Simply meals — Improving on the current experiences of meal planning apps

Where do current solutions for meal planning fall short and how can they be improved really?

Presh Onyee
Jun 4, 2019 · 6 min read

Technology today is increasingly being baked into every aspect of our lives. From taking care of boring tasks to automating repetitive ones, technology makes going about our daily activities so much simpler.

As humans, we value speed and convenience so much that we’re readily open to solutions that saves us time and effort or at least promise to.

Cooking is an important daily activity that we engage in and while it can be fun for some, for others it’s something to dread. Here’s someone sharing her experience:

If I’m being completely honest, the fact that I have to feed myself every day for the rest of my life is a constant source of grief. I hate deciding what to make. I hate recipe blogs where I have to scroll past 100,000 words about how the person learned the recipe from her mother’s sister’s dog’s cousin’s dead son before I can actually learn how to make the meal. I hate grocery shopping. I hate lugging groceries home. I hate coming home from work after a long day and having to cook for myself. I hate having to do dishes afterwards. I hate discovering gross old produce in my fridge that I didn’t get to in time. I kind of like meal prepping, but then I hate when I have to do something else on a Sunday instead and suddenly am like, “Well, guess I’m not cooking this week!”

Just, I hate it all. — Anna Borges, senior staff writer for BuzzFeed.

Meal planning apps are in high demand and are currently growing in adoption. This shows that more than anything, people place a high priority on their time, diet and health.

The aim of meal planning apps should be to make meal preparation more delightful for those who love cooking and less daunting for those who dread it. While going above and beyond with catering for users health conditions and lifestyle choices too.

Going through the reviews of top meal planning apps on the PlayStore shows meal planning is a huge challenge for a lot of people daily. I further went through some of the poor reviews to see where the current solutions are falling short.

The apps I went through were Side Chef, Mealime, Eat This Much, Plan Meals — Meal Planner, and Prepear.

loads of reviews across top apps on Google PlayStore

While some of the shortcomings are tied to the nuances of meal planning, some others were basic functionalities that makes the app experience delightful. Here are some of my observations;

Early brainstorming process
Experimental rough sketches
Rough sketches

Ease of use

Cooking meals in itself is a very demanding exercise whether for one’s self or family. Meal planners should bring a delightful, simplified, and efficient experience to the already demanding activity of preparing meals daily. People shouldn’t spend time navigating the complexities of a meal planning app.

How might we further improve on the ease of use of current meal planning apps?

  1. Beautiful and informative introduction flows.

An informative introduction flow not only educates the user, but is also a way of selling users the benefits and features of the app just in time for onboarding. This can catalyse their decision to give the app a try especially when it makes use of a thoughtful copy and nice aesthetics.

Meal planning app prototype showing informative introduction flow.

2. Well thought out navigation system.

A well thought out navigation system is one of the easiest ways to improve the usability of an app. Every feature, and functionality added to an app could increase the complexity of the information architecture, and when this is not taken into consideration can greatly hamper its ease of use.

Prototype of a meal planning app showing a well thoughtout information architecture.

Personalization

The challenge that comes with designing a product like a meal planning app for millions of users is that there are too many people not like you than there are people like you. Taking this into consideration require empathy and a deep sense of responsibility.

From personal preferences, to dietary restrictions, to lifestyle choices, and health conditions, users want to plan meals tailor made for them.

Here are a few ways personalization can be improved;

  1. Powerful customization that remembers users choice.

Allowing users to input their preference upfront and respecting those preferences throughout the app is very important. Anything outside of these preferences should not be suggested or recommended.

Meal planning app prototype showing user preferences

2. Smart recommendations.

A powerful way to improve personalization is by creating a system that get smarter with each use.

A recommendation engine that is based on the interest-graph of users built by their preferences, interactions and choices could create solid network effects for current meal planning apps.

Meal planning app prototype showing smart recommendations

Apps shouldn’t assume control.

Although, meal planners aim to do a lot of the heavy lifting that comes with meal preparation, still users don’t want to completely give up control. They want to be in the driving seat of the meal preparation activity. Meal planners need to adapt to the user needs, augmenting the experience and not assuming control.

Apps should make solutions for users to fill in the gaps wherever the system falls short. The user can always step in with their choice to get what they want.

With smart actions like repeating a meal, and error accommodation like undo, these could make for a delightful experience.

Accurate information and breadth of options.

The last thing a user wants from a meal planning app are below par recipes and incorrect or no nutritional information.

Also meal planners are used by different kinds of people from different cultures with different wants. Some users choices of meals are uncommon needing a vast breadth of options to be able to plan their meals.

This is simply meals — an experimental prototype exploring improvements to current meal planning solutions.

Simply meals - meal planning app prototype.

Presh Onyee

Written by

User Experience Designer sharing random thoughts on creativity and product design.

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