Smoothie Making Finds Its Zen with Institute of Design Students

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By Andrew Connor

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As busy consumers become increasingly more health conscious, a cottage industry of health-oriented vending machines from the likes of Farmer’s Fridge, Byte Foods, and Chowbotics are providing increasingly popular dining options. 

Add to that growing list Zenblen, a Chicago-based startup operating in collaboration with mHUB, one of the city’s product-oriented startup incubators. But while the company had figured out Zenblen’s core concept––vending freshly made smoothies at the push of a button––as well as the product’s strategy and engineering, it needed help with creating Zenblen’s physical and user interface designs.

Enter Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design’s product design workshop, led by Studio Professor Martin Thaler. Since 2017 Thaler and his students have worked with mHUB to provide design services for some of the incubator’s most promising companies. Last fall, Zenblen seemed like the ideal client.

“We went through a process of interviewing startups to see if they were a fit. Those that weren’t either were too far along or they were just getting started,” says Thaler. “I wanted the students to have the experience of the consulting process and to create a proposal. Design can sometimes be self-centered, about a personal vision, but the discipline teaches you so many lessons when you have to work for somebody.”

With Zenblen selected as their client, the students set to work understanding the needs—not just of the company, but also those of the targeted users. Holding test sessions, the student designers were able to extrapolate some key takeaways. For one, Zenblen’s team initially believed that showcasing the ingredients to the customer was crucial. But user interviews revealed the transparency of the blending process was of greater interest.

“That [customers] can see it blended right in front of them, and to recreate that experience of blending a smoothie inside your house, was a key insight,” says Janine Zhong (M.Des. ’20), who worked on the Zenblen project. “That blending transparency was the most important part of the experience, so we came up with the phrase ‘glorifying the blending moment,’ and that really stuck with us and led us through the entire product design phase.”

Using their insights, Zhong and three of her classmates set to work on the physical design of the vending machine kiosk, creating six different proposals in the process. All were informed by the team’s desire to create a “warm, welcoming, and premium experience when approaching the machine,” according to Zhong.

Simultaneously, the other half of the workshop focused on the user interface design, also informed by the workshop’s research. After interviews with their target audience, the user interface team knew they had to add robust nutritional info to the ordering process. Users were worried they might have difficulty navigating the machine and holding up the ordering line. The team responded by reorganizing and streamlining the process for comparing and ordering smoothies to make the process faster and easier. 

"Our main motivation was to build trust in the brand,” says Mithila Prasanna (M.Des. Candidate). “Our research and testing revealed what information needed to be communicated and at what point of the user journey for it to be relevant to alleviate the user’s decision-making process. For us, the interface design had to communicate transparency through the brand’s personality and also extend the principles of the vending machine’s design itself. "

By semester’s end the workshop presented three kiosk designs and two user interface designs to Zenblen. To bring their ideas beyond the theoretical stage, both Zhong and Prasanna held internships with the startup during the spring 2020 semester and summer, respectively, to refine the physical and interface design for the Zenblen kiosk.

“Having Janine [Zhong] and Mithila [Prasanna] come straight from the ID team allowed them to jump right into it––they knew exactly what they were doing,” says Stephanie Mellinger, co-founder of Zenblen. “Together they were able to give us the next vision of our prototype, which will have Janine’s design on the outside, and we will have a touchscreen with the interface Mithila designed.”

Though just a prototype, the latest version of the Zenblen kiosk will look and function almost exactly as the final version, which the company hopes to roll out next year. When it does launch, the Zenblen kiosk will allow Chicagoans to interact with a physical and digital design created by ID students in an ID course.

“It will be exciting to see people use this machine in Chicago, and maybe it will even become a household name,” says Prasanna. “I do think it has that potential.”

Photo: A rendering of the Zenblen vending machine (provided)

Instructor: Martin Thaler
Students: Xuanyu Chen, Mithila Kedambadi Prasanna, Sike Liu, Yuting Mao, Alexandria Rengifo, Yutian Sun, Paolo Tanedo, and Jianing Zhong