A scavenger hunt app for children that promotes healthy eating habits and prevents childhood obesity.
One in five children in the United States are obese, and this issue is one of the most common problems seen by pediatricians (1). According to the US Preventative Task-force, parents are expected to play a pivotal role in changing their children’s behavior (2). However, many parents struggle with children who are “picky eaters”. The target users for this app are literate children ages 6-10 years old and their parents.
When children are diagnosed with being obese, many do not realize the extent of their weight; a study from the CDC showed that 23% of obese children did not believe they were overweight (3). Additionally, many parents do not recognize that their children are overweight and do not have plans to intervene (4). Parents wishing to intervene cite a lack of confidence due to their limited knowledge to help the condition or fear of being considered bad parents (2). According to nutritionists, when parents try to intervene, they face pushback from children and stop trying to change their behavior.
A scavenger hunt app that promotes positive experiences with healthy foods, incentivizes children to try new things, and teaches parents simple and healthy recipes will give parents confidence that they can help change their children’s eating behavior.
We conducted a literature review to understand the challenges faced by children, parents, and pediatricians in the space of childhood obesity in the United States. Our team wanted to learn what intervention and products were available, what worked, and what didn’t work.
A survey was posted to child obesity Facebook groups, online weight loss support groups, general support groups, and parent forums to gain a broad understanding of parents’ perception of their children’s weight, family eating habits, and successful and unsuccessful intervention strategies with their children.
Roadblock: People Don’t Want to Talk About It
Through the literature review, we knew that talking about one’s overweight children can be a sensitive topic for parents. Many parents feel like they did something wrong or even failed as parents if their children are overweight or obese. Because of this stigma, we had difficulty finding parents to interview. We expanded our research to find young adults who had been overweight as children.
To follow a user-centered design process, we wanted to talk with people in our problem space. The last (optional) question of our survey requested an email address or phone number if people wished to participate in a phone interview. After none of the survey respondents completed the last question, we sent our survey to acquaintances, in the hopes that someone would agree to speak with us. We received four responses and were able to conduct three interviews. There may have been some bias due to familiarity between researchers and users, but we tried to ensure that the team member interviewing participants did not know each other. Interviews were conducted over the phone to remove discomfort.
Affinity Mapping & Findings
Action & Emotional Plan
- People need support in changes
- Mom needs dad’s support when kids throw fits
- Overweight child needs parents to be on board with eating behavior
- Managing expectations upfront is important
- Parents need to be prepared for children’s pushback
- Some parents are surprised when changes work
- Time: people are busy & want quick meals
- Access made easy: people want to to shop quickly & locally
- Lifestyle challenges make change difficult
- How do you give children the idea that they are in control?
- In choosing foods/which food to eat
- Nutritionist: suggests giving children boring options
- Families restrict what food is in house
- Farmers Market as Fun:
- Farmers markets are seen more as a family activity and less as a grocery shopping
- More engaging for younger than older children, but older children like snacks
- Can be stressful with many children
Need for Education
- Location of farmers markets/what they sell
- Factors contributing to overweight vary
- Understanding of what “balanced” means varied by participant, for example:
- Vegetables compensate for sweets
- Eating fresh fruits & vegetables is sufficient
- Low sodium foods vs. healthy foods
- There is a disconnect in idea of healthy eating & what it looks like (# fruits/veggies a day, or ratio)
- “My 12 year old thinks anything besides sugar is healthy”
- “Healthy eating is not consistently eating things you know are bad for you”
What doesn’t work
- Getting children to try new foods
- It depends on the child, the chid’s personality, and the day
Areas of focus
- How can we get children involved in learning through fun?
- How can we promote family activities?
- How can we educate parents & children?
- How can we give parents the support they need in changing children’s behavior?
- How can we help people realize what they are actually eating vs what they think they are eating?
- Giving children perceived control and engaging them has been successful in behavior change. How can we use these learnings to address the education gap in healthy eating that the population faces?
- Successful games involve goal setting and progress towards a goal.
We held a brainstorm session and mapped the ideas based on ones that had the biggest impact and were the most feasible.
