Pal is —
A curated box filled with food and educational items
A bi-monthly personalized subscription box service
Specific to your child's unique food allergies
How Pal works
Parents personalize the child's Pal box. Children simply wait for Pal to be delivered!
Pal's website is designed for the parent, so they can customize the box while still maintaining that element of surprise for the child.
Set up profile
Enter your child's nickname or name, age group, and allergens he or she is allergic to. For Pal, we chose to include 10 of the top major allergens to account for 90% of food allergies.
Preview box and swap items
We suggest four food items based on your child's profile. Confirm the box or replace the food items with other options.
We maintain transparency throughout the process by providing detailed ingredient and manufacturing information.
You'll get an email notification before the next box is shipped, allowing time to swap out items for the upcoming box. Otherwise, go on as you do and Pal will be delivered at the start of every other month.
What's inside the box?
An introductory card with a letter on the front and a preview of what's in the box on the back. Also, an educational magazine featuring valuable content like conversation guides to have with teachers and peers.
Food that is unique, safe, and vetted by experts. Finding and preparing food can be burdensome on parents, but Pal does the work for you.
Themed items are specific to the month of delivery, so they could be related to back to school, holidays like Halloween, birthday parties, etc. Pal makes it easier for children to participate in activities.
The prevalence of food allergies
1 in 13 children in the United States, or roughly 2 in each classroom, are allergic to one or more food allergens. Seemingly harmless foods that the rest of us take for granted can symbolize life or death for these children. Food allergies are on the rise and yet, there is no cure, which makes living with this medical condition all the more serious. Beyond the physical repercussions, food allergies can also greatly affect the child and parent emotionally and mentally. We set out to understand and find a way to alleviate the stresses associated with food allergies.
Focusing on preteens
We wanted to properly educate preteens ages 9-12 before they get wrapped up in the complexities of teenagehood. Studies reveal that 50% of deaths from severe allergic reactions occur in teens, the most susceptible age group to engage in risky eating. Transitioning preteens into a more empowered role will allow them to make sound decisions when it comes to navigating their food allergies.
How might we support preteens to independently
manage their food allergies?
To make sure we considered the many aspects of dealing with food allergies, we came up with the following research questions to help us break down and collect a variety of data points.
How do children and parents prevent, react to, and manage food allergies?
How do food allergies affect interpersonal relationships in both the child and parent's lives?
To inform our problem space, we talked with 4 experts and 9 parent-child dyads. We gained deeper insights into how preteens and parents manage food allergies, how they are affected physically and emotionally. With the data we gathered, we uncovered opportunities for easing stress involved with food allergies.
We consulted with allergists, a nutritionist, and a community leader for information about the allergy community at a scientific and local level. The more professional input we had, the more we could frame our questions around key data points when it came time to talking with parent-child dyads.
We conducted these interviews in-home, whenever possible, to build rapport and get the most realistic understanding of the child's primary environment. Children completed a drawing exercise as a way to encourage active thinking before answering questions. From this, we gained deeper knowledge into how preteens and parents manage food allergies, how it affects them, and their perceptions around it.
We gave three dyads a week-long journal to record occasions and thoughts relevant to the child’s food allergy. We wanted to learn about everyday situations that were impacted by food allergies. This information helped us to uncover opportunities for easing stress.
Relationship Circle Activity
This activity involved placing cards with various representations of people onto a mat in proximity to the child in the middle. We hoped to understand how preteens view relationships with people in their immediate and extended community, and if these views changed when it came to how equipped these people were when it came to handling the child's food allergies.
synthesis and insights
What exactly did we learn?
Inadequate communication and lack of protocol enforcement leads parents to have minimal trust in the school system.
Outside of home, children spend the greatest amount of time at school. Parents look to teachers to take on the role of 'secondary guardian,' therefore teachers must prove that they are empathetic towards the child's unique condition and will take initiative to improve their school experience.
“The school doesn't fully understand the impact of inclusivity. I wish schools didn’t use food-based incentives at all.
People don't see 'food allergies' as a real problem due to varying degrees of reactions and the rise of food sensitivities and intolerances.
Amongst our 12 participants, allergic reactions ranged from severe, full-blown anaphylaxis to gastrointestinal pain and skin rashes. Society has become jaded by the word 'allergy,' using it as a catch-all descriptor for any issue related to food. Current diagnostic methods can't even detect the severity of a child's food allergy. All this has desensitized outside communities to the real severity food allergies present for affected children.
“People don't get it or they find it inconvenient until they have to deal with something similar."
Food allergies limit a child's participation in social activities, making them feel isolated from others.
Children have a natural curiosity to absorb new experiences and discuss them with friends. Food is such a central aspect of social activity in our society and when a child can't participate in the "breaking of bread," a cultural stigma form towards the child forms.
“My friends always have something that I can’t have...they use it against me sometimes so I can’t be around them.”
Fear of the unknown takes an emotional toll on both parents and children.
As much as parents want to, they can't control certain situations such as interactions in school or hidden food ingredients in packaging. The traumatic experience of going through an allergic reaction reminds children and parents of the loss of control and predictability. Parents tend to sensationalize their child's condition and can take on a more restrictive approach, avoiding more foods than necessary as a precautionary measure.
“It's scary to send her to school knowing a hug or high-five can be deadly.”
