People’s food waste behavior and what we can learn from them — a mini field study

38% of food waste in Sweden originated from households*

As a part of my learning journey with UX Design Upskill at HyperIsland, I was challenged ‘to create a feature that delivers effortless positive changes to the world’ as provided by our lecturer Martina Tranström.

The interpretation of the challenge

Coming from the cult of ‘home cook’ lovers, I have very rarely found my kitchen free of food waste. I plead guilty to the excessive food buying, wrong food portioning, and boredom of the same food for the whole week that resulted in waste. I find myself at the intersection of not wanting to waste my food but also unwilling to engage fully — an armchair activist. This, I believe is a problem faced by many.

While delving into the subject, I found many food-saving apps in the market (I myself am a passive user of some) that gave me insights and the scope of the problem. In this project, I would like to address the other side of the food waste challenge: the relationship between people's food purchasing behavior and pantry organization. I believe that these are also contributing factors to the problem— let’s fighting food waste from home, literally.

Having the freedom to do so, I would like to put forward the interpretation of this food waste behavior research as:

A fictitious client from a supermarket chain industry would like their consumers to be more mindful of what they are buying, and instead of buying more in quantity, the client would like to encourage its customers into buying into more quality and ecological products — a higher price range with more sustainability focus of which will help the client to realize the sustainable development goal, ignite the customers’ loyalty, and increase the use of online purchases as a push toward an efficient supply chain and online shopping (the client already has their own online app). In doing so, this preliminary study was meant to observe the kind of food waste the customers found mostly in their household and looking into it as the potential source of customers’ budget change and what the customers have done to reduce their food waste if there is any.

In brief, the method could be elaborated as follows:

Img. 1 The breakdown of 4 weeks of the fieldwork process

In this article, I will walk you through the process of the research one step at a time, but I would also like to be very clear that the result of this mini-study can not represent the whole population, mainly because of its time constraints and resources.

The structure of this article is divided into the hypotheses construction and prioritization matrix, defining the target group — screening survey (quantitative research), conducting the interview (qualitative research), and result from the quantitative and qualitative research.

A. The hypotheses construction and prioritization matrix

To help the project to start, we were presented with a persona. The interpretation of this persona was fluid, depending on the needs and the theme of the project. With this in mind, I formulated my target group, their needs, the product features, and the business benefit as follows:

Img. 2 Defining the project’s target group, their needs, product ideation, and the business benefit of the features if it’s adjacent to an already existing supermarket-based app.

Since my interpretation of the challenge was related to food waste, I am looking into households that consist of more than one person that 1)regularly cook their own food (as these speak to their food purchasing behavior and consumption), 2)find grocery shopping unamusing and time-consuming, and 3)have no time organizing their food storage in regular basis — that therefore foods are wasted, as my target group. I also see to it that these target groups also have the intention of lowering their household food waste.

These target group specifications were then translated into hypotheses of their needs in relation to food waste and food storage organization.

During the brainstorming, I also came up with several product features that were based on the target group’s needs. Some of them are addressing the purchasing habit, the pantry organization, and the food’s end life. This process was important for further discussions when I defined the interview topics and interview guidelines.

Img. 3 Prioritization of hypotheses matrix to create the interview guides from

There are five hypotheses that I put forward in this study, they were (on the degree of their importance) can be seen on Img.2

As working toward the needs, by using the prioritization matrix, I was allowed to map the most unknown and important hypothesis to dig into by using the quantitative and qualitative methods moving forward.

The quantitative and qualitative studies were used as these two methods were the key contributors to look into hypotheses generalizations and the observation of the users' behavior. As an additional tool, I also used a limited ethnography method using the virtual meeting service to observe the interviewees' attitudes toward their pantry organization.

