Would Redesigning Receipts Improve People's Dietary Choices?

Public Domain. MaxPixel

Bubble charts and bar graphs can be real influencers.

When Susie Lu looks at a grocery store receipt, she doesn't just see a boring list of foods and a too-high total. She sees potential to make better dietary choices and help people spend their money more wisely.

Lu is a data visualization expert at Netflix, who enjoys doing her own projects on the side. As she told Fast Company, "I was compelled to think of ways that data visualization could be used to redesign everyday experiences. Of the use cases I had brainstormed, the receipt was the idea I was most excited to play with first."

So she picked up a thermal printer, like the ones used in grocery stores, and played around ways of presenting data in ways that could be more meaningful to shoppers. (One challenge was navigating the low-definition printer, which meant that creating little food icons was tougher than expected.)

What Lu came up with is interesting – bubble charts at the top that show what percentage of the total went to which food category (meat & seafood, dairy, fruits & vegetables, frozen, snacks, etc.) and bar graphs below showing each item's cost relative to others in the same category. For example,

"A $13 ribeye steak fills the bar full, while a $4 chicken jalapeno sausage only makes a small dent. In aggregate, this design lets you skim to see where your dollars went categorically, and by item."

It's an intriguing concept, but one that does raise some questions. Most obviously, thermal receipts are a source of bisphenol A contamination and we should be using fewer of them, not coming up with reasons to accept them more often. Perhaps there could be another way of passing on the data to curious consumers, such as via an app; that would address the resolution issue too.

Additionally, the concept works only if all shopping is being done in one place at one time; otherwise the dietary summary is inaccurate. For example, there are times when I feel slightly embarrassed by the contents of my grocery cart because there's not a single vegetable in sight, but that's because I've just received my weekly CSA share or am on my way home from the farmer's market. It doesn't mean I'm not eating well.

While mulling this over, I wondered if a climate footprint graph could somehow be worked into receipts. This would be a profound way of indicating which foods are most costly to the environment and could offer a valuable 'nudge' in the right direction.

Lu has no plans to pursue her concept further, but grocery store owners could get in touch with her if they wanted to know more. Still, it's a fun idea and a reminder that there's always room for improvement in the items we handle on a daily basis.

You can view Lu's work here on Twitter and Instagram.