How much did your grade school cafeteria resemble the design of a soup kitchen? When you think of a soup kitchen, you basically visualize a long line of people, trays sliding along the assembly line of food, and long tables for consuming the food. This soup kitchen design has been around since at least the Great Depression.
Year after year, in school district after school district, school cafeterias with that same design have offered children lunch—even free lunch in many cases. But there is a new hitch.
Today’s children are not eating their lunches. Precious school funds are wasted and worse, if the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is any example, many children are opting out of even free lunches. Wired reports that 60 percent of SFUSD students qualified for free or reduced fee lunches, but only about 60 percent of those students ate their school lunches.
Knowing how important nutrition is for young brains, this trend could have dire long-term consequences for learning among some student populations.
Customer feedback: it’s not really about food
What might happen if you started thinking about the students as customers, at least when it came to the lunchtime experience? It may be a radical notion in a school, but those of us who have been thinking about successful product innovation understand that engaging customers (read: students) in product design and feedback works.
And so it happened that the SFUSD hired IDEO to solve their lunch problem. IDEO, as a design company, understood that at least in the context of school lunches, students were customers and needed to provide input.
IDEO’s first step? Asking students their preferences for their lunchtime experience. The results? “They found there are a few simple ways to get kids to think differently about school lunch, and few of them are about food.”
The students provided these new ideas:
- Customize the experience by age group;
- Enhance convenience and provide a rewards systems for eating school lunches;
- Introduce some cool technology; and
- Expand the “cafeteria” to include areas for socializing.
Seeing the students as customers and inviting their input was the first step in a process to disrupt the old soup kitchen design and begin the redesign process.
The redesign tools
Any redesign has to consider staffing, a budget, and the policy framework—whether it is a public or private entity. The SFUSD was no different.
As Wired reports:
The IDEO design team “worked with the [school] district to nail down exactly what it could spend and how much new revenue had to be generated by this new plan. There were policy considerations, reimbursement regulations and labor rules to think about. ‘All of those pieces were design tools we had,’ says [IDEO associate Sandy] Speicher. ‘If you think of it like a product, those were the materials we had to design the system.’”
At each age group level, IDEO’s design experiments, based on age-appropriate student input, radically altered the lunchtime experience, incorporating the points outlined above.
IDEO’s team came up with a number of ideas that were appealing to student customers, including a “Smart Meal Technology” app. According to Speicher, “The app allows students to pre-order meals, indicate food preferences, and rate the quality of what they just ate. This is a trove of previously untapped data that also gives students a voice in what they’re consuming.”
The SFUSD will implement those parts of the IDEO plan that they can for now. But there’s more:
“The district has since created an innovation lab, a program that asks teachers for pipe-dream ideas so they can start to dream up solutions, no matter how difficult they might be to implement. They’ve already gotten proposals for how to take the problem of wriggling more elective classes into the curriculum, as well as how to give teachers more time to collaborate together.”
Acknowledging the disruption and shift this experiment has wrought in the school district, Superintendent Richard Carranza adds, “‘We’re a traditional public school system thinking in a very innovative, entrepreneurial way.’”
This is a classic case of turning to design thinking to identify and solve a problem in product or service design. (You can review the steps to design thinking in a brief video here.)
Seeing students as customers was fundamental. Asking them the right questions was key to identifying the problem and then learning what types of redesigns might work.
IDEO set up an experimental lunch lab with each age group to test their designs and get customer feedback – key steps in product innovation.
The Superintendent—a leader open to disruptive thinking—learned ways in which he might continue the lessons in innovative thinking into the district’s future, changing the culture of that school district to one that embraces disruption and redesign.