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Healthy eating: identifying our users’ needs

By Victoria Hunt and Krupa Suthar, 30 January 2018


Screenshot of NHS healthy eating survey screen showing smiling man

In the second half of 2017 we embarked on a Discovery to understand more about the nation’s current food habits and what the role of NHS.UK is to help people make healthier choices.

For the background to this project, see Healthy eating discovery: why we’re doing it.

Understanding our users

We needed to build a holistic understanding of attitudes towards food in general: how people make their food decisions, sources of inspiration and how healthy eating factors into the lives of our audience, if at all.

We employed a two-staged methodology:

  • A week-long food diary: participants were asked to keep a log of their food intake for a week, including all meals, snacks and drinks. This approach served as the basis for our discussion when we met (and some found the results surprising).
  • In-home interviews: spending time in our participants’ homes to understand more about their world and how food decisions are made.

We needed to understand the user needs from all segments of the population rather than a single user group. We employed a ‘lifestage’ approach and spoke to:

  • young singles
  • adult professionals
  • first time parents-to-be
  • families with children living at home
  • retirees

The research was conducted across the country: London, Birmingham, Leeds and Northamptonshire. We also interviewed healthcare professionals to help us build a full picture.

What did we learn?

It’s no easy feat condensing a 100-plus page report into a blog but here are some top lines:

Food shopping and food choices

  • Meal planning exists across all segments but is typically for evening weekday meals as opposed to breakfast or lunch.
  • Time (convenience) and money (good deals / offers) were common themes in decision-making, along with various sources of inspiration.
  • Families tend to shop together and children often influence decisions in-store, such as requesting specific cereals or snacks, resulting in increased pressure on parents.
  • Families face particular challenges, such as fussy eaters and differing tastes leading to either the same meals being cooked each week or different meals cooked for different children. Snacking can be particularly troublesome for parents, with children often requesting unhealthy snacks.

Sources of information

  • Our respondents used a plethora of sources to inspire their meals, including TV cookery shows, physical sources (newspaper pull-outs, magazines, cookbooks), online (social media, cooking websites, blogs), official sources (such as charities), information from dieting clubs and celebrity chefs.
  • Young singles / adult professionals / parents-to-be / families all preferred online resources, in particular social media (Instagram, Facebook, YouTube) followed by word-of-mouth.
  • Parents-to-be were more likely to use official sources such as their midwife or GP, both of which are key for this group. This is followed by online forums.
  • The retirees we spoke to tended to rely on their own experience, followed by support from family / friends / social clubs. Newspapers, magazines, recipe cards and TV also played an important role for these users.

Healthy eating

  • While respondents across all segments attempted to describe “healthy eating”, not all did so accurately and many found putting it into practice difficult due to factors such as time, work, budget or family.
  • We found that first-time parents-to-be, those with a health diagnosis or risk, and those who are dieting are most likely to be actively searching for information on healthy eating.

What’s our role at NHS.UK?

Across all segments, users view the role of the NHS to be vital – we’re a source that users trust but the way we deliver our content needs transforming to maximise its benefits.

That includes:

  • Reaching our users: our content must be available where our users are. For young singles and adult professionals in particular, that means reaching them on social media rather than expecting them to come to us.
  • Engaging and personalised content: tailored content to the audience typology, so for our young singles that might mean quick “Tasty” style recipe videos, memes – more tongue-in-cheek content curated for them and their needs.

Talking to healthcare professionals

Our research with doctors and dietitians comprised of either a 45-minute face-to-face chat or a Skype chat, and we asked them to look at some of our current healthy eating offering in advance.

We wanted to understand the types of patients / conditions where healthy eating was discussed, the reference materials provided to patients and the level of patient support.

Materials found in a GP surgery

Materials found in a GP surgery (click for full image)

We learned that:

  • GPs have very little time to give advice on healthy eating, however it comes up often during consultations. They often give out leaflets and PDFs, so need content to be printable.
  • If patients meet certain criteria, GPs can refer them on to services like gym or weight loss classes on prescription. However, lots of patients don’t qualify.
  • GPs often see patients failing to lose weight and improve their diets. They see patients being unaware of what they eat, and it having an effect on their health.
  • Dietitians will get to know a patient’s diet through a food diary, and will interview them on their lifestyle. They’ll give patients an achievable set of goals to work towards, and tailored advice.
  • Like many users we spoke to, GPs weren’t aware of the extent of healthy eating content on NHS Choices. They believed they could use it with patients but had feedback for improvements. For example we heard that the 12-week weight loss programme would be good for very motivated patients but the detail and calorie counting would be off-putting for others.

Healthy eating personas

Once our user needs were identified, we produced personas for each segment, in addition to our research report and journey maps.

The personas visually represent the needs of each segment, with a short description upfront, followed by typical goals, motivations, helps and hinders, and ways to reach and communicate with each audience.

Healthy eating personas

Healthy eating personas: click to view full image


Next steps: recommendations for Alpha

Product lead Victoria Hunt and business analyst Jagruti Shah share our approach to Alpha and the next steps for the project in their blog Healthy eating: from research to recommendations.

Content designer Olivia Sharp and UX designer Dushyant Arora explain how they’ve started to redesign our existing content to meet user needs in Healthy eating: a content transformation.

Last edited: 14 January 2020 2:33 pm