Thesis Proposal: Final

Today, “food” has become a loaded concept. Though we now enjoy an unprecedentedly cheap and plentiful supply of it, these benefits do not come without a hefty toll. Industrial farming practices puts immense pressure on our natural resources, externalizing many of its costs in damaging ways. Animals are raised in unbelievably cruel ways to maximize profits, and laborers work long arduous hours with minimal rights and no legal voice. On the consumer end, a plethora of junk food options abound, and we’ve all heard the statistics on rising rates of chronic disease caused by inadequate diets.

In response to this worrisome state of affairs, a movement is growing around the concept of “clean food.” Found throughout the US at artisanal food fairs and farmer’s markets, advocates of clean food propose a food system focused on ethics, health and sustainability. They envision a world where good food can be had by all—without exacting grievous tolls on our environments and bodies.

As the owners of free will and wallets, we all have the ability (and responsibility) to choose what kind of food system we want to support: the current one, or an improved, healthier, more responsible one. But it can be difficult getting started, for making such choices requires a tremendous amount of effort: effort to research food origins, effort to read labels, effort to understand food issues… And indeed, there is no joy to all this effort if it’s done just for the sake of ameliorating guilt. It’s simply no fun to do things just because my conscience is telling me so!

Therefore, for my thesis, I propose to address this predicament by creating a simple intervention: a web-based social cooking application.

Why web-based? Because the web remains the most accessible technological platform for users and builders alike, and it allows us to soften the barriers of distance and time. Why social? Because re-framing cooking as a social activity transforms it from a potential chore into quality time with friends. And finally, why cooking? Because cooking has great potential to be a joyful activity: one that indulges the senses, creates community, and develops a skill to be proud of. Furthermore, since cooking engages the intellect in the selection and preparation of ingredients, I believe it can cultivate in anyone a heartfelt love of food that goes hand-in-hand with making conscientious food decisions.

The proposed web app will essentially allow friends to schedule online cooking dates. On the appointed date, they will gather via video chat to cook together. To facilitate follow-through, invitations will be attractively designed and feature a convenient shopping list. The application can be a platform for knowledge-gathering and discovery too. For starters, it will present only high-quality, handpicked, season-appropriate recipes for people to use. These recipes can be embedded with teachable moments: for example, a recipe for roasted corn soup would advise cooks to choose local, fresh-picked corn in lieu of canned corn—and explain the reasons. As the project progresses, I hope to incorporate other simple, elegant ways of helping participants deepen their food knowledge.

Throughout the process, I will be asking the following questions: What does it take to convince non-cooks to cook? What methods can I use to teach people about their food’s origins and about the wider food system? How can I make cooking via live web cam a good user experience? To answer these questions, I will be performing continual user testing on a series of prototypes leading to a final product. Testing will reveal how users react to the parameters I have set, as well as suggest new opportunities for improving the application’s offerings.

Additionally, I would like to find out what it takes to build and launch a minimum viable product—what technologies to use, how to plan development, and, most importantly, how to code all the parts myself. As I am interested in designing and building products in the future, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to learn what it takes to build a real, working web application.

The ultimate goal of my thesis is to actually release a public alpha version of this application for all to use. It is my hope that by putting a working product out into the world and measuring its impact, I can better understand how to shape behaviors for creating lasting change. Who knows, it may even start to make a small but tangible difference in shaping a better food system for the future!