Ideo Spinoff ShopWell Says Better Health Starts at the Supermarket; Part 3: Food as Data

These days, the simple act of going to the grocery store is a fraught and anxious affair. Americans are being told that what they choose to eat isn’t just a personal decision, but has major economic, political, and moral implications. For one thing, there’s the spiraling cost to society of food-related health conditions, from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and hypertension. Then there are books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eating Animals and movies like Supersize Me, Food Inc, and Our Daily Bread, which expose the unsavory sides of a food economy dominated by supermarkets and fast-food joints and the factory farming system that’s grown up to serve them. And, of course, there are the burgeoning organic and local food movements, which argue that foods produced locally and without the use of pesticides or antibiotics are healthier and more sustainable—even if they’re beyond many consumers’ price range.

Into the middle of all this steps ShopWell, a Silicon Valley Web and mobile startup spun off last year by the design consultancy Ideo. The company’s proposition to consumers is simple: tell us a little about you, and we’ll tell you which products on the supermarket shelves best fit your nutritional needs.

It sounds great, given the difficulties ordinary mortals face with the very first step of responsible shopping and eating: trying to figure out how ingredient lists and nutrition labels relate to their own lives. But the company’s plan for making money is a bit more complex. It wants to be an advisor and information broker to food producers, who supposedly lack good data about how consumers make buying decisions in the grocery store and therefore have a terrible record when it comes to launching new products. To collect useful intelligence for its food-industry clients, ShopWell will need lots of users. And to sign up lots of users, it will have to provide non-obvious product recommendations in a usable format.

But frankly, it’s not there yet—which isn’t surprising, given that the company launched its beta site in September and its iPhone app even more recently. So in this third and final installment in our ShopWell case study, we’ll look at the product development challenges the company has ahead of it, and the business-model hypotheses it has yet to test.

ShopWell's health preferences setup page[Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a three-part series on ShopWell. Part 1 appeared Monday, November 1 and Part 2 appeared on Tuesday, November 2.]

What makes ShopWell worth following, and sets it apart from the scores of Silicon Valley startups launched every month, is not just that it’s trying to validate two premises at once (i.e., that consumers want an easier way to identify healthy food, and that food producers will pay for fine-grained data about consumer preferences). It’s also that the startup’ fate will reflect on Ideo’s ability to launch successful companies. Is the consultancy’s fabled user-centered design philosophy an effective tool in the real rough-and-tumble of startup life? Do good designers also make good entrepreneurs? Such questions may not be answered until ShopWell itself exits the startup market and its venture cashiers ring up the totals.

The Google of Food?

Whatever else it may mean, the “user-centered design” philosophy espoused at Ideo and many other creative hotbeds is about listening to people and creating things they’ll want, rather than force-feeding them products that don’t fit with their existing behaviors. But one of the interesting things about food and wellness, according to ShopWell CEO Jasmine Kim, is that many people only start thinking about the subject once they’re forced to give up their old behaviors. “A big insight from user-centered design”—that is, from the stories people have told Ideo and ShopWell—“is that when you are starting a transition, that is when you need nutrition advice,” Kim says. “You could be told by your doctor, ‘You have type 2 diabetes, eat less sugar,’ but people are left to their own devices to go figure out what they could eat.”

That’s why ShopWell has put a lot of energy into allowing users to filter its database of foods based on health needs—there are simple “preselects” on each users’ account page that will … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “Ideo Spinoff ShopWell Says Better Health Starts at the Supermarket; Part 3: Food as Data”

  1. As an industrial designer turned entrepreneur, I have a natural bias to root for a team of “my own.” Designers are natural company builders….it’s the same process to pull together parts of a product as it is to pull together parts of a company.

    The bit of caution I feel in my gut over ShopWell is the team’s need to get smart about customer acquisition…that is not a discipline you would learn at IDEO, outside of the key component of building products that are worth time, money and love (no small feat). But there are nuts and bolts things about customer acquisition that are just hard work and expensive, unless they can unleash enough social and gaming components to get a social media-driven lift.

    IF they can get over this huge hurdle, I think the monetization side of the business is a very big opportunity. The budgets are more than there to fund this lower risk, lower cost route to market feedback, for the CPG companies IDEO knows very well. When we work with big companies at Daily Grommet, they are far more interested in the market feedback we can quickly garner than the units we might sell. In the case of ShopWell, I can see enormous savings in the R and D and product launch cycle being enabled.

    Loved the serialized approach Wade!