A mobile application leads children through a farmer’s market to discover various foods and encourages children to talk to farmers about how food is grown and produced. The application will give children clues to solve and tasks to complete in a farmer’s market to earn points. Questions involve playful elements such as finding food to make food art, taking photos, and competing with siblings and friends for a high score.
A mobile application that introduces children to new foods and prompts them to taste the food at a farmer’s market. During the game setup, the child can choose which foods he or she likes so the game can make similar recommendations but also encourage the child to try different foods. A cute animal character can influence the child to try foods through social desirability and the incentive of earning more points. If the child eats a new food, he or she may input if the food was enjoyable so the child feels in control of the game. The child’s ratings will feed into a section for parents so they can learn if their child likes something new see a list of healthy recipes using those ingredients.
An interactive teddy bear helps children learn which foods are healthy to eat and encourages children to try these foods. The bear will feel hungry and depending on what food the children “feed” the bear, the bear will have more energy or feel sluggish. The bear will be hungry and ask for healthy, balanced foods at the farmer’s market. Children will be able to see the effect different foods have on the teddy bear’s touchscreen stomach as they explore the market together. A companion app will share the child’s favorite foods with parents and recommend simple recipes.
Sketch by Jen Coppola
We visited 2 farmer’s markets in the Atlanta area to gather feedback on the three concepts. Using intercept sampling, we explained the concepts and quickly interviewed 8 parents (children’s ages ranged from 1-8 years old). We wanted to show the designs to children since they would be the end users, but we did not want to make parents uncomfortable as they were already very rushed.
Between the three concepts, we found that parents’ favorite application largely was dependent on the age of their children. For younger children (ages 1-4), parents (3) preferred the market buddy application. For older children (ages 6+), parents (5) were split equally between favoring the scavenger hunt and sample tasting applications. Half of the parents mentioned it would be better if the scavenger hunt and sample tasting concepts were combined into one application. Other potential improvements mentioned were incorporating counting and math, learning opportunities in the application about the food type, or including a physical prize.
To our team’s surprise, only 1 parent mentioned being concerned with the child’s screen time and preferred applications that would limit the time their child was exposed to a screen. The majority of the parents mentioned their concerns with being able to see their children while they participate in the application, preferring for food locations to be near where the parent is located. 50% of parents mentioned they wanted the applications to last the amount of time the parents were shopping
With our target user group’s age range of 6 to 10-year-old children, we focused on the feedback from parents of older children and used these insights to drive our refined design concept.
The scavenger hunt and taste testing designs were combined into a slightly higher fidelity concept because those designs seemed to be the favorite among parents of children in our target age range. The option for children to choose their shopping buddy was added so they have the authority to select an animal that they enjoy. More opportunities were added to take photos, which seemed to resonate with the parents from the previous interviews. The food rating was changed to a system where the food is dragged to a jar of the corresponding emotion to make the game more interactive for children. The parental confirmation if the child tried the snack and the food art element were removed because most parents did not seem to react positively to those ideas.
Refined Concept Interviews
We visited a new farmer’s markets in the Atlanta area to gather feedback on the refined concept. Using intercept sampling, we explained the concepts and quickly interviewed 3 parents (children’s ages ranged from 1-8 years old). The goal of this round of interviews was to learn how long people shop in farmer’s markets when they bring their children, to get an idea on how to structure time for the game, on the prototype itself, knowing what seems relevant to children/parents, what improvements we can make, and why would this be engaging or not for their children.
All the participants agreed that the application would increase child engagement in the farmer’s market, especially as the use of pictures and visuals are very well received by children. One parent mentioned that “as long as it is user friendly and image-driven, for the four-year-old and up, this is good and engaging”. The cooking and recipe aspects linked with the game allow child participation and were well received among parents. All participants noted that these features would encourage their child to try new foods and become more involved in the cooking process at home.
Participants pointed out that the pineapple question, used in the presented storyboard, was not very appropriate considering the current season and geographical location and suggested to have questions that would be seasonal and/or region-specific.
