A week after coming back from a tropical vacation in Guadeloupe, I had a moment where I lost my resolve. The contents of my apartment were being packaged up, fit into a box truck and shipped across town—a new apartment, a new neighborhood, and an extra bit of complication to an already stress-filled time of year.

Anybody’s momentum for a project might stall with a vacation, but the double-whammy of vacation and moving put me in a panic, afeared I may not get back to where I needed to be so I could hit my deadlines and ship my project.

Not that nothing had been done at all in the inteirm, just that the amount of work had not come close to keeping me ahead of the game. So I’m using this opportunity to go back over how I’ve been refining my project and what problems I’m specifically trying to solve and using that to chart my progress forward.

A Refined Concept

Dropping the physical part of the prototype was one of the first things I did, even though I still consider good tools to be vital to cooking. This project needs some serious editing to make it succeed, so the kit may work its way back, but as of right now it’s too much overhead to think about.

Boiling the concept down further, there were three things that seemed most important to make my concept stand out from the crowd of other recipe experiences: (1) visually listing the equipment needed; (2) making prep—the important tasks that happen before you start cooking—a visible step in the process; and (3) being consistent with the way cooking steps are described.

Going back to the concept statement, it’s a little cleaner, but still needs more work:

Pre Vacation: Early User Testing

Since I’d dropped the kit, I focused on the redesign by going back to some of the recipes I used in the fall and tried seeing how that change would look. The resulting sparse design is functional—perhaps a little too much so—but does the job of making the content changes that are important to the project.

Next, time to recruit testers. I went with a friends and family approach for the first round as a time-saving function, mostly reaching out through social media to try to find folks.

The research plan was relatively straightfoward: I would arrive at their place, recipe and food in hand, and see what they did. It’d be up to them and their equipment, skills, and the recipe I provided.

Preliminary Testing Results

Testing was very informative. The sample set was somewhat homogeneous—mostly younger women with some basic skills—but a critical core user group. A couple of them had tried at least one form of packaged food delivery service (à la Blue Apron) but didn’t necessarily consider themselves to be experienced cooks.

A lot of what I noticed was how people approach recipes in the heat of the moment. Unsurprisingly, reading the recipe thoroughly was not happening, and a lot of attention was paid to whatever the current step was without looking forward through the rest of the recipe.

In one case, it meant that even though an ingredient was meant to be finished in a later step, the participant cooked it through early—not a catastrophe, but it really brought to light the difficult in writing clear recipes.

Insight: Types of Home Cooks

What spoke to me most clearly was how there seem to be two broad categories of home cooks. I’ve classified these people as either the chef or the baker, named after their particular approaches to cooking.

The chef tends to shoot from the hip, adjusting recipes as she sees fit and generally deciding for herself what she expects the recipe to be. This person usually has a vision in her mind as to the desired output, and doesn’t feel beholden to the recipe, just using it as a frame to add her own special touches.

The baker trusts the process and method a little bit more, looking at the specifics of the recipe to understand what needs to be done and when. This doesn’t mean they read the recipe thoroughly, just that they want to follow the instructions to the letter, and to what they believe the best practices are. Missing—or misplaced—information can cause problems for them, and improvisation isn’t on the menu.

Regardless of which part of the spectrum a person fits in (an individual could feel differently depending on the cuisine!)

More Competition

In addition to the testing, more competition in the crowded cooking space came out from conversations with testers and friends. One pointed out Panna, which works across similar lines, but is a subscription service with premiere chefs in the industry providing video tutorials of the recipes they specifically curate.

A different service, called Mealime, was described by another as “like Blue Apron” but without the food delivery portion. It does more than that, of course—since there’s no delivery portion, it adds a grocery list, has some greater flexibility in helping plan meals, and does some of the job of breaking down the cooking process.

Food52 also came out with a new app they call (Not)Recipes, which personally gives me a bit of anxiety. The concept, according to them, is meant to “tap into the smart, spontaneous cooking really happening in people’s homes,” where they insist that most people aren’t using recipes.

Other, Random Reading Material

Next Steps

I’ve been getting back on my game plan, which has me feeling better. I’m trying to not just busy myself, but find appropriate tasks to work on and get forward progress made. The most important tasks are fleshing out the look and feel, and tackling the technological underpinnings of the system. Neither are small, but the former is racing against a deadline, and the latter is what might actually make a functioning prototype.

It still doesn’t feel like I’m past the feeling of being overwhelmed, but at least I feel recovered from that meltdown and resolved to move forward.