Combatting food waste through more accessible date labels
Have you ever tossed spoiled milk...I know I have.
Food waste is an established problem in today’s society, but to many, the culprit remains unknown. While the solution to this problem remains complex, my team and I discovered that poorly designed date labels are significant contributors to food waste.
Existing food date labels are already ambiguous and confusing. For individuals who have visual impairments, the date labels are essentially useless, making it nearly impossible for them to know when their food has gone bad!
Milk is a fairly common staple in most households. Many individuals find themselves throwing away their milk products without being able to consume it due to it going bad without their knowledge. Or, due to the uncertainty of whether or not their milk is still fresh, individuals mistakenly consume spoiled milk and face the unpleasant consequences of an upset stomach. These seemingly small issues are actually quite frustrating and are a result of the confusing and ambiguous date labels that inhibit clarity and accessibility for its users. We found that the poor date labels not only cause people to waste their money or face possible food poisoning, but also contributes to the broader issue of food waste.
A set of interview questions was devised to be used as a standard framework for each of the guided tours/interviews. We approached the data collection with fixed questions in order to maintain consistency across our interviews, and gain relevant insights. We targeted a broad demographic of students on our college campus to 60 year old retirees at the local store. The goal for the interview was to indiscriminately gather personal opinions on each individual’s experience with using milk products, milk product packaging, and with interacting with expiration labels.
We asked the following general questions to interviewees:
location varies, so consumers face difficulty locating it at times
no way for visually impaired individuals to interact with the date label
language is different and unclear (e.g. 'best by' vs. 'sell by', vs. 'best before')
font size, type, random digits, etc. are confusing for users to find and understand
no warnings prior to expiration beyond visible chunks, sour smell when it's already too late
ink smears, scratches off, stickers peel, etc. making it hard for consumers to rely on
We took the data from our interview findings, and put it into a graph for easier data visualization. From our data, we found that users have issues with the usage of the expiration label, which translates to the gulf of execution, as they have difficulty finding the information on the product. Our interviews also showed that users struggle with using the expiration label as well, and this provides evidence for a gulf of evaluation.
Once users actually find the expiration label, they have trouble deciphering the label for the crucial temporal information. Once users actually decode the jumble of numbers and letters, they have no form of feedback. And far too often, the lack of feedback from milk cartons leads to an incorrect determination of milk expiration, and possibly, an upset stomach. At that point, it is possible that the user may have interpreted the expiration label correctly, due to the confusing language, or not seen the label at all until it was already too late. Alternatively, it may be the case that the the expiration label does not accurately reflect the true product freshness at all.
As you can see from the above image, all of these milk products have different wording and formatting to express the expiration date, making it confusing for consumers to parse through.
In order to begin the redesign process of date labels on milk, we first identified the general design space that we wanted our solution to exist within. For the date labels on milk cartons, in particular, we thought the variables to converge on would be the label information’s accessibility, label’s interpretability, and the freshness of the milk.
The following shows the main aspects that we wanted our re-design to encompass.
We had a couple iterations of our prototype. Using Sketch, I created some mockups of potential date label stickers. For our initial prototype, I created stickers with color-changing and bio-reactive texture-changing components. This is because there is currently a poor accessibility for those with visual impairments to even get an idea of the expiration date label. As a result, we thought it would be helpful to have a tactile-based aspect that goes from smooth, to slightly ridged, to full bumps as a way for those who depend on their haptic senses, to gauge the freshness of their milk. There is currently technologies in place that can make this happen through the use of bio-reactive gelatin that transforms in texture over time.
For our next iteration, we decided to tweak this design a bit, and add the color-changing component onto the inside of the bottle-cap as well, in order for extra information and feedback. Also, with the component inside the bottle, it could gauge freshness a lot more accurately rather than when it is only sitting externally on the packaging.
After testing and asking for feedback and input from people, we found that people did not really trust the color-changing component when it was on the outside of the packaging due to the fact that it was not in direct exposure to the milk. Therefore, we reached our final iteration, and decided to have the outside consist of the texture-component, and the inside of the bottle-cap to have the color-changing component.
This conceptual project really helped me channel my human-centered design thinking, and focus on how to improve the experience and accessibility for a wide range of users. By focusing on the pain points, I was able to gauge what direction to take, and iterated accordingly.
Redesigning the date labels on food products may seem like a trivial contribution, but given the vast amounts of food being tossed, honing in on this small change can act as an impactful catalyst towards combatting the universal issue of food waste.
I submitted this idea to the UC San Diego Housing, Dining, and Hospitality department, as a proposal towards addressing issues in sustainability. I received a response to continue exploring this idea for potential implementation, and plan to follow-up on that once I delve into the logistics and specifics that this design idea entails!
This project was done in 2017, but feel free to reach out to me via email if you'd like to learn more about it!