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Healthy Corners: Expanding Access to Healthy Produce in Food Deserts — A Case Study

Breaking down the barriers to healthy food access to design the Healthy Corners app

DC Central Kitchen is a nonprofit dedicated to building a more equitable food system in Washington DC. Their Healthy Corners initiative expands access to affordable healthy food in DC’s food deserts by offering wholesale produce to independent corner stores and mom-and-pop shops. From Fall 2019-Spring 2020, Blueprint teamed up with DC Central Kitchen to build a mobile app to help Healthy Corners more directly engage their customers.

I worked on product design and strategy alongside developers Johnathan Zhou, Kyle Hua, Thu Nguyen, Tommy Poa, and project leader Annie Ro from September to December 2019.

The Healthy Corners model

Healthy Corners delivers fresh produce to corner stores in DC’s low-income communities, offering produce at wholesale prices and in smaller quantities than a conventional distributor. The stores can then sell the produce at below-market prices, making it affordable for customers. With this model, Healthy Corners sustainably expands food access while investing in existing small businesses.

Healthy Corners produce displays in Washington DC corner stores

The challenge: expanding healthy food access in DC food deserts

Healthy Corners offers many benefits for their shoppers, but since the program operates through the 50+ stores in their network, they rarely interact with customers. In order to engage customers more directly, Healthy Corners was looking for a digital customer platform to:

  1. Improve accessibility — raise customer awareness about the Healthy Corners store network to ensure that customers know where they can get healthy food.
  2. Increase affordability — increase purchasing power by rewarding customers for purchasing Healthy Corners produce.

To address these needs, we decided to build a customer mobile app to act as a direct interface between Healthy Corners and their customers.

Introducing the Healthy Corners app

App store listing screenshots designed by Spring 2020 designer Ace Chen

The Healthy Corners app is now available for download on iOS and Android, and we launched a pilot of the Healthy Rewards program in Nam’s Market in April 2020. In late July, DC Central Kitchen launched a city-wide marketing campaign promoting the app through bus shelter advertisements and direct mail flyers to 40,000+ DC residents.

Bus shelter ads promoting the Healthy Corners app to support the city-wide launch in July (designed by the DC Central Kitchen communications team)

How we got there

In this case study, I will break down my process designing the accessibility-focused features of the mobile app. I will be publishing another case study centered on the affordability-focused Healthy Rewards program.

User Research

To understand the behaviors and needs of Healthy Corners shoppers, I developed a survey examining produce purchasing habits and healthy eating decisions. My survey was administered in and around several stores across Washington DC and collected 90+ responses from DC residents with varying familiarity with the Healthy Corners program.

I synthesized my survey responses with results from a previous annual intercept survey conducted by DC Central Kitchen for a total of 179 raw data points. Additionally, I pulled insights from research summarized in a Healthy Corners report from March 2018.

This resulted in the following key findings. The majority of customers:

  • visit 2–3 stores regularly
  • visit a corner store almost daily
  • are both price and time sensitive
  • supplement visits to hard-to-access supermarkets with quick trips to corner stores throughout the week

Empathy Mapping

Healthy Corners aims to introduce more accessible healthy options for people who already rely on corner stores for everyday needs but do not buy produce at corner stores, instead relying on infrequent supermarket trips. This is often due to frustrations with inconsistent inventory and negative perceptions of corner store produce quality. I developed an empathy map to summarize my research insights.

This came form a 2015 study that found the overall sentiment toward purchasing food at corner stores was “very negative”, as corner store produce was perceived as “too expensive”, “limited and very low-quality”. Ultimately, the study affirmed that unless negative perceptions about corner stores are improved, people will not perceive corner stores as viable places to buy food.

Understanding and reversing assumptions

My research showed that corner stores had to be perceived as viable sources for healthy food before shoppers could reap the value that Healthy Corners offers. I identified the key assumptions underlying the negative perceptions of corner stores and created opposite principles (a practice inspired by Simon Pan). From this, four design challenges emerged:

Next, I’ll break down how each of these design challenges informed my decisions designing the core features of the app.

