I’m a 18 year old studying at the University of California, San Diego. I’m passionate about Computer Science, design, sketching, and building FeedOn, my social venture

The Design Challenges Behind an Evolving Food-Tech Startup

        Activity day was the most exciting day of the entire school calendar back in grade 9. The air would buzz with the constant chatter of students dressed in red, green, blue, and yellow as they freely roamed the countless stalls set up at school. Dressed in yellow, I loved cheering for my friends participating in the dancing, music, art, and sports competitions, though I never really found the right one to take part in myself. When word reached my friend Ahan and I that the tech wizards of grade 12 had organized a web design competition for activity day that year, we registered for it faster than the speed of light. I had just begun tinkering with photoshop and HTML around that time, obsessively messing around with pictures and fonts to come up with wacky creations to put on the internet. Placing first in the web design competition only fueled this obsession further. Little did I know how far this skill was going to stay with me.

        In April of 2015, my dad began an online delivery food-tech startup. Being an angel investor to over 50 companies, he had often heard founders say that startups were exciting but also challenging and lonely journeys. He decided that it was important for him to go through the experience of being a founder himself to better understand the founders he had mentored and provided funding to. His journey of being a 'founder for the founders' began with finding a suitable name for his food-tech startup. On a casual Sunday morning over breakfast, he asked my mom and I to suggest a few names that would evoke some emotions related to food. After all, his company was going to sell a 'meal kit' with exotic ingredients and a recipe card with instructions for his customers to cook a delicious, no-fuss dish within 10-15 minutes. As we sat thinking of possible names, I realized that not everyone enjoys cooking because of the constraints of time, effort and the ingredients that have to be gathered; but one honestly wouldn't mind cooking if things were a little easier - India has a rapidly growing, young working population that would rather not eat out every day, cooking would also make for a fun activity with friends! At a drop of a hat, I suggested the name 'InnerChef' because I felt it would resonate aptly with the idea of a meal kit. My dad chuckled with laughter like a little kid and bought the domain name instantly.

        As time went by and the trials of dishes neared completion, my dad realized that a well designed website was required to formally launch InnerChef. As outsourcing agencies were expensive, he found a contact to help build his website. After the first iteration of the website was built, my dad looked forward to my feedback. Unfortunately, I felt the design and layout had miles to go. It was poorly planned as the design did not allow for addition of more categories of food in the future and the checkout process was exhaustive. Since I was honing my photoshop and HTML skills at the time, I decided to give it a go. It took two whole weeks of elaborate planning, discussions, designing, redesigning, and creating mockups to come up with my rendition of the website. I went to such extents as to make a front-end only scrollable website hosted on my personal server to make the new experience tangible.

        My hard work did not go unnoticed as the mock-up was quickly approved. The reason for this I think was because I tried to create the website from the perspective of a customer. I would frequently order from the website and note down the issues I faced while doing so, coming up with a 5 page long list of bugs, user experience and interface problems, issues with the backend, and how each process could be made simpler. A fundamental learning from this time was to put myself in the shoes of a customer when building any product to actually understand the frustration of experiencing a badly designed front end.

        Eventually, InnerChef started to build a tech team of it's own, initially consisting of two web developers with no definite head of technology to look over them. The next iteration of the website was a definite improvement, however, there were several fine details that were left out as a result of little communication between the developers and me. I had simply made the mockups but not stuck around to crease the wrinkles when the site was being developed. I understood this issue much later when I worked with them directly on new iterations.

        What most people don't realise about startup founders is the extent to which their work consumes them. Every conversation, even those with family, revolves around the startup. The transition from being a regular family to a startup-centric family was definitely a new experience. I saw my mother working day and night on new content for InnerChef recipe cards, social media posts, website descriptions, and much more as my father flew in and out of Gurgaon every three days for meetings. The house had transformed into a dynamic office, with breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings with new faces every day. One could say I missed spending more time with my parents to just talk but the excitement of our mission had all of us captured.

        Several months passed, and the time had come to scale. It didn't take long for my dad to realise that the Indian market would take close to 5 more years to warm up to the idea of 'meal kits.' InnerChef's decisive moment arose when the startup pivoted to serve 'ready-to-eat' meals including combo boxes of salads, paninis and juices. To gear up for serious growth to sustain InnerChef’s vision, a mobile app was also required. I took the initiative as the new Head of UX/UI at InnerChef to initiate this venture.

        As InnerChef kitchens started opening in new cities, the demand for an app and new features increased. Everyday, we would learn new things about customer behaviour and the Indian palette. It was through a detailed analysis of this data, complaints received on the website UX, and several heated discussions on which new features were feasible at the time that I made the UX and UI for the first InnerChef mobile app. My mock-up was AB tested by people from all age groups to ensure it was user friendly and feedback was promptly incorporated. After this stage, I made sure to meet regularly with InnerChef's new Android and iOS developers, documenting changes after seeing each new build. Several weeks later, the app debuted on the Google Play Store and iOS App Store.

        Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as I obsessively checked the ratings and reviews for the apps. It was well received, and we did our best to address most complaints and update the app regularly. To continue to stay new and exciting, InnerChef also launched 'Indulge,' a desserts marketplace which provided India's best home bakers a platform to reach out to new consumers. Over time, Indulge started to earn over 30% of InnerChef's total revenue. It only seemed reasonable at the time to build a separate app for it with review and rating features built right into the app for each baker, incentivising them to maintain a high quality for their products. I quickly undertook the task of building the UX, starry eyed from the success of the InnerChef app. The app was built in no time after I designed the mockup, the developers had quickly learned the nuances from building the previous app.

        Unfortunately, the mission was not a success. Why would customers want to download a separate app for desserts when many of them were already available on the InnerChef app? The launch of the Indulge app was rushed, and Indulge was eventually merged into the InnerChef app for the sake of simplicity. The whole exercise taught me the importance of making and reflecting on mistakes. In the summer of 2016, my internship at IrisVR further reinforced in me the importance of thinking deeply about what a company aims to achieve from a feature before launching it. Only later did we realise that all features implemented on the Indulge app could just as well have been integrated in the InnerChef app.

        Over time, InnerChef grew from a singular kitchen operation in Gurgaon to a mature startup with presence all over India. To fund this expansion, investors looked for a food tech startup that could cater to India's evolving palette. A deep analysis of the market and human psyche concluded that we are always looking to experience something new, different, and exciting. The InnerChef menu had to change from a bunch of static pages to a dynamic, daily changing menu. The execution of a feature as complex as this one required a lot of thinking. Meetings with the entire InnerChef team, now over 40 people, were scheduled to brainstorm. Several clashing thoughts and ideas made it difficult to come to a consensus on the plan of action. Ultimately, the change was brought about in stages with a health focused approach. This seemed like the right time for InnerChef to adopt a new design philosophy. Crafting InnerChef's elaborate design style guide took 3 weeks. The colour green made it's way into the sea of InnerChef blue and white was used as the new base. The new design guide was adopted and implemented everywhere: the website & apps, the logo and the food packaging.

        Today, InnerChef is the fastest growing online food delivery platform in India. The journey has been life changing for me. Over two years, I have been exposed to and have been a part of the hard work it takes to make it to the list of India's top game-changing startups, and still be hungry to keep growing. My learning has been tremendous at a personal level, from developing a keen interest in the field of user experience to reflecting and understanding the procedures of building and iterating on top of each new design. While self learning has been important, listening to others has been equally important in this journey - my teammates have often provided very insightful feedback on my designs. The precedence of other food tech startups has also helped me evolve my own thinking process.