summarizes, on a scale of 1 to 100, how well-balanced your meal is. Says Tish, "It's a bit like a game... try to keep the calories below your personal target, and try to make the NBI as large as you can."

Tish adds, "We even give kids a happy prize — but not as a reward for eating the same old nuggets meal after meal. They only get the happy prize if their NBI score is over 80."

Tish sketches for me a fundamental predicament faced by a healthy-eating venture like Zócalo: "In order to attract and retain customers, Zócalo's food needs to be tasty. But if the food is delicious (and our customers tell us it is), there is always the temptation to over-indulge. The computer wizardry makes portion control easy, and gently nudges our customers toward a balanced diet." Catch-22 resolved.

Ms. Martinez fills in more tech details: "Even customers without smart phones get these basic nutrition  tracking benefits. But with our iPhone app, customers can get more detailed nutrient stats, trend graphs, and personalized suggestions."

"Let me show you one of the features I think is pretty cool..." Tish leads me to the dessert bar, takes out her iPhone, and picks up the serving tongs for the Linzer Torte. Without missing a beat, Ms. Martinez' phone scolds her with a game-show-wrong-answer-buzz sound. Tish explains, "I've listed gluten intolerance in my profile, and that piece of cake contains wheat."

I ask Tish about a small group of diners and a Zócalo staffer (in tell-tale red polo shirt) off to one side of the court, who look as if they've gathered for a lunchtime seminar. Tish says my observation is right on target... this is one of Zócalo's fifteen-minute mini-classes. Tish explains, "We want to do for healthy lifestyle education in the community what Apple Stores are doing in the world of consumer electronics. Courteous, knowledgable staff teaching useful tips on nutrition, cooking and various health topics, all in a casual, supportive style. They're our ambassadors for healthy eating."

Another feature of the Zócalo Food Court that immediately catches your eye is that serving stations and cafeteria trays are outfitted with see-through windows that reveal the computer processor boards behind all the nutrition tracking magic. I ask Tish why they're showing the innards. Tish replies, "We got the inspiration from the truth windows that Austin straw-bale-house owners have in their walls, revealing the truth of the construction."

"A bit of a gimic," I ask? Tish replies, "Perhaps. But for tech-savvy millenials, the cool electronics may draw them in to the health aspect. In the 60's, many teens wouldn't have listened to classical music if you paid them... but Moog synthesizers were cool, and with Switched-On Bach's release they got lured into an appreciation of classical. We hope for a similar effect."

Tish goes on to say, "We even have a technical fact sheet for those interested in how it all works." She rattles off a tsunami of facts about all the ARM Cortex embedded chips talking ZigBee, the serving station and tray sensors, double-entry bookkeeping principles, iBeacons talking Bluetooth to iPhones, and more. She lost me about a mile back at the intersection of Cortex and ZigBee.

Tish notices that my eyes have glazed over and shifts the topic:

"Zócalo isn't only about gadgets. Empathy for the customer is just as important. As well as a passion for food innovation where delicious meets healthy." I ask Tish to say more about the empathy factor. She tells me, "Large, abrupt changes of habit go against human nature. An overnight switch from burgers and fries to tofu and sprouts just isn't going to happen. We think a path for gradual transition is needed."

"We serve many old favorites – real crowd pleasers – which are healthy, but don't shout out Health Food!!! and risk turning off mainstream customers. You don't need to be on a health program to come into Zócalo Food Court and enjoy the food."

Tish points to the Baja fish taco on my plate as Exhibit A. It's got pieces of grilled Mahi Mahi, shredded cabbage, tomato and avocado slices, cilantro, a dollop of chipotle yogurt sauce, some queso fresco, and mango chunks, all wrapped in a tortilla that's 75% blue corn and 25% whole grain amaranth. Tish exclaims, "Everything in that taco is super healthy! Now what's your verdict?" I confess that the eating experience is heaven on the seventh floor. Ms. Martinez adds, with a detectable touch of pride, "I developed that blue corn/amaranth recipe in my own kitchen."

"Wherever possible, we try to gently guide customers, by small steps, in a healthy direction. If we serve a familiar dish containing refined grains, we'll generally place a whole grain counterpart next to it. For example, we've created a version of arroz a la mexicana made with Nishiki brown rice simmered in a purée of tomato and broccoli."

"And we're trying to drive down the carbs that have gotten so out of hand. General Tso's chicken may well be America's favorite food, but it's got way too much sugar. We call our alternative General Joe's. It's actually an authentic tangerine peel chicken recipe from Chengtu, China. It has 1/16 the sugar of a typical Tso recipe, and tastes fantastic."