Complexities of navigating allergies in the school ecosystem
This artifact I created highlights the many touchpoints that come with ensuring a child's safe experience at school. The "uncontrolled" nature of school weighs heavy on parents when they’re away from their child.
In addition, regulations surrounding allergy education in schools are inconsistent. Although national guidelines do exist, every school district operates differently. Oftentimes, protocol is not even followed by staff, students, or parents. These inconsistencies proved frustrating for the parent-child dyads we talked to, as children were believed to be in a safe space only to be reminded by one-off incidents that this wasn't always the case.
From 135 to 5 concepts
How did we do it?
Overwhelmed by a blanket of pinned-up rectangular sheets, we first categorized our concepts into high-level stages of food allergy management: preventative, reactionary, educational, and aftermath. We then narrowed by combining overlapping ideas and eliminating those that were not feasible in the time we had left to design our response.
With the remainder, we divided them into product categories (see right photo) and talked through five of them with users.
Our participants raised issues regarding high margin of error, uncertainty around advanced technology, and existing solutions already out there. We also had to remind ourselves that we were designing for the child, first and foremost, and the parent, second in mind. We got rid of those that provided more agency for parents than for children managing their food allergy.
Throughout the process, we considered technicality, desirability, and usefulness.
We decided to move forward with the subscription allergy box for the following reasons:
• Excitement by children and parents alike
• Opportunities for education
• More involvement for the child
• A humane and inherently positive experience around food allergies
Refining the box
Having food was an obvious must, but we wanted to differentiate Pal by positioning the child with valuable resources that would help them in their daily lives.
Struggling to decide on the contents of the box, we turned to our participants and coordinated interviews with parent-child dyads to understand what they wanted out of Pal. We provided broad categories for them to select from including health and beauty products, art supplies, distraction kits, mental health resources, recipes, and more.
We found consistent things that everybody wanted, but there were still variances among the rest. To appease this division, we landed on an educational magazine that combined a lot of what our participants expressed interest in.
Building the web experience
We were unsure whether or not parents wanted to curate Pal on their own or have Pal curated for them, so we tested two click-through prototypes with parent-child dyads. Because there was no clear consensus on a preferred design, we decided to stay close to our intended outcome for Pal, which was to introduce a variety of new foods, leading us to option 2.
Option 1: Curation by parent
Option 1 gave the most agency to parents. However, we thought that parents would resort back to the foods they were familiar with, rather than trying new foods that were reassuringly safe.
Option 2: Curation by Pal
Option 2 reduced the mental load on parents, letting Pal do the work. The goal of Pal is to introduce new, safe, and tasty foods to children and this option best fulfills that.
Defining the user flow
Because Pal is made up of both a physical box and a web interface, outlining the journey for a first-time user was important to make clear. This flow maps out the various ways a user can navigate throughout the Pal experience, which is unique because it can last indefinitely if no action is taken by the user.
These three pillars of Pal are infused in all the decisions we made around Pal. We aim to provide preteens a foundation to becoming more independent when it comes to managing their food allergies.
How inclusive a child’s social circle is strongly impacts his or her wellbeing. Pal's contents are shareable and engaging—snacks are in smaller packaging for easy sampling.
We want parents and children to trust our product wholeheartedly. Making them feel as comfortable and safe throughout the Pal experience is our number one priority.
Products on the market fix symptoms of allergies, but don't bother to address how these problems start in the first place. We emphasize education to ensure children are equipped with knowledge about their food allergies and how to support themselves independently.
Frameworks are friends
To get the full value of the data we collected, we needed proper frameworks. Our sponsor introduced various methods that would help us in making sense of our research. We had limited time during each step of the design process so we were reminded to prioritize by doing more with less. We also ended up using a quantitative scale during testings for measuring features of Pal that we needed more insight on. This allowed us to come together with a baseline for comparison.
Leave it to users during times of uncertainty
There were some features of our box and digital interface that we, as a group, could not agree on. We used this opportunity to test variations with users, and from there, decision-making became much easier.
Breaking up working groups
Having four voices equally acknowledged and acted upon can be challenging, so depending on the topic of discussion, working in groups of two or three was more productive at times. Larger group meetings worked better for us when we all had to be on board, such as to debrief each other on our interviews or to talk through important decisions.
Accounting for more than 10 allergens
We initially included the "Top 8" major allergens which account for 90% of food allergies and which are required to be disclosed by manufacturers according to a law passed by the FDA. However, many of our participants suggested adding sesame and gluten as part of our allergen list so we did followed their advice. A reminder though that there are around 160 additional food allergens unaccounted for. Even though they make up a small percentage of allergic reactions, Pal strives for inclusivity so we’d want to find a way to be more accommodating.
Maintaining relevance and interest
Keeping Pal updated and making parents see Pal’s value proposition is a long-term business hurdle in solidifying return users. Sure, Pal is exciting at first but how how do we prolong that excitement to last throughout the preteen years? Another question is how to handle the children that grow out of being preteens yet still choose to subscribe to Pal? We initially came up with this idea of creating phases for Pal subscribers, a structure focused on various aspects of food allergies. For example, education could be phase 1. Revisiting this idea of leading the child through a journey of learning and adapting to their food allergies would be worth looking at again.
Graduate Capstone Project
March – August 2018
Participant Recruitment, Interviews, Insights and Synthesis, Hi-Fi Magazine and Letter Prototype, User Flows, Design Spec, Writing & Editing