Designing For Food Allergies

Disclaimer: Any information presented here-in does not necessarily represent the views of any of my current or past employers, clients, or organisations I’ve worked with currently or in the past.

I have a food allergy. At it’s worst, it’s life-threatening. It is statistically rare, although well recognised, but because it is not common it is not categorised under the existing EU 14 provisions, a list of 14 common, recognised allergens.

In general, this does not effect my day to day life. However it does occasionally become a sticking point.

Where are we now?

The law provides for 14 allergens, which must be clearly identified in any pre-packed or non-prepacked foods. Where an allergy falls within the list of 14, this is good, it gives clear understanding for what businesses must provide. I’ve worked with companies to help comply with the EU law, and we’re produced systems that help manage allergen traceability. This legislation been in place since 13th December 2014, although two chain restaurants I visited recently declared the regulations as “new”.

I’d like to report that this is a race where everyone is winning. Alas, we’re not there.

Some businesses are doing superbly. In one fast food restaurant at a service station had recipe cards on the wall, allergen lists next to them and staff you could openly talk to. In another, independent restaurant I’ve been handed a ring binder with hand written allergy sheets, each time stamped.

But on the other side, for every one of those, I’ve been in two to three restaurants where the only information available has been a “please ask the staff”, who have little to no training, or in one case been thrown a tablet, locked on the breakfast menu (it was dinner), with half the allergen icons (which I couldn’t decipher) failing to load. Technology is not always the solution.

But what if the allergen is not covered by the EU14? This is where existing provision falls down. The technical guidance states:

“Allergen information for non-prepacked food can be communicated through a variety of means to suit the business format of the FBO. The requirement is to provide information about the use of allergenic ingredients in a food. The provision does not require food businesses to provide a full ingredients list”

There is no requirement for companies to publish full ingredient lists.. There has been provision in the technical guidance that allergens may be communicated orally. After several recent deaths, this has been seen to be grossly inadequate.

Where do we go? Restoring Agency.

Making decisions about food is primarily about agency. Wikipedia probably has the nicest defintion of agency I’ve seen around:

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

Structure stands in opposition to agency, and are factors of influence that limit an agent’s ability to make decisions. Where there’s an imbalance of information, or a imbalance of power, there is a reduction in agency.

This might sound rather heavy when talking about food on a menu, but here’s why it matters: the more agency the person making the decision has, the more confident they can be about the decisions they make.

How can we translate that in to real world information design? Information here equates to power. But low fidelity, out of date information that’s shoved down the back of the sofa, is of no help to anyone. For it to have an impact it needs to be:

Relevant & Layered

Different customers have different needs:

This is simply a sample of requirements. Your customers are more complex than this. So how do we communicate relevant and specific information to each group?

Your normal menu is a good start, giving accurate descriptions of what the dish is. Try to avoid “surprise” missing main ingredients.

You’re required by law to provide a EU allergen list.

To really enable your customers, provide a full ingredient list alongside your EU allergen list. This will serve those customers who are not catered for from the allergen list. It’s a requirement for pre-packaged food, it’s becoming a requirement for food prepared on site, and may at some point become a requirement for served food. This provides the most power to your customers.

There may be other contextual information relevant to other groups - is meat prepared to Halal or Kosher standards? Is any cheese used vegetarian or vegan friendly? Answers to these questions are often enabling for customers.

Timely & Up-To-Date

If the information held doesn’t match the food being served, then it is worse than useless, it is dangerous, it is misinforming the customer. Allergen and recipe information needs to be kept up to date, but this is hard. Practices need to be put in place and followed, and ideally information held needs to time-stamped to indicate when it was last revised.

Nobody likes paperwork, so any process that’s put in place needs to be as frictionless as possible to ensure that information stays up-to-date.

I’ve had more confidence in ring-binders handed to me with hand-written sheets time-stamped for yesterday in the top left, than in online web pages with no indication for when they were last revised.

Available & Discoverable

If information is easily available to me without asking for it, then your customers have more agency.

If your customers have to ask for it, two immediate problems come to mind:

1) You hold power over your customers. Your customers have to wait for you to give them the information before they can make a choice. 2) They will probably have to have the same, repetitive, embarrassing, conversation.

If you make the information easily available in a way that the customer can discover for themselves, then you’re restoring yet more agency to them.

User Journeys

Claire is a young woman who likes spicy food, but does have problems with some types of beans. She knows this, and has done for a while, so she tries to avoid them where she can. She falls in to the not insignificant chunk of the population that self managed themselves, but does fine.

Round 1

Claire wants to buy a Burrito. She goes in to the burrito store and grabs a menu. The menu says “burrito, salsa, beans, meat”, and Claire asks what beans are used in the burrito. The counter staff say “gosh, we’re not sure, we’ll go and check”, and disappear in to the back. They come back and ask “do you have an allergy?” to which Claire says “I have an intolerance”, and the staff disappear in to the back again. Moments later, they come back with a sheet of A4 and hand it over. Claire looks at the list of EU allergens and says “but this doesn’t tell me anything…” at which point the staff says “well, this is all we can give you, are you placing an order?”. Claire is made to feel uncomfortable, and decides that the only choice she’s left with is to leave the shop.

Round 2

Claire wants to buy a Burrito. She goes in to the burrito store and grabs a menu. The menu says “burrito, salsa (mild), black beans, choice of meat”. Claire asks what’s in the beans. The staff member points to a recipe card on the wall, and Claire has a quick look through and finds that no way can she eat the bean mix. She asks “can I get a burrito without the bean mix?”, “yeah of course, want some rice instead?”, and Claire gets a burrito.

It’s a small change, with a big impact, and Claire really likes burritos.

TL;DR

  • Improving your customer’s food experience is about giving them agency to make their own choices.
  • Make information:
    • Relevant & Layered
    • Timely & Up-To-Date
    • Available & Discoverable

Give them useful, relevant information, in a way they can find it, and keep it up to date, and they will thank you for it.