Tish notices the two Better-than-Buffalo wing-dings on my plate, and observes, "This is Texas, and, granted, we'll never give up our brown-sugar-based BBQ sauces, me included. But Zócalo's recipe developers are trying to chip away at the sugar consumption every place we can. Those Better-than-Buffalo wings are marinated before baking with a shallot/habanero/black-pepper/olive-oil purée, containing zero sugar." I try one. Hot as Dallas in July, but sheer bliss. Before leaving, I grab one of the tear-off recipe cards for the wings so I can enjoy them back in New York. Of course I'll need to change that name.

I ask Ms. Martinez where she sees Zócalo to be headed. She responds, "Our near-term goal is to grow our customer base, expand to more store locations, and continue to refine the format, food offerings and mini-class programs. We think of Zócalo Food Court as a living lab where discovery is ongoing. Further down the road, who knows. We're already kicking around concepts such as spinning out Zócalo as a stand-alone restaurant chain, perhaps outside of Texas as well. We've also had informal discussions with ISD boards about the concept of Zócalo as a school cafeteria contract service. I've even had a casual chat with the Governor of Texas about the concept of  Zócalo as food provider at Interstate highway rest stops within Texas. Our truckers are highly limited in food choices to where they can park their big rigs. They deserve healthier food choices on the road than what they have now." The possibilities sound intriguing.

So, what is my final lunch tally? My calorie count comes in at 520, and my NBI is 81. My happy prize is an EI (enjoyment index) that is off the scale.

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Zócalo Guilding Principles, Inspirations:

  • The Feedback Principle of Product DesignSelf-serve buffet formats have great potential for guiding people toward healthier eating: they offer the user the freedom to build a custom meal (which suits their taste) containing diverse nutrients; and buffet formats also allow finely-tuned portion control. But existing buffets lack the immediate user feedback that Donald Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things” teaches us is so important in product design. At the heart of the base Zócalo concept is the idea of using digital technology (in serving stations and cafeteria trays) to provide that missing feedback. Even the calorie tally alone can assist in portion control and help establish eating patterns that let a user control their weight. The potential value of nutritional feedback came home to me when I decided to eat salads every day for lunch: I gained weight, analyzed how this could be, and was shocked to find that my big scoops of sunflower seeds and ranch dressing, alone, were pushing 600 calories.
  • Ramp Up Users, Don’t Dumb Down Product: During initial concept ideation, a quote from a tweet by Emilie Lasseron kept resonating with me. In the context of a multi-step consumer learning process for the roll-out of a new healthy food product, Emilie tweeted, “Laddering up uses instead of dumbing down products”. The Zócalo concept reflects this philosophy: (a) food selections that enable the building of an ultra-healthy meal are just a few scoops away, all there for the taking (no dumbing down); but (b) the “not-yet-health-nut” user can make a gradual transition from familiar favorites toward a more balanced, optimal and healthy diet (the laddering up). The combination of immediate feedback and mini-classes help this transition to happen. (Note that fast-food chains who have announced plans to gradually make their menus healthier over a period of many years may be laddering up users, but are still dumbing down the product.)
  • No Mobile Device Required: The Zócalo initiative aims to bring the value of convenient nutrition feedback to a broad spectrum of users. As such, a primary Zócalo design goal is to bring basic nutritional feedback for meal selections to users who do not own a smart phone or mobile tablet. (Zócalo also offers a richer feature set, via the Zócalo mobile app, for those who do own a mobile device.)
  • Keep the User Interface Simple: The design of the no-mobile-device-required interface needs to be very simple in order to be useful and accessible to a broad spectrum of users. The current envisioned design provides this simple interface — the controls for user input consist solely of 2 push buttons located on the special cafeteria tray. That's it! More details are given below.

More Actionable and Visual Nutritional Advice in Feedback to User:

The original posting of the Zócalo idea envisioned a basic, no-smart-phone-required user interface consisting of a simple digital readout on the cafeteria tray which gave the user's running calorie tally as they served up their meal; plus a number on a scale of 1 to 100 which gave a rough summary of how nutritionally balanced their meal was. To a degree, the calorie count provides actionable information -- the user can stop serving up food when they hit their desired per-meal target. However, a single index summarizing how well-balanced a meal is does not provide very actionable information to the user. The user needs advice on how to make their meal more balanced. Comments from team member Bettina brought home this point. This prompted a major revision of the envisioned user interface for the no-smart-phone-required nutrition feedback. The new version of the feedback has moved toward a richer, more visual interface, inspired by the Harvard School of  Public Health's healthy eating guidelines and healthy eating plate/pyramid info-graphics. The trick is figuring out a way to make such a richer, more visual nutrition feedback interface available to the user who does not carry a smart phone or tablet. How Zócalo pulls off this trick is described in more detail below.

Nutritional Feedback, rev2. Info-graphics projected onto cafeteria tray

The Nutrition Feedback Design (Second Revision):

During the Refinement phase, team input led to the conclusion that the envisioned Nutritional Balance Index (NBI) does not provide enough actionable information to guide users toward choosing well-balanced meals. A second revision of the envisioned serving-station/tray system seeks to address this shortcoming. The goal is to present the user with an info-graphic display that visually conveys how balanced the user’s meal is, in real-time as the user makes serving selections. The user should be able to tell, at a glance, where there are gaps in their selections.

