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Food Open Data Challenge - User and Stakeholder Research Published

As part of each of the Open Data Challenges we commission user research into the Challenge issue. This research is intended to provide actionable insight to inspire the design of products and services that will be developed by teams competing in the Challenge. This user research includes outputs such as user personas and user journeys for teams to use at key stages of development of their ideas. This resource is not intended to be exhaustive and teams are encouraged to undertake their own research in order to further refine their product / service. As well as providing this user research, we train teams at our meetups to undertake user research so that a user focus can form an ongoing part of the development of their product.

Here Joanna Choukeir, Head of Public Sector Design and Innovation at Uscreates, the strategic creative consultancy providing user research for the Open Data Challenge Series, sets out the key findings from the user research for the Food Open Data Challenge and introduces the full research report which can be downloaded here.

The Food Open Data Challenge asks participants to use open data to create products which will promote healthy and sustainable food, and secure food chains. As part of the user research to support this Challenge we interviewed over 40 key stakeholders. These included diverse consumers, small-scale producers, multi-brand producers, farmers, specialist and online retailers, supermarkets and restaurants and cafes. We also interviewed public health specialists, food publications and the Food Standards Agency.

We asked consumers to tell us what they typically eat using a food diary. We also asked them what healthy food, eating sustainably and food security meant to them and what their motivation and challenges to these were. We asked producers and retailers about their processes and how they enabled people to eat more healthily, sustainably and securely.

You can download the Food Stakeholder Research Slides for more detail on all the key insights we found but broadly these are summarised below:

Eating healthily

People had slightly different definitions. There are those who thought a healthy diet was about balance and those who thought that a healthy diet was about low levels of sugar, salt, calories and saturated fat.

We used the Healthy Foundations Life-stage Segmentation Model as a basis for our analysis and identified four types of consumers:

  • Thrivers – motivated by a desire to be healthy, and have high levels of opportunity such as a moderate to high income and access to healthy food shops, restaurants and cafes

  • Fighters – motivated to be more healthy, but have to work harder than thrivers as they come from deprived backgrounds with less opportunities and alternatives

  • Survivors – not motivated to be more healthy primarily because they come from deprived backgrounds and their focus tends to be on dealing with immediate, day to day issues such as being able to afford to buy enough food

  • Disengaged – have high levels of opportunity, including moderate to high income, but who are not motivated to be healthy because their focus is enjoyment

The research slides include detailed personas for each consumer segment to help teams design more relevant products and services. Thrivers’ and Fighters’ main drivers to healthy eating were wanting to be more healthy in general, and knowing the impact food has on physiology and well-being. Fighters’ and Survivors’ challenges included the perceived higher cost of healthy food and mis-leading packaging or information in general. Health became much less of a priority for people when they ate out compared with when they cooked for themselves at home. Overall, health was the highest priority for consumers of the three themes that make up the food challenge.

Both producers and retailers felt that their responsibility in terms of healthy eating was to provide consumers with choice to be able to make their own decisions and to adhere to health and safety guidance. When one retailer stopped selling certain items that were classed as unhealthy but were popular brands overall sales went down. Farmers wanted to provide customers with fresh, well grown produce. However, both farmers and producers were challenged by having to produce or grow food that was of a quality both they and their customers wanted but at a cost which made their business sustainable. Restaurants felt that they should not deceive people about the healthiness of their food. However, they also said that in their experience people did not go to a Michelin star restaurant or gastropub serving for something healthy.

Suggestions from people we spoke to about potential open data products include: a meal analyser, a tool for pricing comparison of products and their healthy alternatives, a decision making tool to identify products that are cheaper to buy from food markets, a meal planning and shopping app, information on how what one eats affects their mind and body, and a product that helps producers and retailers understand the health priorities of consumers and market demand.

Eating Sustainably

Consumers were not really clear about what eating sustainably meant. Their definitions included food that was organic, fairtrade, locally sourced and seasonal. Therefore, when referring to sustainable food, it is best to use words that resonate better with consumers.

