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

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Miracle Whip, which has less fat and cholesterol. That’s information Unilever might be able to use to create a heart-friendly version of Hellman’s, and then market it in specific regions. “When you have the world’s largest focus group telling you what they are doing, you can start slicing and dicing and segmenting on a Web scale,” says Rosenberg.

Kim says ShopWell will also offer food marketers direct access to its users, presuming they’ve indicated that they’re willing to be recruited for surveys. “If you are a marketer, you could test all aspects of product pricing and promotion, by recruiting a panel of people who have said they’re willing to speak to manufacturers. That’s smaller, but it’s real-time, and it gives you enough data to make quick decisions in an industry that is very risk-averse.”

Kim calls the ShopWell market research model “Google Analytics for the food industry.” But that comparison may actually undervalue the service, since Google Analytics is free, and food producers are used to paying millions of dollars per study for market research.

“Anything that costs less than that will be great,” Kim says. “And we’re not only giving them the data, but a platform for dialogue, so they can go back to the people who gave the data and say, ‘Hey, what if I did this, what would you think?'”

Lean Startup

This entire vision, however, hinges on signing up enough users to yield actionable data. That doesn’t necessarily mean ShopWell has to grow to Google scale; “Because of their hyper-effective monetization model, they don’t have to get very many million to be wildly successful,” Rosenberg asserts. But at a minimum, ShopWell will need enough users in each major geography and demographic group to yield statistically valid insights into trends in the larger population.

ShopWell's iPhone app -- screen shotTo gain those users, ShopWell will probably need to improve on its existing service. While the ratings are interesting and the food catalog seems exhaustive, ShopWell doesn’t yet include many tools to make the data useful in contexts outside the site. It would make perfect sense, for example, to be able to access your Web-based ShopWell shopping list from the ShopWell iPhone app, or at least to export your ShopWell shopping list to common task-list management tools such as Remember The Milk. But so far you can’t even e-mail your shopping list to yourself or your spouse. Nor is there an application programming interface that would allow outside developers to build tools that integrate with ShopWell and fill such holes.

To get the site launched, Witlin says, his team followed the “minimum viable product” precept; it’s a part of Eric Ries’s lean startup philosophy that says developers should only put enough features into their product to start eliciting user feedback. In ShopWell’s case, the minimalism shows. But if the profusion of Post-it Notes around the ShopWell office is any indication, there are a lot more features on the way. And in theory, ShopWell ought to have one big advantage over other lean startups: with its Ideo inheritance, it should be able to avoid random iteration and instead focus developers’ time on features that have been pre-qualified by potential users through ethnographic studies.

If ShopWell can ultimately help consumers and producers cut through the current maze of conflicting, shrill, and often emotionally and politically laden messages about food, it will be doing a service. Yes, food producers are mainly out to make money—but they also recognize, Kim and Witlin say, that today’s consumers are increasingly concerned about health and nutrition, and they know they’re going to have to confront the issue somehow.

“We believe that anybody can change, whether it’s the consumer making a tradeoff to eat better for their family, or a food producer reacting to consumer needs by reducing sodium levels or pumping in less high-fructose corn syrup,” says Witlin. “By sitting in this spot and not being judgmental and creating this increased transparency, we think we can move the needle.”

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

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