At least for the time-being, we will use the Harvard School of Public Health's Healthy Eating Plate and/or Healthy Eating Pyramid info-graphics as a starting point for devising a display that provides users with feedback on how healthy their meal is and which offers guidance for building a healthy meal. Harvard SPH has sought to correct deficiencies in the USDA's Food Pyramid, MyPyramid, and MyPlate schemes, basing their corrections on extensive research.

Zocalo's own version of a healthy eating plate, customized to give real-time user feedback how well their meal stacks, and how they can improve it.

The above photo shows the latest version of the proposed Zócalo info-graphic. This display is largely based on the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate, but departs from the Harvard healthy plate in a number of ways in order to add the dimension of real-time feedback to the user on how they are doing with their current meal selections. One point of departure is that each of the 4  food-group slices of the plate has a highlighted sub-region that reflects, real-time, how much of that food group is reflected in the user's current food selections (relative to all the other food groups). For an ideally balanced meal, the highlighted slices for all 4 food groups would have fairly large radii. If there are gaps in the user's meal, for example of the user had not selected much in the way of vegetables, then this deficiency would be visible at a glance, being reflected in a small radius highlighted region for that given food group. Another departure from the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate is that the Zócalo Healthy Plate uses the terms "Grains" and "Protein" for two of the food groups in the plate, whereas Harvard uses the terms "Whole Grains" and "Healthy Proteins". We completely agree with Harvard that eating whole grains and the healthier proteins should be encouraged. But if we were to only  count food selections as contributing to the "Grains" plate slice if they were whole grains, and not count red meat as contributing to the "Protein" plate slice, this would create a skewing of the feedback information regarding how well-balanced the meal is. In keeping with the Zócalo principle of gradually laddering up the users, we factor the "Grains" and "Protein" feedback into two separate pieces of information: (1) how much of the given food group is represented by the user's meal selections (quantity oriented information); and (2) the quality of the user's selections of the given food group. So, for instance, the feedback described above of using highlighted sub-slices of different radii to tell the user whether their meal is balanced does not discriminate between different sources of protein or different kinds of grains. To give the user feedback on the level of quality or healthiness of the "Grains" and "Protein" food groups, we accompany those plate slices with gas-gauge-like meters that signal whether the grain or protein selections are healthy or not-so-healthy. The Zócalo Healthy Plate also departs from Harvard's plate in (i) adding the calorie count and a summary metric on how well-balance the meal is at bottom of screen (instead of our original vision of these tallies being shown via an LCD display on the user tray); (ii) adding an advice section on the right, which, based on user's current food selections, gives feedback verbiage on good and bad points of current selection, and suggestions for how to fill in gaps; (iii) several color stars next to the "Vegetables" food group slice, which fill in with the various colors reflecting vegetables in the user's meal. The idea behind the stars is to take Harvard's advice on eating a full spectrum of colors in vegetables, and add the dimension of feedback on how well the user meal follows the advice.

In addition to this nutritional feedback info-graphic screen, we envision a second screen, dubbed the “Inspire Me!” screen, where the system makes suggestions (say, 2 or 3) of serving items that would help the meal achieve better balance. The Zócalo Healthy Plate info-graphic could be the default screen. By pushing an “Inspire Me!” button located on the cafeteria tray, the user can, at any time, request suggestions from the system.

A sample of what the
User controls for  activating nutrition display and seeking advice.

Zócalo will tentatively base the guidance for both the Zócalo Healthy Plate info-graphic and the Inspire Me! screen upon the Harvard School of Public Health guidelines. It remains to be determined how the nutritional balance summary index will be calculated. We will seek an approach to distill down a single number that rates how well the user meets the Harvard healthy plate and pyramid guidance on how to build a healthy meal. 

Implementing the Info-Graphics Display, Without the Need for User to Own a Smart Phone:

As stated above, a key Zócalo design goal is that the basic nutritional feedback should be available even to users who do not carry a mobile device. Therefore, the envisioned info-graphic display and “Inspire Me!” screens need to be a part of the store's system, and not depend upon a user device. This constraint presents a design challenge. One might envision large flat-panel displays as part of the serving stations, such displays showing the healthy plate info-graphics and “Inspire Me!” screens. One problem with this approach is that multiple users will often be making simultaneous use of the same serving station, and keeping the information straight for the multiple users could be difficult to do cleanly. Furthermore, the big-flat-panel approach lacks any degree of privacy. It’s like a public bill-board displaying the anatomy of one’s meal. Another approach might be to incorporate an LED screen into each cafeteria tray. But this seems unworkable partly due to high cost, but also due to a lack of available real estate on a tray, as well as the fact that trays are fairly messy places with frequent spills.

