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Traveling with Food Allergies: A Participatory Design Project


Design and research project for accessibility & inclusive design course 


Skills: teamwork, qualitative research, participatory design, prototyping, testing, presentation, report writing

How might we co-design an interactive product that promotes a more inclusive world for people with food allergies?

  • Engage a participant co-design in order to promote inclusive design

  • Create and interactive prototype

  • Semi-structured interviews

  • Journey mapping

  • Storyboarding

  • Paper prototyping

  • Journey map

  • Design Requirements

  • Key Tasks for the solution to address

  • Medium fidelity prototype

Solution & Process

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The Solution - AVERT


An app with community support for finding a safe place to eat, paired w/allergen tester 

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My Role -  User Research
  • Planned & facilitated co-design sessions

  • Analyzed qualitative data & prioritized findings 

  • Drafted problem statement to align team

  • Identified design requirements & key tasks for solution to address

The Team
  • 3 HCDE Master's students

  • A participant with severe food allergies

Research & Problem Definition Through Co-design

Semi Structured Interview


  • Participant uses workarounds to accommodate allergies

  • Knowledge & cultural awareness is a barrier when traveling abroad with food allergies

  • Participant doesn't like drawing too much attention to allergy needs when eating with others

Problem Scoping

After the interview, we scoped the problem space to eating out at restaurants while traveling internationally, because:


  • It is an interesting problem 

  • The solution might be useful in many different contexts

Pink stickies = 

concerns & barriers along the way 

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We used the results to align on a problem statement

Journey Mapping Co-design Activity

We worked with our participant to map the journey of ordering food in an international setting and flagged potential pain points. 

Journey purpose & goal

Blue stickies = steps taken on the journey to the goal

Problem Statement


We believe some people with food allergies are frustrated by international travel because potential communication barriers might lead to eating dangerous foods.


Our team used findings from the co-design session to create design requirements and key tasks for our solution to address. 

Design Requirements

The solution must...

  1. Translate between many languages

  2. Communicate allergies to restaurant staff

  3. Convey the severity of allergies

  4. Be discreet

  5. Ensure the meal is safe to eat

Key Tasks

Task 1: Find a restaurant to eat at by viewing the menu ahead of time

Task 2: Communicate food allergies to non-English speaking staff and order a modified food item

Task 3: Confirm that the meal is safe


We brainstormed many solution ideas including AR glasses, an interactive keychain, and an allergen tester


Two of our ideas best served our design requirements & key tasks:

  • A robot with an allergen detection feature

  • A phone app

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 check-list of requirements


We storyboarded the Robot and App ideas by task type individually on sticky notes. Then we came together to combine our ideas. 

Iteration Through Co-design

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​We presented our ideas to our participant and asked them to provide feedback by adding in sticky notes to the story boards. 


  • Restaurant context is important: Our participant removed the step-by-step guided ordering feature. They felt the server may be too busy to engage with the app for a long period of time.

  • Value in allergen detector: Our participant loved the allergen detector aspect of our robot idea. They suggested making something that could detect allergens both on and offline.

Additional Design Requirements

The Solution...

  • ​Must allow for flexible communication between the user and the restaurant staff

  • Must work on a mobile phone, as our participant always has a phone while on the go

  • ​Essential aspects must be able to function off-line in case of limited wifi access

Updated Solution - AVERT an app for researching restaurants and communicating with staff, paired with an allergen detector that can be used without wifi. 

Screen Shot 2019-12-20 at 9.56.06 AM.png


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We created a low-fi prototype in powerpoint, and 3-D printed the pop-socket allergen tester. 

The app assists users with finding a restaurant, menu translation and ordering. 

The pop-socket phone attachment acts as an allergen tester and informs the user if the meal is safe for them to eat (technology still in development). 


Future Directions

We showed our participant the final prototype and got this feedback to consider: 

  • Allow the user to customize the severity rating language - not all allergies are the same!

  • Encourage restaurant Collaboration -  restaurant owners can provide accurate menu details & tips

Participatory Design Learnings

  • Break down power dynamics: There was a noticeable power dynamic in our co-design sessions. In the future, I will take care to dedicate time to ice breaker activities 

  • Balance participant burden with method execution: We did this by having quick check-ins with our participant throughout the process participant's time

Overall, it was exciting to see how empowering inclusive design can be.  

Our participant noted that the prototype “would provide such security …  I could relax and eat. [Now] whenever I go out, I can’t relax.” 

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