B. Defining the target group — screening survey (quantitative research)

During this time, I focused on the basics of the target group for the feature. I also worked to set up the interview guides’ topics by iterating between the needs, the hypothesis, and the product features. Iterating between these points has allowed me to devise a screening survey that contributes to the in-depth interview of the target group later in the process. I also created the card sorting exercise based on the product features I ideated during this process.

Img. 4 Screening survey of 13 questions as the basis of finding the sampling pool to interview

The screening survey was spread through social media platforms and received 27 respondents during the 3 days it was open to the public. When the screening survey result came in, I decided that the characteristics of the interview subjects included:

  1. people who were familiar with their household consumption pattern,
  2. conducting grocery shopping for their household at minimum once a week,
  3. potentially have more than 1 person in their household, and
  4. that they would like to reduce their household food waste in general. These qualities spoke to their demographics of attitudes and product use. The data also brought up the interviewees' location and gender characteristics, thus I decided to interview 3 women and 2 men, living in Sweden, for the next step.

C. Conducting the interview (qualitative research)

Since the research was done during the corona pandemic, the interviews were done through virtual meetings with a pre-planned schedule of 45 minutes. In general, the interview went 10 minutes longer or shorter depending on many factors that took place during the conversations. After each interview, I reflected on the process and made a note of them as a learning curve.

Img. 5 The discussion guide and the interview keycard for data breakdown

In general, I parted up the discussion into open-ended questions on 3 different topics: 1)grocery shopping habit, 2)pantry and fridge organization, and 3)their effort to reduce food waste today. I also asked the questions of the food waste reduction app available in the market to caress the interviewees’ knowledge about the available means to reduce food waste and what their take on them. In these interviews, I actively took on the role of a listener and not taking any notes. I fold my lab coat aside and recorded the conversation per the interviewees’ permission.

During these interviews, mostly I also asked the interviewees’ who were in the position to do so, to show me their pantry organization so that I had an overview of their food storage and I could understand further the reasoning behind it in relation to how dried foods got wasted — as due diligence to the ethnographic study.

Img. 6 Card sorting exercise to help to explore users’ opinion on the potential solutions

The interviews were then concluded with the presentation of possible solutions in the form of card-sorting activity as shown on Img.6. In total, I presented 8 features of the product. Then the interviewees responded to the cards whether they ‘love it’, they think it’s ‘nice to have it’ or a total ‘no’ (hate it) while providing their personal reasoning.

D. Result from the quantitative and qualitative research

As mentioned before, quantitative research was one of the tools used to generate data and canvass the demographic of the survey from which the interviewees were picked.

Graphic 1. Demographic of the quantitative study

The survey’s respondents were quite equal. There was 13 female (48,1%) and 14 male (51,9%) respondents with the vast majority of full-time employees or jobseekers with 27,6% count respectively (8 people). There were also 2 respondents who were house-wives/househusbands. It’s also worth pointing out that most of the respondents were in the age range of 26 to 35 years old, which contributes to the dominant household demography between 2–4 people. 86% of respondents were currently residing in Sweden.

Graphic 2. Food waste behavior and shopping frequency result of the quantitative study

The two most important questions in this survey were the respondents’ grocery shopping frequency (to which it may or may not contribute to their food purchasing behavior and therefore food waste) and their type of household food waste. Many of the respondents elaborated on more than one type of food waste, therefore I coded extensively the respondents’ answers and found that leftovers (10 answers) and fresh produce (13 answers) were the household food waste category mostly found in this sampling pool. These results were then discussed deeper with the five interviewees I had the chance to talk to.

Img. 7 Interview coding

The data gathered during the interviews were transcribed using the available means on the web. The transcripts were then analyzed by their topics. The data analysis was then conducted by coding the interviewees’ responses to the questions asked (Img.4).

During this time, I found more and more topics came up from the interviews, thus I concluded that I needed to prioritize the findings as much as those related to the brief and hypothesis.

The following hypotheses, insights, and principles were written in a prioritized manner, a slight change from the figure given in Img.3.