To resolve these various demands, the second revision of the envisioned system uses a custom-designed tray ledge. This tray ledge plays a dual role:

(i) the normal function of the ledge as a surface that supports the user tray, and which allows the tray to be slid along the serving line; and

(ii) a sort of projection screen onto which the display images can be projected via a digital projector.

In the envisioned system, the display image for each user is projected onto a ledge region adjacent to the user’s tray. The digital projector could be located on an overhead track, in which case the image is projected down onto the ledge in a front-lit fashion. As the user slides their tray, location detection (e.g. via iBeacon technology) would allow the projector to move in concert with the tray location to keep the image adjacent to the user tray. (Multiple projectors would accommodate multiple users simultaneously using a given serving station.) The following mockup illustrates the approach of using front-lit projection onto the tray ledge via projectors located overhead:

Info-graphic display projected onto tray ledge via overhead digital projector.

One could alternatively use upwardly-pointing digital projectors located on a track close to floor-level under the serving station's tray ledge. This approach requires a special tray ledge with a center panel that is a translucent surface appropriate for displaying a back-lit projected image. This back-lit approach is preferable to the front-lit, overhead projector approach, since with the latter user hands, arms and head could get into the light path of the projected image. The following two photos show a full-scale serving station ledge prototype that uses the back-lit approach. The first photo shows the ledge and a mockup tray with the projection inactive. The second photo shows the same setup with the projector activated. The prototype uses a stretched membrane for the central translucent back-lit screen, which was created using a "frost finish" shower curtain:

Full-scale tray ledge prototype, with display in off state.
Full-scale tray ledge prototype, with display in on state.

The Lightweight Prototype User Trial:

Implementing a prototype of the envisioned digital food serving and nutritional feedback system was not a viable option during the Challenge Refinement phase because of time constraint. So an alternative lightweight prototype approach was devised to get initial user feedback on their impressions of a serving system that provides real-time nutritional feedback. The first trial was described in an attached document, and did nearly automatic calorie counting using an analog method. In this approach, pre-measured portions of each ingredient selection were presented in a build-your-own-baja-taco buffet. Each ingredient plate was accompanied by a bag of rice whose weight was in proportion to the calorie count of the pre-measured portion. Each time the user made a selection, they piled the bag of rice onto a kitchen scale. The scale numbers and absolute weights of the rice bags were such that the user could directly read off the running calorie count of the taco as they custom assembled it.

In the second trial, I continued to use an analog approach, but used length rather than weight as my "gauge". Each ingredient buffet plate was accompanied by a dowel whose length was proportional to the calorie count of the pre-measured portion of the ingredient. Each time a user selected an ingredient portion, they dropped the corresponding dowel into the end of a plastic tube which resembled a large thermometer. As the meal is assembled, the user can read off the running calorie count, as if reading a thermometer. One reason for moving to this dowel approach was that it allowed me to add a convenient sort of nutritional variety feedback mechanism, somewhat paralleling the Harvard healthy eating plate info-graphic. Each dowel has a color band which indicates the food group (or dominant food group) of the ingredient. I used colors similar to the healthy plate info-graphic: green for vegetables, red for fruits, orange for protein, and brown for grains. So in addition to being able to read off the cumulative calorie count at a glance, the user can tell at a glance whether they have a good nutritional balance. This color band approach does not exactly duplicate the Zócalo Healthy Plate discussed above, since the healthy plate captures a more quantitative measurement of the relative balance among different food groups, while our lightweight prototype only indicates, yes or no, whether your meal includes a food group. But at least there is some degree of nutritional balance feedback in the rev 2 lightweight prototype.

Thermometer-like gauge for auto-calorie counting in rev 2 version of lightweight prototype
User can read off calories from height of dowel column, and can get idea of balance from variety of color bands.

Additionally, for foods belonging to the grains category, I placed an additional band on the dowel indicating whether the selection is a whole grain (yellow band with a smiley face) or refined grain (white band with a frowny face). This mimics the grain and protein qualitygauges envisioned for the full-fledged digital version of the above-described Zócalo Healthy Plate.

The rev 2 user trial using the dowel approach was very modest, testing with only 3 users. These were relatives and neighbor, and all 3 were very health conscious, and very attuned to watching nutrition. So the results are not very general since this was a bit like preaching to the choir. However, some interesting observations and user comments occurred. 

All 3 of the users chose the blue corn/amaranth whole grain tortilla, rather than the white flour tortilla. But they generally indicated that the feedback had no effect on their choice of tortilla. (This is a case where a broader cross section of subjects would have been useful, including those who generally prefer a four tortilla.) One user did indicate that if she were someone less nutritionally attuned, then the happy versus frowny face would likely have had an impact. The same user also expressed surprise at the fact that the flour tortilla had nearly 3 times the calories as the blue corn/amaranth tortilla. (I believe that this difference would be largely due to the fact that the flour tortilla was much thicker than the corn/amaranth one.)