From scattered to cohesive: building an identity for a dispersed store network

The problem

Lack of awareness about the scope and scale of the Healthy Corners program was a significant barrier that limited customers’ ability to take advantage of the benefits Healthy Corners offers. Given the independently-owned nature of participating stores, the stores share no unifying ‘Healthy Corners’ identity. Besides some in-store signage and occasional banners, stores are otherwise unidentifiable as members of the Healthy Corners network stocking healthy produce.

Healthy Corner stores Anacostia Market, Economy Market, and Wheeler Market (Source: DC Central Kitchen on Flickr)

Online resources are also limited. Customers cannot search “Healthy Corners” in Google Maps the way they can for 7-Eleven or CVS. The only store directory is on the DC Central Kitchen website, which is out of date and missing important details like store hours and whether stores accept SNAP/EBT — several even lack store names.

The only available Healthy Corners store locator as of November 2019 (Source: DC Central Kitchen website)

The solution

Based on these insights, we decided to prioritize a store locator feature to combat the lack of Healthy Corners awareness and provide customers credible information about an otherwise disconnected network of stores.

Early designs for the store locator feature

From unreliable to transparent: building trust by providing relevant, up-to-date information

The problem

Products offered at a store vary greatly week-by-week, and different stores offer very different products. This is due to the Healthy Corners model where each week, store owners select 10–20 products from the 80+ varieties in the Healthy Corners catalog to order for the following week’s delivery. The flexibility to frequently adjust inventory according to demand is a major selling point to store owners, as it allows them to minimize risks of stocking products that might not sell. However, it also meant that customers could never know what to expect without calling or visiting a store. This uncertainty contributed to the lack of trust in grocery shopping at corner stores.

A Healthy Corners delivery man and a corner store owner coordinating an upcoming order

Meanwhile, supermarkets are the most trusted produce source because they offer a consistent product catalog so customers always know what to expect.

How might we gain customers’ trust when product selection inevitably varies?

The solution

Based on these insights, we decided to prioritize displaying up-to-date product lists for each store. Variation in product selection is unavoidable, but showing customers what stores stock offers greater transparency to gain customers’ trust, establishing Healthy Corners stores as reliable places to buy groceries.

Early designs of a store-specific product list

From inaccessible to available: communicating variety and access to promote discovery

Note: I want to emphasize that the lack of access to healthy food is a significant problem. Bringing produce to corner stores is not a complete solution for the systemic failures that create food deserts in the first place. My aim is to showcase what Healthy Corners offers while recognizing that the variety and accessibility do not match that of a full-service supermarket.

Early iterations

Since my user research revealed that customers tend to shop at a few stores regularly, I initially designed the products screen to default to displaying products at the nearest store, with the option to change the store from a list or map.

Early stores and products designs prototyped for usability testing

Usability testing feedback

When I tested this prototype with users, many struggled to navigate through the flow, commenting on a “disconnect between the store map and the products displayed”, making it “confusing to switch between stores and compare products”. Until directly prompted, users did not explore beyond the default nearest store. My initial design failed to convey the variety of stores and products across the Healthy Corners network.

Explorations of the stores and products screens

Final iterations

Ultimately, I decided on the flow on the bottom right, below. The new design:

  • Illustrates abundance, accessibility, and variety.
  • Encourages exploration. The new map display is more dynamic and encourages users to swipe around and discover new stores.
  • Minimizes learning. Users can rely on prior experience using apps like Google Maps to navigate the app.
  • Improves usability by reducing unnecessary actions and screens

From expensive to affordable: designing an inclusive rewards program

To tackle the cost barrier of healthy eating, we created a rewards program to directly increase customer purchasing power. Look out for part two of this case study for my deep dive into designing the Healthy Rewards program.

