Ideo Spinoff ShopWell Says Better Health Starts at the Supermarket; Part 2: Ingredients of a Startup

11/2/10Follow @wroush

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she’d been through a serious illness some years earlier that had turned out to be the result of a food intolerance.

But ultimately, it wasn’t the company’s pitch that convinced her to join. “I came to meet the team and fell in love with them,” she says. “It’s the most, amazing, diverse team, using this very human-centric design methodology. I had never called it that, but I think I had tried to practice that in all the work I’d done before.” It didn’t hurt, Kim says, that the project was backed by Ideo, which “has a huge halo effect.”

Cooking Up a Consumer Service

The first thing you notice when you visit ShopWell’s office, a street-level storefront space on the same block with the Palo Alto branch of Whole Foods, is the blizzard of Post-it Notes. There are green ones and pink ones and blue ones and yellow ones; there are so many Post-its that the startup has taken to stacking them against the walls several layers deep on 4-by-8 sheets of foam core. Kim and Witlin say this is how the company brainstorms new features for the ShopWell website. It’s also how they prioritize product development tasks and plan the “scrums” and “sprints” that comprise the agile software development method, which the startup wholeheartedly embraces. (In the same way Apple gives a name like “Tiger” or “Leopard” to each iteration of its OS X operating system, ShopWell names each sprint after a nutrient; when I visited, the development team was in the midst of Linoleic Acid.)

Post-it note boards at ShopWellIf 3M hadn’t invented Post-it Notes, Ideo would have had to. “You’ll see the same type of thing in any Ideo office,” says Boyle. “They are powerful tools, because you can move them quickly and synthesize and gather themes. If you look at the design process, we will first go out and do our insight phase, and we will come back with deep, qualitative stories, and we’ll post those on Post-its and the team will share those and start to move them around and look for different stories. Things that aren’t interesting can literally fall to the floor. The design process is fluid like that.”

What ShopWell has designed so far is a beta version of a consumer-facing website, together with a mobile app released just two weeks ago that extends the service right into the supermarket. Immediately upon arrival, ShopWell site visitors are asked to customize their experience by telling the system about their gender, age, weight, and height. This helps the system figure out, among other things, whether the “percent daily value” numbers on standard Nutrition Facts labels are overestimates or underestimates for a given individual. Users can also give ShopWell specifics about what they want and don’t want in their diet (whole grains, yes; preservatives, no), and what allergies and intolerances they need to worry about.

Then there are “preselects” for common health conditions. If you say you’re working to manage your weight, for example, ShopWell’s algorithms will give a preferential score to products with lots of fiber, protein, and whole grains, and will penalize those with lots of sugar, corn syrup, refined grains, fats, cholesterol, and sodium. Behind the scenes, the algorithms parse the data on nutrition labels and ingredient lists, mix in your preferences as well as evaluations from expert dietitians, and come back with ranked lists of common consumer food products. All foods are scored on a 0-100 scale and sorted into three buckets—red, yellow, and green—based on how well they meet your preferences.

You can also browse foods and their personalized scores in more than 100 categories, from cereal to relishes to baby formula. If you find a product you like or that you’re planning to use in a meal, you can put it on a shopping list, which you can … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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