An estimated 15 million Americans have food allergies, with over 5 million allergic to 2+ allergens.
As someone who has had food allergies their entire life, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to go out and enjoy a meal. If you don’t prepare a dish yourself, you’re putting your life in someone else’s hands.
While awareness and regulations have improved drastically in the past few decades, it can still be difficult to ensure that restaurant staff understand your medical needs and how to take proper precautions.
Allergista is my ongoing side project that aims to make life easier for people with food allergies. I put my research and interaction design skills to use to create a card that individuals with allergies can use to succinctly communicate their medical condition to restaurant staff.
After moving to Boulder in 2014, I was able to connect with more people like myself with allergies for really the first time. I realized very quickly I wasn’t the only one getting blank stares from waiters when I asked how they handled cross-contamination in their kitchen.
Reaching out to my extended network, I recruited a group of 10 remote allergic people to help me assess where some of the biggest problem areas are. I drafted a few surveys meant to determine a baseline range of allergies and how people tackled going to restaurants.
What the surveys revealed was a universal need to calmly, succinctly communicate with restaurant staff, school administrators, and their own family members the severity of their allergies.
Almost every participant linked these conversations with fear, loss of control, excessive worry, and hopelessness. The common thread was painfully undereducated restaurant staff – and customers verbally communicating their allergy health needs. This combination leaves a lot of room for miscommunication, error, and potentially deadly reactions.
The surveys revealed so many complex food service and educational system problems it was overwhelming at first. I initially bit off more than I could chew and started down a path of sketching an app that could integrate with restaurant ticket systems. Not only was this a huge scope, but I didn’t know enough about these systems to design a meaningful MVP.
To narrow my focus, I took the smallest, highest impact problem I could identify in the research: the ineffective exchange of allergies between customer and wait staff.
Over a period of several months, I used post-it notes to prototype an allergy card that I could hand waiters. After over 20 tests around Boulder and getting casual feedback from wait staff, I felt confident in the data and its hierarchical presentation.
When I went to Europe in the summer of 2018, I used Google Translate to easily make my own digital allergy cards following this proven formula, which worked like a charm and allowed me to enjoy the delicious meals pictured above.
What I learned from these paper and digital prototypes was that I could make a simple, scaleable product that would drastically improve the experience and safety of people with food allergies.
The next step was to scale my prototypes. I took the min (1) and max (14) amount of allergens for a single individual from my research data set and designed a template in Figma that could accommodate the full range.
As a challenge, I also started to create an icon language using the Material Design grid system to add visual interest. I used a very simple design and red to communicate urgency; less is more in this scenario.
The end result of this first phase of experimentation is 2 sets of Moo business cards (one set for me, another for my best friend Audrey) that can be used out in the real world. Already, we’ve noticed a huge improvement in our experiences at restaurants, and I’m excited to automate the process of creating more cards soon!