Alexandra Rose run a very successful voucher scheme to enable low income families to access fruit and veg from local markets. The scheme currently supports 700 families across the UK and has reimbursed around £150,000 worth of vouchers since 2014, helping to boost local economies and helping families avoid food poverty.
While the scheme was working well, the administration of the vouchers for the traders was a challenge. They were used to a cash-based economy and the process of redeeming the vouchers was manual and cumbersome. The team at Alexandra Rose were keen to find a digital solution to enable them to scale.
They received funding from the Comic Relief and Paul Hamlyn Tech for Good fund, and worked with digital agency Neontribe to do this. Instead of planning everything up front, the team followed the principle of Take small steps and learn as you go – using a combination of user research, prototyping and testing to find a successful solution.
Initially, they thought chargeable cards might be a way to make the process easier for parents and traders. But after conducting user research they found that this wouldn’t work well for either group. A lot of traders didn’t have card machines, so they would struggle to process payments. Equally, for the parents it was important to be able to shop just like everyone else and not feel stigmatised by having to use a special card or technology that marked them out as being different. Vouchers are the closest thing to a cash-based economy – and they seemed to work OK for both parties.
This knowledge helped the team alight on the key problem to solve: how could they get the information from the paper voucher into a digital system so that the trader could get their payment quickly and easily? Barcodes seemed an obvious solution to this – so that traders could quickly scan each voucher without having to worry about errors. But rather than building something based on assumptions, the team went out and tested a prototype using downloadable scanning apps on traders’ phones and handheld scanners that they could lend to each trader just for the testing. They found that in a busy market environment, using a phone to scan the vouchers was far too slow, and the handheld scanners required power or a laptop which wasn’t practical on a market stall. They also observed that vouchers might be crumpled up or flapping in the wind, which made them hard to scan.
With this research and testing under their belt, the team could develop and test a new idea – having the traders input the voucher codes straight into a text field on a mobile phone using the phone’s keypad. This digital prototype tested well, but the team didn’t stop there. They did more testing and iteration of the design, for example prefilling some of the numbers in the text box as they knew that the voucher codes the traders received started with the same four numbers.
Alongside all of this, the team also created a paper prototype.This showed how the whole process could work through simple illustrations of the steps the trader would have to go through on the phone, drawn on paper, which could have different stuck-on elements added or removed depending on the options they chose. They tested this with traders in Barnsley to see how they interacted with it, from logging in to requesting payments.
This Take Small Steps and Learn As you Go approach meant the team didn’t waste time and money building an answer that they weren’t 100% sure would work. By combining user research, paper and digital prototyping and real world testing, they were able to find out exactly what would and wouldn’t work for the users. In theory, any of the ideas were good ideas. But you only find out if they work when you test them in a real life context.
So far the tool has been implemented in six street markets and two community food projects across the UK, with plans to expand to other areas in the near future. For the families involved, the scheme has made a big impact – 95% increased their consumption of fruit & veg, with 90% increasing their confidence and financial security – and the digital prototype has already saved Alexandra Rose a third of their admin time which means they have more resource to scale their support to more families. The results of the work mean that traders in the participating markets are now able to input the vouchers much more easily and receive their payment. And it means that the parents who are using the vouchers can continue to shop in a way that works for them.
“We knew that our voucher project worked but also knew that unless we could digitise it we could never hope to achieve the reach and scale that we desired. However, as a small charity that was not tech savvy, finding the right tech partner and the right approach to tech development was key. By taking smalls steps and learning as we went we have managed to develop something that really works for our traders as well as the charity itself.”