Consumer segments for eating sustainably were developed based on Defra’s Framework for Pro-environmental Behaviours:

  • Positive Greens – actively engaged in being environmentally friendly with lots of opportunity around them to act

  • Concerned Consumers – behave in an environmentally friendly way but still have some negative behaviours if they feel the benefit outweighs the cost

  • Waste Watchers – try to act in an environmentally friendly way by not wasting food but unlikely to adopt many other sustainable behaviours

  • Cautious Participants – don’t tend to act in a sustainable way as they don’t think they can make a difference themselves

  • Sideline Supporters – interested in changing their behaviour to eat more sustainably but are not sure where to start

  • Stalled Starters – not actively engaged in eating sustainably and are more likely to engage in sustainable behaviours such as buying unpackaged food just because it’s the cheaper option

  • Honestly Disengaged – fatalistic about sustainability issues and live life for the moment

The research slides include detailed personas for each consumer segment. The main drivers for Concerned Consumers were convenience; such as produce which was from sustainable sources being sold in their local supermarket, not having to pay a higher price and reliable, clear information about sustainability on labels. However the main challenges were that sustainability was not really a priority for most of the consumers (including the Cautious Participants, the Stalled Starters, and the Honestly Disengaged), and the Sidelines Supporters weren’t clear how they could eat more sustainably whilst maintaining convenience and cost.

Both producers and retailers felt that they had some responsibility to encourage people to eat more sustainably because it allowed them to get a better / fairer price for their products, and would allow them to keep manufacturing or growing produce in the future.

Farmers had environmental obligations to adhere to which are designed to promote sustainability. They were concerned about the feasibility of producing meat through sustainable means, whilst still producing the required quantity at the required pace to make their business viable. Manufacturers were also concerned about longer term production and smaller producers in particular were interested in their ability to source quality and sustainable ingredients at a reasonable price for their products. Retailers were also increasingly interested in being able to supply locally sourced, organic and fairtrade products in response to customer demand.

Consumers, retailers and producers gave us these ideas about open data products that might help: tips about using up ingredients to reduce waste (both at consumption and production level), knowledge of sustainable food availability and accessibility, consistency of information such as carbon footprint, better understanding of seasonality, improving the transparency of sustainable products, better representation of food miles vs. embodies energy for consumers, and knowledge of subsidies and support available to producers.

Secure Food Chain

Consumers found defining what a secure food chains means very difficult. Their definitions ranged from organic and fairtrade to quality and transparency so they could see where ingredients in food came from.

The main challenge facing consumers in relation to food security was not knowing what they should be looking for and feeling that there wasn’t enough clear information. Most of their knowledge came from news stories such as the horsemeat scandal. Consumers generally felt that they did not have the power to influence the supply chain. They had to trust the retailer to be purchasing products with a secure supply chain and continuing to get food at a price they wanted to pay.

Producers were interested in adhering to legislation in this respect. Large scale producers were often unable to track the journey of their produce or meat once it had been sold to a third party buyer. Small scale farmers were more able to trace the journey that their food took as they usually sold direct to shops or consumers. Manufacturers need to know where the ingredients for their products come from and large scale manufacturers are involved in schemes internationally to address food security at a global level. The main challenge was getting the right price for products.

Retailers were becoming more and more interested in where the ingredients were coming from in the food they sold. Larger retailers carry out checks on products they stock but not as frequently as they would like. Smaller retailers had to trust the information their suppliers were providing them.

Some open data products and services that could support the security of food chains include: transparent communication of the food chain of individual products, information on availability and accessibility of food products with more secure food chains, improved knowledge and understanding of food safety, better and more accessible records relating to the supply chain, information on the relationship between cost and food chain, and support for achieving better food safety standards.

Some final thoughts…

The key drivers for consumers were price, convenience, health and quality in that order. These principles had to be satisfied at a level each individual was happy with before they would consider eating sustainably and the security of the food chain.

Ultimately producers and retailers want to develop viable and sustainable businesses. Recognising their need to appeal to customers and thus maximise sales is key to developing a product in response to the three key themes within the challenge question.

The most engaged consumers in healthy and sustainable eating were generally from moderate to high income households. Those from lower income households were driven primarily by the cost of food and poor amenities and therefore were much less engaged. Any products or services developed should take into account the opportunity to reach out to this less engaged group to achieve a significant social impact.


Photo Credit Waleed Alzuhair via Flickr CC


Joanna Choukeir

Joanna is a social designer and Head of Design at Uscreates.