All remarked about the dramatic difference in dowel length amongst different ingredients, such as that the avocado dowel was surprisingly big. One user simply passed on taking the avocado. (The seeming universal expression of amazement at the huge variance of calories when seeing the analog representation was a bit of a revelation. I've thought of the lightweight analog prototype as an inferior stop-gap until the digital version is implemented. But this user reaction suggests that there is something useful about the analog approach. It raises the question of whether some UI technique in the digital version could mimic this analog feedback feature.)

The user who gave me the most detailed, in-depth feedback also remarked that the happy face for whole grains made an impression. She also discussed how people over 65 need lots of protein, as well as plants, and that despite the large calorie value of the avocado, the calorie count helped her decision to go for the avocado as being a good source of plant protein. She already knew that avocado is high calorie, but having the calorie tally, she knew that she could "budget in" the avocado. Without the immediate feedback, she might have skipped the avocado based on its reputation as being high calorie. She said that 90 calories was acceptable for getting something so healthy. She repeated some similar statements with regard to the Mahi Mahi fish. After she had built a reasonable size Baja taco, she saw that the calorie tally was very modest, and decided to go for a double portion of the Mahi Mahi, thinking out loud about how her doctor had advised getting lots of protein, and with the calorie feedback she could see that she could afford to go for the double serving of fish. This user also remarked that the analog setup had been very effective in mimicking the envisioned digital version. (At the beginning of each user's trial, I showed them the healthy plate info-graphic and explained what the eventual target implementation looked like.)

It would be very useful to repeat the trials with a more representative cross section, including those who are not yet very nutritionally conscious.

Choice of blue corn/amaranth or white flour tortillas. Dowel lengths show big calorie difference. White vs yellow band shows whole grain vs processed grain (quality).
Test subject loading dowel for a food selection into top of calorie gauge plastic tube.

Executing on the Zócalo Vision:

Zócalo Food Court is an ambitious undertaking, but do-able. In order to make the Zócalo Food Court a reality, we envision the following steps:

  • Conduct more extensive user feedback trials (at first using lightweight prototype, then digital serving station version) and interviews with more representative user cross-section. Initial trials were with very health-conscious users (preaching to the choir). Adjust details of vision using knowledge learned.
  • Establish dialog with management and product strategists with at least one candidate supermarket chain. Expose the Zócalo concept to a reality check. Get their feedback on what could work, what isn't realistic, and how they might adapt the concept. This dialog is absolutely crucial, since the Zócalo concept is completely dependent upon partnering with a real supermarket chain. The concept needs business viability.
    • A good choice for such a dialog would be HEB, headquartered in San Antonio, TX
    • HEB has long been a thought leader in the supermarket industry, with innovations like Central Market stores.
    • HEB has been opening Mi Tienda stores in Houston and Austin, which have a Hispanic focus.
    • HEB's growth plans have been focusing on ties with Latin America, both for sourcing food and for extending HEB's retail geographic reach.
    • HEB is now operating stores in both Texas and northern Mexico.
    • HEB is a sponsor of the existing It's Time Texas healthy living initiative.
  • Build the digital prototype of the total nutrition tracking and feedback system. This includes both hardware and software for serving stations, trays, display projection and tracking system, and mobile device app.
    • Perhaps IDEODigitalShop could assist with digital design.
    • A possible source of low-cost technical assistance would be to establish a university relationship. Perhaps a school could arrange assistance from an EE student as a sort of work-study. Might try exploring the subject with University of Texas at Austin EE, innovation and/or entrepreneurial program points of contact.

        A Phased Go-to-Market Execution Strategy

In order to hold the initial costs down and test the waters, we might consider a phased approach. Initially, the implementation would be more limited in scope than the full-blown vision that we've sketched in this document. The initial roll-out would focus on a more nutritionally conscious and more tech-savvy cross section of users. Some of this demographic might already be doing fitness tracking using high-tech wearables. This market entry approach follows advice of market disruption gurus who stress establishing a market beachhead with true believers who love the concept at first sight — then in later phases, broaden the target audience, in our case to pull in the "not-yet-health-nut".

In the phased approach, the initial version of the technology would display nutrition feedback only in the mobile app, thus supporting only users who carry a smart phone. This removes the costs associated with projectors, stepper motors, specially designed tray ledge and beacon receivers in serving stations (which accomplish tray location).

Once the Zócalo concept gains momentum, a market broadening phase would follow, and the serving stations would be retro-fitted with the special tray ledge and projection system envisioned for making visual nutrition feedback accessible to users who don't carry smart phones.

Irrespective of the phased approach, we could explore a number of other cost-saving strategies. In order to hold down the tray costs, we could adopt an approach of making both ordinary cafeteria trays and custom instrumented ones available to diners so that those customers not interested in the nutrition tracking could user the cheaper version. Another approach to holding down costs might be to explore fabricating custom strain gauges via 3D printing of conductor traces onto flexible pressure plates in order to create the food weighing components.