One concern among parents that arose was letting their child using their phone: 2 out of 3 parents mentioned limiting screen time, although this applied more to the younger children (under 4) who cannot read and are not within the target user group. The parents of older children (over 5) were more likely to allow them to use their phone, especially if they can see their children using it.
Overall, the prototype and concept was considered engaging for children and seemed worthy for parents to try: all agreed on the fact that they would be likely to recommend it to their friends, especially if they see their kids liking it or if they see it being useful.
- limiting screen time is important
- season and region are important so the questions asked are accurate. we intend for season and region to be recognized automatically by retrieving information from the phone calendar and location system
- correctly incorporate a time limit functionality that would limit the duration of the game to the parent’s shopping time, either by adjusting the tasks to a specified time limit or predefining a length of the game.
Since “limiting screen time” had been a concern from a few parents in previous interviews, we wanted to hear from a pediatric professional about the true dangers of screen time and if they applied to our app idea. The typical dangers of screen time are that children are not cognitively engaged, are sedentary, are not interacting with the people/environment around them, and the blue light can disrupt sleep patterns. She said that the only concern with the presented refined concept is that it exposes children to the blue light. However, she mentioned that since farmer’s markets are typically open during daylight hours and children most likely will not be there right before bedtime, the risk of the blue light affecting their sleep is low.
From this feedback, we concluded that our design concept promotes cognitive and environmental engagement while promoting active movement, hence directly combating the majority of professionally cited screen time concerns. Therefore, we conclude to remain designing within the realms of a mobile game application.
I redesigned the app with more playful, colorful illustrations and created clickable prototype in Invision.
The parent’s screens and children’s screens have a slightly different styling, with the parent’s screens being simpler and darker.
Parent Screen: Favorite Recipes
Child Screen: Favorite Recipes
The app begins with a parent screen where they can choose how long they are shopping so the game’s duration matches the shopping trip. The questions were changed to match the current region and season.
We conducted a pilot test with 3 of our classmates.
- Playing the game was very simple and engaging
- All participants understood the photo-taking elements
- Some participants admitted the reward of points would influence them to try new foods
- Navigation around the parent menu screen was confusing as there were multiple ways to access the recipe and favorite foods tabs
- No one seemed to notice the colors differentiating the parent and child screens
- The heart icon on the recipe images was not apparent as a way to “like” or “favorite” a recipe
Areas to Consider:
- Some participants were tempted to lie about trying foods to earn points
- Some participants thought the empty characters were opportunities to “unlock” new avatars, which was an appealing element to them
- Integrate foods child does not like into palatable recipes (ex: carrots into carrot cake)
I updated the prototype to incorporate participant feedback and refine the design’s details.
- The parent and child screens were consolidated into one as the majority of the screens display the same information
- The bottom navigation was simplified to reflect the most important game information (Score, Home, Favorites)
- Title bar back buttons were removed as the revised bottom navigation negated them
- The parent navigation menu was removed as it was confusing and not necessary
- A parent confirmation passcode was added to prevent children from altering allergy information and lying about trying foods
- Undesigned characters were assigned higher point values to “unlock” and encourage play
- The hearts above recipes were made larger and orange instead of blue to emphasize their existence
User Testing: Parents & Children
I tested the prototype with my neighbors and their two children (ages 7 & 9). There is a chance that there was some participant bias due to our friendship, but they were the only children within our target user group who were available.
The prototype testing consisted of an semi-structured interview with the parents, a semi-structured interview with each child, and task-based user testing of the prototype with each child.
With the advancement of Computer Vision, the features of this project are possible and our team is working to create a fully-functional game for children. The main challenges of CV recognizing food arise when the food is already cooked or processed, but the foods in a farmer’s market are typically raw and therefore would be easier to identify. To implement this game, we are looking at the APIs available for both Android and iOS.
Future Design Considerations:
We intend to test the design concept with more children, ideally those who are not acquaintances of our team, to further gain direct user feedback. In addition, we will consider the following design features:
- Incorporating a GPS feature where parents can enter a designated GPS perimeter, to control distance of the child from his or her parents
- Expanding the “foods tried” section to allow users to engage with additional educational material on the foods that the child has tried