Sojourn Fare is a nascent food tech company based in Chicago, building “hardware and software that automates and assists the process of cultivating mushrooms.” Why mushrooms? Paul Stamets answers that question pretty convincingly in this TED talk. The company is currently prototyping an onsite growing unit that produces a continuous supply of mushrooms week after week, and the model has been successful in a large corporate cafeteria in Chicago. They are now in the process of optimizing the system and refining the business strategy to expand into new markets. Sojourn Fare asked our team to develop an internal tool that helps drive insights and optimize the growing process. At a minimum they wanted a mobile platform for monitoring and controlling the environmental conditions in each grow unit.
Our proposal for this tool, Spore, not only allows the Sojourn Fare team to manage the environmental conditions of multiple grow units in different locations, it provides features and functions to track yields and optimize mushroom harvests. With these added features, the design strategically positions Sojourn Fare to tackle a completely open market: medium-scale grow units for gourmet mushrooms in grocery stores and large kitchens. We collaborated with our client to clarify the business strategy and design a tool that is highly tailored, yet flexible enough to allow for adaptation and evolution.
Building a product for an internal team required a strategic approach to research, with a particular emphasis on understanding the market for gourmet mushrooms and the inner workings of Sojourn Fare. The following objectives guided our research: Understand the domain and potential market competitors. What makes this platform unique? Learn about the internal team. How do they work, and what type of system do they need?
We evaluated a number of existing platforms specifically designed for growing mushrooms and, more broadly, platforms for growing other types of plants in controlled environments. Freight Farms, for instance, is a company that is exploring aeroponics and hydroponics in repurposed shipping containers. In trying to identify qualities that would make our platform unique, we uncovered a significant gap in the market, and a promising direction for Sojourn Fare: medium-scale units in grocery stores, where consumers can get direct access to fresh gourmet mushrooms.
From our research and through interactive workshops with the client, we established a clear direction for the project and built consensus around the company’s immediate needs. We learned that we weren’t just designing an environmental control system; we were designing a platform that enables Sojourn Fare to capitalize on a specific market opportunity. The challenge was how to design the platform to help the internal team control, monitor, and optimize each unit’s environmental conditions and growing processes as the company prepares to bring their product to market. With help from our client, we developed three guiding principles for this challenge:
1. Let me see it grow. This isn’t a home automation system or even a farm management tool. We’re growing mushrooms in a box, and that’s awesome. We need to reflect the beauty of that process in the user experience.
2. Keep it ship-shape. We need to show how the system is running, and offer the functions and features necessary to optimize operations. Specifically, we need to be methodical in our approach to handling information related to regulatory requirements.
3. Don’t make me panic. When we present system status notifications or error alerts, offer actionable solutions instead of just flashing panic lights. We need to prioritize errors that are serious over routine maintenance reminders.
The problem statement and three design principles helped establish much-needed constraints for our team and set the tone for concept development. At this point, we had a clear direction and a framework for evaluating our design concepts.
To achieve a minimum viable product, we needed three main components in our application: a way to control and monitor environmental conditions in each mushroom growing unit; a way to manage harvests and record yields; and a way to track maintenance activities. Even within this fairly well-defined scope for the project, we developed three approaches to our design:
One of the benefits of working in close collaboration with an internal team is the ability to test concepts quickly and achieve rapid alignment. After two rounds of concept testing we had a solid direction for our prototype and began the process of refining interaction styles and cleaning up usability issues, developing a clean set of mid-fidelity wireframes. From our conversations with the Sojourn Fare team we learned that they needed a prototype to control conditions and track harvests at the unit level, but didn’t need any extra granularity in the data for experimentation. At one point, we discussed having the ability to record yields for individual substrates (blocks) in each unit, as a way to set up experiments and see if small variations in nutrient composition affect mushroom growth. We included this feature in concepts one and three, and Sojourn Fare initially expressed interest in the idea. However, once we started talking about the logistics of managing multiple yields across multiple units, we determined this feature introduced unnecessary complexity to the platform. Having longer conversations during concept testing allowed us to thoroughly vet each design decision and evaluate the importance of each feature.
We used a bottom tab navigation system to organize the application into four distinct sections: monitor, control, crops, and maintenance. The monitor section allows the user to view histories for temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide, and light levels. The control section in turn allows users to adjust those same parameters and override default setpoints and schedules. The crops and maintenance sections respectively track harvests and system maintenance issues. The prototype also features a side drawer that allows users to browse through and select other growing units.
Having four relatively self-contained sections of the app establishes a simple framework to address questions about development and product evolution: What are the most essential features for a minimum viable product? What degree of customization is possible for different members of the Sojourn Fare team. How would this platform change as a consumer facing app? As part of our final presentation, we laid out a roadmap for releasing the product–called Spore–based on this framework:
Spore 1.0: The MVP includes the monitor and control sections, which allow the team to diagnose system malfunctions and control environmental variables.
Spore 2.0: This is our proposed design, including all four primary sections of the app: monitor, control, crops, and maintenance.
Spore 3.0: To adapt this product for the consumer market, we will remove the maintenance section and streamline features, such as scheduling, that are designed for more advanced users.
Overall Sojourn Fare expressed enthusiasm for the design, and appreciation for how the design process clarified the company’s business goals. We note only delivered a comprehensive prototype for managing the grow units and harvests, we created a flexible platform that could easily adapt to Sojourn Fare’s evolving business model.
Our deliverables to the UI development team included all of our research, sketches, clickable prototypes, and annotated wireframes. The UI handoff also presented a great opportunity to get objective feedback on our design and explore potential refinements to the user experience. Most of our design decisions persisted through to development. Further user testing validated the information architecture, navigation strategies, and core feature set. However there was one substantial change that emerged as a result of further user testing: combining the monitor and control tabs. This change helped clarify the relationship between existing conditions and setpoints, and didn’t introduce more clicks to typical user flows.