For my MFA thesis on interaction design for the School of Visual Arts, I made my focus on how people cook. Over the course of about a year, I went from a “slow hunch,” as graduate chair Liz Danzico says, to a strong opinion on how to improve the behavior of people in the kitchen.
Ultimately, the user I settled on was the home chef, and my goal was to attack what I saw as a problem with traditional recipes. My project redesigned these recipes with a focus on making prep, equipment, and actions clear.
The concept is a web-based service that parses the elements of the original recipe and reorganizes them to be obvious and actionable. It pulls out the necessary tools, prep and actions, and writes a new “prep” step, which is missing from traditional recipes. A visual equipment list and new emphasis on the actions in the cooking steps to make recipes easier to follow. Working with existing recipes found on the web, Step Zero provides a consistent design for any home chef to work from, regardless of the original source.
For those less experienced in the kitchen, Step Zero establishes “mise en place,” a French term which means “to put things in their place,” making for straightforward cooking. For adept home cooks, the clear organization of Step Zero-designed recipe means they don’t have to re-read or worry about hidden elements in their recipes.
About Step Zero
In the Interaction Design program at SVA, the goal of thesis is to commit to a point of view about the role of interaction design in the world. It ends up taking over every aspect of a graduate student's life, where you look for both inspiration and problems in the world around him or her.
For me, after a broad consideration of different areas, I settled in on cooking and ultmiately the home cook's experience in the kitchen. (More information about the process can be found in a journal I kept while developing thesis.)
The Home Cook
From my research, I wanted to look deeply at the things that appeared to keep people out of the kitchen. My initial assumptions were that space was at a premium, so I looked at creating a limited set of tools that would make someone successful in the kitchen, and then tested those tools and a recipe with people to see if it still ensured a good outcome.
Shifting from Product to Interaction
After that experiment (and another where I played with a minimum viable space for cooking), I realized the problem was not in how many objects or how much space a person has to cook, it's the comprehension challenges that keep cooks from feeling confident in the kitchen.
Unknowingly, I had tackled those problems for testers before I put the tools in front of them: Instead of giving them a printout or a device with the recipe, I converted them by hand, making sure the recipe read consistently and was easy to follow.
Once I had that realization, I knew what my project had to be: a service to help make recipes consistent, regardless of source, to help ease the stress of trying something new in the kitchen.
Each student presented their project at a graduate thesis festival. There, we prepared a seven-minute presentation in addition to an area where we could demo the project itself to attendees of the festival. I kicked off the day as the first presentation.
The Process Behind Step Zero
While I could go on at length here about the project, it's most useful to see the entire process, which I collected into a book at the end of my thesis. There, it details more of the specific choices I made and thinking behind it.