Hypothesis 1 (Confidence level: 90%)

Users need to evaluate their food wasting behavior in connection to their grocery shopping habit

I don’t plan, which then makes me buy lots of foods and double buy, a lot” — Female, 37 yo

I think the reason why I end up not using is that I buy more than I need. Sometimes I act according to my feelings or my wishes when it comes to food. I have this a lot with clementines and then my lust for them just went away faster than I thought” — Female, 24 yo

At the supermarket, we wonder if we have onions at home, and then we just buy more onions and we never use the one we had, double buying, yeah, that’s just poor planning” — Male, 22 yo

Insights: Users reflecting on their food wasting behavior in connection to their poor planning grocery shopping

Principles: Allow our users to plan better their food purchases and connect it to their food saving effort

Hypothesis 2(Confidence level: 50%)

Users feel the need to lessen food waste in their household

So I ended up throwing away approximately almost one and a half kilograms of potato and I felt so bad about it afterward” — Female, 24 yo

Yeah, things get wasted when I am not home because my family is just like that” — Female, 54 yo

Insights: Users are disappointed with their food-wasting behavior

Principles: Allow our users to evaluate their food wasting behavior

Hypothesis 3 (Confidence level: 90%)

Users need to feel secure in their food stock in the pantry

I think like if I buy too much for instance then like I’m also like will I need it later or will I not need it later” — Female, 24 yo

It just has to have a date. I know it’s not going to be bad. I do smell it, of course, I smell on it like to be sure but I like flour, there’s nothing wrong with it” — Male, 34 yo

I never find my pantry with bad food... They are still good. The expiry date is just to put a limit on selling it, not really on the quality of the food. So we still eat them even if they are passing the expired date” — Female, 54 yo

Insights: Users relate their dry foods stock with future food security, not necessarily see them as ‘waste’ when they’re passing their expired date.

Principles: Provide our users with the security of their future food needs

Hypothesis 4 (Confidence level: 75%)

Users need to have a clear view of their level of food wasting behavior

I think we don’t waste lots of foods, just the stuff we don’t cook or we don’t buy” — Female, 37 yo

But I don’t have a lot of food waste” — Female, 54 yo

Insights: Users guessing on their level of food wasting behavior

Principles: Allow our users a sense of progress in their food saving effort

Hypothesis 5 (Confidence level: 75%)

Our users need to have options on how to use their food supplies

I bought specific foods sometimes for a special recipe and then just let them sit there because you don’t know what to do with them anymore beside of that special recipe” — Male, 22 yo

They only sell a big portion of everything in Sweden, like cheese. And then if you don’t eat them regularly, you end up throwing them out” — Female, 37 yo

Insights: Users distance themselves from their food stock because they don’t know what to do with them

Principles: Help our users to find options to do with their food stock

Hypothesis 6 (Confidence level: 95%)

Our users want to have painless-time saving grocery shopping experiences

I hate it, we move more into buying groceries bags now. You waste a lot of time doing groceries and plan what to eat” — Male, 22 yo

Not really, not at all. At least I’m trying to move over to do most of my grocery shopping online more and more” — Male, 34 yo

I hate to go to the supermarket, it’s a lot of hustle” — Female, 54 yo

Insights: Users despises grocery shopping and looking for an easier way to shop for quality foods

Principles: Make groceries shopping that also provides quality produces easier for our users

Mentions

Through the interviews, I found out that mostly there were three types of food waste: fresh foods, dry foods, and leftovers. Users have a different attitude toward the pantry and the fridge as storage devices, referring to the fresh foods and leftovers and to the dry foods as stocks.

We didn’t dive deeper into the leftovers, because it would open different kinds of possibility. Although a very interesting point to share: users felt that they were not good at portioning in cooking their food and therefore leftovers were created and then wasted.

Img. 8 Pantry organization, self-rated as 3 out of 5 by an interviewee

Pantry organization was deliberately left out from this study’s analysis because more and more interviews showed validation to the connection between food waste and food purchasing behavior.

