The E.A.T. School Meal UX Design Challenge is an excellent project to help USDA improve the Reduced and Free Meals Program that millions of nation's low-income children depend on every single day. The fact that there currently no electronic model meal application exists is probably the biggest motivation to have one. The FNS Access, Participation, Eligibility and Certification (APEC) study series identified specific areas of improvement for the existing School Meals Program. APECII found roughly one in five children in the free, reduced-price, or denied categories were certified into the wrong category in School Year 2012-2013. These certification errors are a result of households making reporting errors when completing meal applications as well as administrative errors made by School districts when processing the meal applications. Assisting households to accurately report their household size and income could allow more eligible children to receive benefits as well as prevent ineligible children from receiving benefits. An innovative design and technology solution that can be easily adapted and embraced by households could serve a catalyst in reducing certification errors, saving administrative costs and improving the user experience of households when completing school meal applications on a recurring basis for their school-going children.
What it does
The "Apply for School Meal" web application/prototype (referred to as "web app") is an online School Meal Application repository for household adults who submit applications for school-age students in the household. The web app let's a household adult access the School Meal Application to register for an online account, create and submit new school meal applications for all students in the household and allows for viewing and exporting/printing of the previously submitted applications. Future versions of the web app could implement additional features including the ability for multiple adults in the household to share the same online School Meal Application repository so that all applications (past and future) are accessible to all registered household adults and the ability for a user to save a newly created but not yet submitted school meal application in one session to be edited and submitted in a future session. Of course, there are many other features that can be implemented by individual school districts depending on their particular needs.
How I built it
I used the Laravel PHP Framework and MySQL database as the main technologies for the Front and Back ends respectively. Laravel is a web application framework that offers an expressive and elegant syntax and offers tools that can be utilized for developing robust applications.
Challenges I ran into
Numerous challenges were encountered during the development and testing phases of the prototype. The biggest challenge I faced was lack of time as I found out about the Challenge quite late in the game. If I was aware of this competition from the very beginning then I could have done things in a lot better way. Unfortunately lack of time resulted in a lot of technical and non-technical issues at the end when trying to complete the prototype and also adhere to the Challenge submission requirements. The other challenge I faced was being a sole-person team which at times made me loose a lot more time than I would have had if I had at least one or possibly two more team members. Having multiple minds brainstorming and providing feedback could definitely results in time savings and perhaps smoother execution the implementing the prototype. Scope and testing (especially user testing) were other two areas where I ran into problems. My initial design conceptualized a much larger scope which proved too big to implement. User feedback at a much later stage resulted in fixing some minor re-design issues again due to lack of time for implementation and re-testing. All in all there were a number of lessons learned competing in this challenge.
Accomplishments that I'm proud of
I spent a decent amount of time doing research and reviewing the requirements of the Challenge. I thoroughly reviewed the New York city school meal application process (available at https://www.applyforlunch.com) and visualized myself as a typical household adult who would want to submit an application for school students in the household. I read about the Human-centered Design approach which starts with understanding the users USDA and School Districts are trying to reach and try to understand what would be important from their perspective. The result was a much better design strategy that took into account behavioral traits of household adult users of the web app.
What I learned
I learned a great deal from this project to say the least. It was definitely an opportunity to learn not just what problem to solve but also how to solve it in a better (more innovative) way. Understanding the typical problems faced by the web app users when filling out school meal applications and then designing and implementing a solution offered immense learning opportunity to implement a solution that addresses those needs. Learning the feedback loop from the market validation testing was another great opportunity to improve user experience. A simple example of this was the decision to save and export the income and frequency information of the household members in the same format as captured during the application creation phase. This was done intentionally so that the user finds it easier to review and recall the information at a later time as converting the user-entered information into a standard frequency type (say "annual") when exporting information could make it difficult for some users to understand what they entered in the application at the time of submitting the school meal application. This design feature was discovered directly from the feedback obtained from a few users who tested the web app.
What's next for E.A.T. School Lunch UX Challenge Apply for School Meal
This is just the beginning. There is a long way to go to make the web app prototype scale up and improve the user experience even further. The prototype in its current form is just a basic model of what can be accomplished. Depending on the specific needs of individual school districts more features can be added or existing features can be tweaked to customize a web app version. This was an exciting and fun project for me to participate in. I enjoyed it very much and look forward to seeing creative and innovative prototypes from other participants.