How can Whole Foods ensure the use of a new healthy eating rating scale - and healthy eating more generally? The Corporate Healthy Eating Team realized that many customers did not pay attention to existing signage, and many efforts regarding rating scales had failed in the past.

Research Planning

Whole Foods Market wanted to utilize design thinking techniques to make sure it would be implemented successfully. My colleague Chuck and I proposed a design research program designed to help Whole Foods Market deliver.

Timeline of WFM Work

The design of this research program took careful consideration of due dates, determination of appropriate research activities and durations for those activities, deliverable creation, and built in buffer time for unknowns.

Stakeholder Interviews

We conducted stakeholder interviews with key members of the healthy eating team to understand their perspectives on challenges facing the rating scale implementation. It became clear that the goals for the system were ambiguous, as were the ways to measure its success.

"There is a trough, a gap, caused by a lack of resources and encouragement...we have an ideal path to health. We've defined it but we haven't engaged." -C-Level Executive

"How do you change perceptions in different regions, where organic is considered to be 'no flavor'? How do we meet people where they are?" - Healthy Eating Team Member

"It's about more plants, and eating less crap...slightly more unprocessed food. How do we make it fun?"-Nutritionist/Healthy Eating Team Member

(past labeling systems failed because) "We didn't ask customers. We were given the design without asking first. We're throwing money out the window. I think all of our rating systems have failed because of that, and there are more to come." -Research Director

How We Researched the Customer Experience

Chuck and I wanted to use our research program to help the healthy eating team define success. The message that we decoded was that the healthy eating team wanted help "meeting customers where they are" but knew little beyond that. So we started there. We utilized a combined program of interviews, in-store contextual inquiry, and participatory interviews to understand customers' perceptions of healthy eating and the challenges they faced, as well as what their ideal experience would be. We would use those insights to help define how the labeling system should work.

Show the protocol.

  • Complete a 15 minute interview session with the customer's to understand their approach to health, and their typical WFM shopping experience/s
  • Conduct a contextual inquiry during shop along, using the experience to compare proclaimed approach to the actual purchases
  • Asking customers to reflect on their purchases as they were being made, as well as at checkout
  • Conduct a participatory exercise with customers to see where their perceived barriers to healthy eating had been - with a store map and a marker.
  • Lastly, conduct a participatory exercise with picture and word stimulus to provoke the customer to identify their ideal shopping experience.

"I started using this app. This told me how much steps I've taken, I started walking more. 3 times a day...I'm a charts and graphs type of girl." After her husband's knee surgery, both Juliet (above, left) and her husband made diet and exercise changes together.

"This is kind of expensive for a melon. Half as much for the conventional ones, but I'm ok if I find a really big one. I'm thinking about my daughter who is a vegetarian really likes cantalope. Even though its not a great price, I'll probably get it...I'm looking for shortcuts. How can I do this, quick and easy. That makes a difference." Christina commonly juggled price, amount, organic vs. non, time, and the realities of what her family would eat.

"If I'm at Whole Foods, I'm trying to be different." Deborah expressed her desire to try new and exciting things, which was tempered by fear of the unfamiliar. She, as many customers during the exercise, selected the outdoor adventure image as one aspect of the ideal experience.

Robert during PI

"It should be smooth, intuitive. We want to move through this nice and easy, but we want it to be scientific. I'd like nice and easy, and not fall in any holes. How smooth could we make this? How interactive could we make this? You're giving up hours of your week, what could we do (differently)?" Robert saw himself as a Whole Foods expert, interested in helping others engage and learn about food, hopefully to find it as exhilariting as he did.

Key Findings

We presented a summary of our ethnographic research and key findings to the corporate healthy eating team. That presentation is available here.


More information doesn’t mean more informed shoppers.

All types of shoppers experience snags when making healthy choices.

Complex processes deter healthful choices.

Space, calm, and guidance promote healthy choices.

An assessment system must live in a healthy living ecosystem.

Customer Journeys

We developed a customer journey map that summarized existing store healthy eating labeling touch points and outlined opportunities for future improvements for the three types of customers we found. Chuck, my partner, came up for an innovative way to display the opportunity sizes - a qualitative sense that we got from working with each group. This prompted me to ask, "how is WFM interacting with each segment in that stage?" It became clear fairly quickly that there was a derth of a cohesive system - just as WFM had competing ideas and understanding around what the Labeling System should truly be.

We uncovered a major insight: while customers are generally most reflective of their purchases overrall at checkout, there is a complete absence of any healthy eating messaging at that point. There are opportunities to ease healthy eating decision making in store, as well as between trips - a time when WFM could be helping customers build their own healthy eating narratives and prepping them for their next visit.