Iteration: tying everything together

After defining the core features, I was left with the following questions:

How might we bring value to all users, regardless of whether they use Healthy Rewards?

How might we connect the stores/products locator and Healthy Rewards to make rewards easy to access without being intrusive?

How might we avoid confusion with a less traditional navigation pattern?

This led me to make the following design decisions:

  • The home screen focuses on the map. Despite Healthy Corners’ original request for Blueprint to build a rewards app, my user research showed the access-focused features were just as, if not more crucial to expanding healthy food access. Prioritizing the needs of general non-rewards users also allowed the app to capture a wider audience: customers could join the app just to plan grocery trips with the map. Gradually, as they became more familiar with the app and as the rewards program was rolled out to more stores, more users would join the rewards program too.
  • Related features are contained to make Healthy Rewards easy to access but not intrusive. This change streamlined the entire information architecture and navigation system.
  • Color association aids navigation. To avoid confusion with this navigation pattern, I used Healthy Corners’ brand colors to create visual cues. Rewards features were in green and store locator features in orange. These color themes gave users a better sense of where they were in the app at any given screen.

Results and next steps

In the spring semester, I became the project leader and Ace Chen joined as our designer. Ace continued to polish the visual design, tackled many of the functional details, and designed a set of illustrated assets. Look out for his upcoming case study discussing his processes working on the later iterations of this app!

I’m continuing to work on this project throughout the summer, conducting virtual usability testing with Healthy Corners shoppers, building stretch features, as well as managing general maintenance to assist the city-wide app launch.

Usability testing with Healthy Corners shoppers over Zoom

Final thoughts

I really appreciate that there were so many opportunities built into Blueprint to show progress and gather feedback at every step of the process, from weekly design meetings and critiques, frequent design syncs with engineers, and biweekly progress updates and feedback sessions with the nonprofit. These opportunities have allowed me to grow significantly as a designer, and have made me more comfortable giving and receiving feedback, presenting in-progress work, and articulating my design decisions and rationales. Having all of these checkpoints built into the process ensured that the process is truly iterative and incorporates ideas from different perspectives.

A silent critique session in Figma with the Blueprint design team
Weekly design updates with the nonprofit (left) and syncs with my team (right) where I walked through my mockups and gathered feedback

If I could do it again…

I would focus on speaking to real end-users earlier in the process. If I could go back, I would push back on the nonprofit to connect me with Healthy Corners customers, or even take the initiative to recruit interviewees myself. Instead, under pressure to reach MVP in 10 weeks, I made the mistake of settling for the feedback from our nonprofit point of contact as a proxy for our users.

Unfortunately, designers make this mistake all too often. That Blueprint did not factor user research into the project timeline exposed the lack of human-centered design in our traditional project scoping process. This was the first year that Cal Blueprint even included designers on project teams, and our process was not revised to include designers. Nonprofit projects were selected and core features set before users or designers were ever consulted.

When I became the VP of Projects this summer, my primary goal was to make the nonprofit project scoping process more user-driven by involving designers. This summer, we have made some major changes to our project selection process, including:

  1. Involving designers in every step of the nonprofit selection process.
  2. Shifting timelines to add two weeks dedicated to user research, making a total of six weeks of discovery and scoping before project work starts.
  3. Offering optional design consultations for nonprofits to meet with designers and discuss pain points to scope out user needs as nonprofits develop their project proposals.
  4. Prioritizing user research in the final selection stage by assigning designers to conduct user research deep dives on nonprofit finalists to assess whether project proposals are rooted in true user needs.

These changes are part of a broader culture shift happening in Blueprint as we continue to make design a central part of Blueprint’s processes and leadership. I’m excited to see where this new direction takes us; stay tuned to see what other changes we make!

Special thanks to my wonderful team for bringing this project to life.

Fall 2019 (left) and Spring 2020 (right) DC Central Kitchen teams

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