Zócalo UX Map: User’s Healthy Lifestyle Journey from Indifference to Enthusiast:

In this section we present a simple, high level UX Map for an important scenario of the "not yet health nut" gradually transforming into to a healthy eating enthusiast. This User Experience (UX) sketch starts with a newbie user. This is their first visit to Zócalo Food Court. The user is initially not particularly fitness conscious. They are indifferent to healthy eating. The journey begins with the user patronizing Zócalo Food Court in the same way they would dine at any other buffet venue, not taking advantage of any nutritional value adds. As the journey progresses over months, the user becomes more nutritionally aware and committed to healthy lifestyle changes. (This UX sketch ignores other interesting scenarios, e.g. the user who is already a die-hard fitness fanatic, perhaps doing self-tracking with a Fitbit, upon their first encounter with Zócalo.)

Zocalo UX Map, slide 1
Zocalo UX Map, slide 2
Zocalo UX Map, slide 3
Zocalo UX Map, slide 4
Zocalo UX Map, slide 5
Zocalo UX Map, slide 6

The above journey represents a happy path. Of course it's very important to analyze how the user can get derailed from the happy path, or discouraged from starting the journey in the first place. My take is that the most critical areas to focus on for potential pitfalls are:

  • The people skills, rapport and preparedness of the Zócalo staff, especially the Greeter and the Instructor. The first few moments of the first-visit Greeter/User interaction could be make-or-break, and could potentially scare off someone with technology anxiety, or negative pre-conceived notions of health food, etc.
  • Food that tastes good, appeals to range of community tastes, and is affordable. The not-yet-health-nut needs good reasons to come back while they are still indifferent to a healthy eating agenda.
  • Easy-to-understand user interface for nutritional feedback system, and good class instruction and quick-start flyer sheet on getting started with the feedback system.

Some Additional Themes that Emerged During Refinement Phase:

