Last year, Ideo announced their Startup-in-Residence program. Their first adoptee was Food Genius, an app to find restaurants by the dish you wanted to eat. But when they left Ideo’s program, Food Genius was no longer another foodie tool. It was going to be a powerful piece of enterprise software that could pre-chew big data for the restaurant industry.
By indexing 14,000 different ingredients from multiple restaurant menu databases, Food Genius can tell you not just how prevalent beef is in American restaurants, but the average price for a filet in New York, or the popularity of venison paired with sage and apples in Kentucky. Is your dish unique? Is it competitively priced? That’s what Food Genius wants to tell chain restaurants and packaged food manufacturers through instantaneous market analysis.
That actualized enterprise product was released by Food Genius last month. I recently took it for a spin, and it’s impressive. Aside from the number crunching—and it never gets old to pair foods to see their prices (the average dish with bacon on it runs $9.41)—I was impressed by the dead-simple UI. Everything is conveyed through a single list. So you start by selecting a broad category—like meat—then you can "drill down" to beef. From there, you’ll reach various cuts of steak. Select what you want, then you’ll start the process over. Eventually, you’ll have a very specific dish. Right beside it, you see the price.
But it wasn’t always this way. Food Genius founder Justin Massa tells me that, when they entered Ideo, they brought in food industry specialists to answer questions and create their ideal dashboards. Food Genius’s value, after all, wasn’t just in their data. It was that they would create an instantaneous analysis that didn’t look like a spreadsheet.
"We looked at the universe of other products people in this industry use. They’re very 2002. They feel like various versions of Excel data visuals," Massa explains. "We thought, these are savvy Internet consumers. They have master’s degrees and smartphones. People that we’re talking to, they would want to use a tool that feels like the modern consumer web."
What most food specialists prototyped, using mere scraps of paper with crudely drawn buttons, were large associative webs. So that’s what Food Genius built. And it was actually a mistake.
"We showed it to people; it was very complicated. There were bubbles. You could pull them out and they’d reconfigure," Massa explains. "We’d show it to people, they’d smile, and they’d say, ‘I have no idea what’s going on in front of me, but it’s cool.'"
They’d created something that looked neater than an Excel spreadsheet, but it was no more useful. Ideo helped primarily with the data synthesis, sending a designer-in-residence to help Food Genius with the product when the team moved back to their own offices. The final design they decided on, despite how simplistic it looks, actually showcases the platform’s number-crunching power.
"Everyone else in our space has the coffee-cup problem. You ask the tool a question, you stand up to get coffee, then you have your answer," Massa explains. "We actually preprocess the information."
And so as you dig through lists on Food Genius, there are no spinning beachballs or status bars. In fact, each hierarchical step hides all the calculations in plain sight. You see how many restaurants use a specific vegetable or protein before you even select it as part of a dish. On Food Genius, information is omnipresent, not calculated. And so while I was composing dishes I’d planned ahead of time to price out, I found that I was almost always learning something from the information that I didn’t even ask for—more popular seasonings, less popular proteins, that would affect my casual creative process.
With so much information staring me in the face within the UI’s context, I learned things that I didn’t even know I didn’t know! Chain restaurants are, on average, more expensive than independent restaurants. (Don’t let those Applebee’s commercials fool you!) And steak is actually cheaper in California than it is in America’s meaty heartland, the Midwest. (Though, I wonder if that’s because Californians eat smaller steaks than my rotund region.)
Food Genius is still polishing the UI, but it’s a good lesson for designers all the same: Just because a product is made for enterprise doesn’t mean it shouldn’t look like a consumer-facing product. Because at least in their off hours, every corporate employee is still a human.