An interesting mention on pantry organization subject: kitchen/pantry organization was considered a ‘personal space’ by the interviewees making comments such as “This is just pure anxiety,” (Male, 22 yo) or “I am very dissatisfied with the way I organize here, yeah, you can see all the mess all right.. now you got it on camera,” (Female, 24 yo) when they were asked to show their pantry organization.

Card sorting exercise and users reception

During the interviews, I presented 8 different yet interconnected features as potential solutions to the household food waste problem. I bear in mind the client’s already available app when I prepared the card sorting exercise. Some parts of the exercise were deliberately meant to evaluate some of the existing features.

Img. 8 Result from card sorting exercise defined by ‘Love it’, ‘Nice to have’, and ‘No’ responses

“No no no, that’s a lot of work. I don’t want to put them in one by one.” — Female, 37 yo

“I think this is very good. I am not the only one shopping. Multiuser, I like it.” — Female, 54 yo

“I already have a lot to do so anything automated is what I like.” — Female, 54 yo

“I think it’s necessary for today’s world” — Male, 22 yo

“I think I can use it for the regular things because sometimes you don’t want to buy some things next time” — Female, 24 yo

“Love it, I don’t really go through the fridge every week to check what’s expired” — Female, 24 yo

“I had mixed experiences, it could be nice but sometimes people are weird” — Female, 24 yo

“It’s super good. Sometimes for me, it’s a problem what we gonna eat” — Female, 24 yo

Next step

The compilation of data gathered from quantitative, qualitative, and card sorting exercise, allows me to put forward some recommendations to the client:

  1. A further study of the connection between food waste and purchasing behavior is needed. Most of the interviewees talk about poor grocery shopping planning and impromptu food purchasing, does this mean they see food as a disposable resource? What is the reasoning behind it? Do they see food-wasting behavior as something they prioritized to changing?
  2. The budget for food purchasing differs depending on the target groups. Ecological purchasing might work better for those with stable income although their age range shows less tech-savviness. To what degree should the feature be accessible? How would that relate to the different target groups? A further investigation is needed.
  3. An adjacent feature and automation into the supermarket’s available app are preferable by the interviewees in this study. How might we create a seamless feature addition through the eyes of the users?
  4. Most of the interviews stated that dry foods are weighed into a food security factor, and therefore are not considered waste although they passed their expiry date. As they last longer and pose no guilt, would consumers prioritize changing this budget group into buying more ecological products in the category? A further study is needed.
  5. One of the interviewees shows distrust of the supermarket’s app referring to selective high-priced food the app is suggesting. Would the value of ecological food affect the customer’s opinion toward the supermarket? How? Is this a generalized problem? An in-depth study is needed.

Reflections

Reflections on every process taken had helped me to evaluate and learn more throughout the process. In doing the interviews, for example, I found that interviewing comfort relates closely to where the interviews were situated, physically. Interviews that were held in the comfort of the home tend to runs more relaxed and open although the interviews were done in a virtual way.

The research starts with an open possibility to create a feature for an existing app or to create a new app. As these two different contexts require different grounds, this research is torn into two directions. Only until the users' interview brought confirmation into their preference for a more integrated system, the study found its base.

The long way to reduce food waste— only after we (individuals and businesses) treat food as a meaningful resource and not easily disposable can the movement toward food waste going in the right direction.

*BERNSTAD, A. & ANDERSSON, T. 2014. Food waste minimization from a life-cycle perspective. Journal of Environmental Management, 147, 219–226.

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A life-time learner, risk-taker, and explorer. Media and Communications practitioner glancing at the world of UX Research and Design. Based in Lund, Sweden.

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Gabriela Putri

Gabriela Putri

A life-time learner, risk-taker, and explorer. Media and Communications practitioner glancing at the world of UX Research and Design. Based in Lund, Sweden.

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