  • The Take-Zócalo-Home Theme: An implicit assumption in the Zócalo concept is that the nutrition guidance provided via the technology and the in-store mini-classes will, over time, become engrained in the user. The in-store Zócalo experience acts much like training wheels on a kid's bike. The hope is that new, healthier eating habits will form, and the user will take these habits home and wherever they go. During the Healthy Lives Challenge refinement phase, Zócalo team input made more explicit this idea of reaching beyond the in-store experience. A sort of Take-Zócalo-Home theme emerged. (These concepts will be a part of the complete set of ideas that are pitched to a real supermarket company.) Among the concepts that emerged from team: 
    • Tear-off Recipe Cards — Cook a featured dish at home.
    • Cookbook — Full-size cookbook, Recipes from Zócalo Food Court.
    • Market Inside Market — Special area within or adjacent to food court where raw ingredients for featured dishes are conveniently grouped for cooking at home. Plus cookbooks and other healthy living literature. (See the above image gallery for mockup photo of Zócalo's cook book section, featuring Recipes from Zócalo Food Court.)
    • Comida por Libra — Healthified versions of established Latino tradition of prepared, take-home, bulk meal purchases. Also meshes with a theme of Stronger Ties to Hispanic Culture and Traditions.
  • Balance Physical and Cyber Space Aspects of Zócalo: Another theme that emerged in the Refinement Phase discussions was that the physical, in-store experience should be complemented by creating a very rich web and mobile app experience. This concept of balance between cyber and physical (in-store) experience is very important. Business gurus, including Clay Christensen, Geoffrey Moore and Paul Graham, all make the case that successful disruptive ventures tend to start out with a passionate set of customers that love the concept at first sight and create the initial market momentum; then the venture gradually broadens the market appeal to go more mainstream, cross the chasm. One of Zócalo's key missions is to cross the chasm, so to speak, and gradually nudge "not-yet-health-nuts" into healthier behaviors. But we need to recognize that this target market of "not-yet-health-nuts" may not generate the necessary initial market momentum. The initial Zócalo momentum may come from a tech savvy demographic of users, people already committed to becoming or staying fit, perhaps including some people who already do self-tracking with a FitBit, Jawbone or Withings scale. A rich web and/or mobile experience would be important for this demographic and helps drive the critical initial momentum. Among the cyber concepts discussed during the Refinement Phase: 
    • Make it More Social — Social networking features. Shoppers engage each other online, outside of store. Share recipes. Build on others’ recipes. Collaborate to invent new recipes. Submit recipe ideas to Zócalo… “Dishes I’d like to see in Zócalo.” See what others in your circle have bought/eaten recently. Gamification features, like badges for milestones, like recipes shared or submitted, in-store meals eaten, number of balanced meals achieved, number of meals that hit a personal calorie target, etc.
    • Online Fitness Tips — Healthy eating and general fitness tips. These would largely duplicate content taught in in-store mini-classes.
    • Nutrition Drill-Down — More complete set of real-time nutrient metric details as user builds their meal. Trend graphs that let user see nutrition metrics plotted over time, including calories and other nutrients.
    • Register Personal Targets — Registering a personal per-meal calorie goal. This parameter can affect the “Inspire Me!” food suggestion algorithms. (The introductory mini-classes and Zócalo web portal and app will have advice and rules-of-thumb for users to come up with a personal per-meal calorie target, and to refine it.)
    • Scheduling Information — For in-store mini-classes.
    • Check-off Lists — User can update their profile to  mark food allergies or sensitivities; and to mark common medical conditions, especially those that are tied to foods eaten. The serving station system can sound a buzz sound when the user goes to serve up a food item containing an ingredient for which the user's personal profile indicates an allergy or sensitivity. Zócalo recommendation feedback can also take into account the profile information regarding medical conditions to steer suggestions toward foods considered to be good for particular conditions.
    • Binding Mobile Device to System — At a technical level, the app needs to be able to “bind” to the user’s in-store cafeteria tray, e.g. leveraging iBeacon technology.
    • Display of Realtime Info-Graphic Feedback — Duplication in the mobile app of display info-graphics that user sees in the projected image on tray ledge
    • Choosing a Cuisine/Culture Meal Theme — Ability to set a cuisine theme in the mobile app that biases the “Inspire Me!” suggestions in a desired cultural direction. For example, if the user selected a Mediterranean theme for their current meal, the "Inspire Me!" suggestions might steer them toward selections of hummus, whole grain pita and feta cheese. If the suggested selection is located at the current serving station, an LED would light up momentarily adjacent to the appropriate serving pan; if the suggestion is at another serving station, the projected display on the tray ledge would show a "map" graphic showing the location of serving station containing the suggested selection. This culturally-themed sort of "Inspire Me!" suggestions was motivated by team feedback regarding online culture-specific versions of healthy eating pyramids. We might also consider the option of customizing the healthy plate (or healthy pyramid) info-graphic according to a user-selected cultural theme.
    • Scheduling In-Store Meet-Up Events — Interface that allows user to schedule an in-store meet-up event and indicate number of expected attendees. This is partly a courtesy to the store so they can make sure there aren’t multiple scheduled events that would exceed seating capacity. The interface might also allow some stating of user preferences of what dishes or cuisine they’d like to see present during the event hours. In-store meet-up events help take the Zócalo in-store experience in a more social direction. (The concept of group meet-up events has implications for food court physical space design, in particular that tables can't be bolted down, they need to be moved around for group events.)
    • Daily Habit Check-Off List — Especially useful for various food ingredients that many people consider to be healthy, but that don’t make it into models like Harvard healthy eating plate/pyramid. Things like garlic, onion, ginger, turmeric, raw honey, fish oil, etc. Trying to get as many of these super-ingredients each day can have a gamification character. For meals eaten in the food court, these standard daily habit list items would be auto-checked-off by the system when user selects foods containing them.
    • Dueling Chef TV Show — Mobile app interface for voting for Dueling Chef featured dishes. Ties in to Holly Davis’ proposed network TV show.
  • Leverage Feature Phones for Users Without Smart Phones: Team member Karen Sorensen has recommended a low-cost approach to sending nutrition feedback, via SMS text messages, to users who do not have a smart phone, but do carry a feature phone. She suggests the concept of the user snapping a digital photo of the meal, texting it to the Zócalo platform, and for server software to use computer vision technology to estimate the nutrient content of the meal.

Tie-Ins with Other Healthy-Lives Challenge Concept Submissions:

We see opportunities for synergy and tie-ins with other Challenge ideas, particularly the two concepts, Loser Local and Dueling Chefs, which both have strong television elements. The Zócalo idea does not currently have a strong television element (other than the fact that it might advertise on TV); so a tie-in with Loser Local and/or Dueling Chefs could fill this gap. From the standpoint of promoting the Zócalo offering, both Dueling Chefs and Loser Local can generate market awareness and buzz. In return, Zócalo offers Loser Local a supermarket physical space with a healthy eating focus where weigh-ins can occur. Additionally, the concept of in-store education and support is common to both Zócalo and Loser Local. Furthermore, since Zócalo and Loser Local both have a supermarket aspect, a consolidated pitch could be made to actual supermarket(s) when seeking out partner(s). Zócalo can potentially tie in with Dueling Chefs as a component of the TV show: The week’s contending chef recipes could be offered in the Zócalo Food Court. Over a week period, Zócalo customers could taste and vote. Through the miracle of videotape, the original chef presentations of their creations and the results of the Zócalo customer voting could both be seen in the same TV episode. Another potential tie-in with Zócalo is Beth McHugh’s Supermarket Classroom concept, where location-aware technology allows food items in the store to reach out to customers with healthy meal inspiration. There is technology overlap between  Supermarket Classroom and Zócalo in that both concepts leverage location-aware technologies, such as iBeacon. And both Zócalo and Supermarket Classroom have a strong “Inspire Me” theme.

Document Update Log

Rev2, July 30, 9:30ET .. Added this update log section, plus revision number and time stamp appended to idea title

Rev3, July 30, 11:00ET .. Split the PDF attachment into 3 separate documents on (i) lightweight prototype & user trial; (ii) UX notes; (iii) ideas for mini-classes

Rev4, July 30, 18:30ET .. Edited mock-news-story text to add Burt A's concept of the tear-off recipe card. (More of the finer details of the concept can be added to later section of pitch or to attachment PDF.)

Rev5, July 31, 16:40ET .. Added synopsis section for lightweight prototype to end of main idea description section. Refers reader to the pdf attachment for more details.

Rev6, Aug 2, 22:30ET .. Added photo of cook books in the "Take Zócalo Home" section of the food court. Features Zócalo's own recipe book.

Rev7, Aug 5, 13:09ET .. Added "Feedback Summary / Emerging Themes" section to main idea description section. Initial version of section still in progress.

Rev8, Aug 9, 20:00ET .. Added new section, "Zócalo User Experience Sketch", which revises the envisioned in-store user food selection and nutrition feedback approach. Revision was inspired by team member Bettina's input.

Rev9, Aug 10, 08:30ET .. Added picture of Rev2 lightweight prototype calorie tracking scheme to photo gallery.

Rev10, Aug 17, 09:00ET .. Have done major rewrite of main idea description, especially to reflect major change to the nutritional feedback approach. Photo gallery has many new photos. (Original mock newspaper interview section was left mostly unchanged.) New sections include discussion of Zócalo guiding principles and new ideas coming from refinement phase; team ideas for rich mobile app; potential tie-ins with other contributors' Challenge ideas; description of the new nutritional feedback approach and Zócalo Healthy Plate info-graphic; details on how the rich visual display of nutritional feedback is implemented so that users without smart phones are not excluded; description of latest lightweight user trials; notes regarding steps to execute on the Zócalo concept.

Rev11, Aug 17, 21:40ET .. Added User Experience Map document as attachment, UXMapDocumentPDF.pdf

Rev12, Aug 17, 22:43ET .. Revised and expanded attached document on in-store Mini-Class ideas. This is just a hypothetical sample curriculum. For actual classes, the curriculum should be designed in consultation with medical and nutrition experts. I'm neither.

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

Built lightweight food-selection / calorie-auto-tracking prototype. Did initial user testing. Creating prototype took 2 hrs. Uses analog approach to calorie tracking. Details in accompanying figures & captions. Approach adds minimal effort overhead to UX. User feedback re usefulness was positive. Unexpected reaction was user surprise at how hi avocado metric is. Seemed to avoid avocado. Raises interesting question of how concept deals w/ super foods that are hi calorie: walnut, avocado, hummus.

What skills, input or guidance are you keen to connect with from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea?

I most wish to get different perspectives and angles related to the concept. Some reality checking and hearing new ideas I didn't consider. Confirmation Bias is always a danger, so I'd welcome lots of scrutiny and critiquing. Even if it's uncovering a show-stopper. As technical aspect of concept progresses to detailed hardware and software prototyping, ideation on digital design directions would be nice. Also guidance on best way to create dialog with thought-leader supermarket.

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

Does your idea currently have an Indiegogo campaign drafted?

  • No

Evaluation results

20 evaluations so far

1. Can you see this idea fitting into your daily life?

Yes, I think so - 55%

I'm not sure - 25%

No, I don't think so - 20%

2. Do you think this idea will help people lead healthier lives?

Yes, I think so - 75%

I'm not sure - 20%

No, I don't think so - 5%

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Attachments (5)


A hypothetical sample of courses that might be offered in the envisioned in-store Mini-Classes. The actual class curriculum should be designed in consultation with medical and nutrition experts. I am neither.


User Experience Map for scenario of user, who is initially indifferent to healthy eating, making a transition over several months to becoming health conscious, with the help of Zócalo's gentle nudging in the right direction. Duplicate UX Map material now incorporated into main text body.


Description of rev 1 version of lightweight prototype and user testing. The rev 1 version used rice bags and kitchen scale as analog gauge for tallying calories. This approach has been superceded by rev 2 approach, which described in submission's main body of text.


Discussion of envisioned user experience (UX) in target digital version of nutrition-tracking-enabled food selection system. This was early document written before the Refinement phase. The envisioned UI presentation of nutritional feedback has changed radically during the refinement phase to an approach that is much more visually oriented, as described in submission main text.


Prototyping next steps


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Photo of Trevor z Hallstein

Hi Jim - Great work on thinking through how to model healthy eating choices through supermarkets. Looking forward to seeing where you take your idea next.

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