Chilimango: Visibility for street vendors
A design research project connecting Los Angeles through street food

The Challenge:

Help improve street food vendor visibility in Downtown Los Angeles.

The Outcome:

  • A web-based street vendor directory to allow "foodies" to discover food around them.
  • A chatbot that allows vendors to sign up and update their location in real-time on the street vendor directory.

My Role:

This was my undergraduate thesis project.
  • Trained my team on interviewing on the field and led in-field ethnographic research.
  • Co-led the synthesis and insights phase.
  • Led ideation and prototyping sprints.
  • Created design mockups of prototypes.
  • Recruited and collaborated with a dev team to create high-fi functional mockups.
  • Led ideation and prototyping sprints.
  • Developed feedback activities and co-led in-field user testing.
In Los Angeles, the street vendors embody a mix of culture and entrepreneurship central to the city itself. But decades of systematic marginalization have made it a risky profession. A large portion of street vendors are undocumented immigrants, and until 2019, street vending was criminalized. This meant that a petty violation by a vendor could lead to deportation. To learn more, check out this article here.

In 2019, as I started to work on this project, a bill to decriminalize street vending was passed! Ever since then, the street vending landscape in Los Angeles has been evolving and is brimming with potential. Vendors are optimistic as the city is rolling out measures towards a safe and legal environment to sell in.

Brianna Doyle (thesis partner) and I decided to immerse ourselves in the street vending community. Working closely with street vendors, we created a chatbot system that would allow vendors to sign up to a street vendor directory and update their real time location via SMS. It was imperative for us to design a system that was extremely low-cost on the vendor’s side, suitable for the nomadic nature of street vending and inclusive to vendors who spoke languages other than English. 

We also noticed a big push in local food tourism. Locals in Los Angeles wanted to feel connected to their multicultural city, and street food was a crucial element. We designed a “foodie” facing website that connected to the street vendor directory so that locals could easily search for street food around them. Our aim was to help connect the Los Angeles community through food and improve street vendor visibility. 

Brianna and I recruited 4 other students to join us in the field. We trained them on observational research, interviewing, and crafting activities that gave us greater behavioral insight into the lives of the vendor. Together, we set out to collect vendor stories, concerns, and hopes for the future of the industry. 
Our approach

Stage 1: Immerse

In order to learn about street vending, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the lives of street vendors. We talked to a few vendors and mapped out key locations in their ecosystem and visited them. We went from bartering fruits at a produce market at 4 am to taking a confusing health code exam. We spent a day at a commissary where we learned about the manufacturing process of a street cart and even attended passionate city hall meetings where vendors talked about hopes for the future.

At the end of every experience, we asked ourselves the following questions: How did the experience feel like? What was unexpected? What was very important? What does this make us curious about? 

A visualization of the steps and the cost to become a food vendor.
A timeline drawn out from a conversation with a vendor.
We also wanted to understand a deeper and holistic perspective of the industry. Hence, we talked to experts who helped us understand LA’s intertwined history with food and racism and talked to peripheral groups such as Food Tour operators and local restaurateurs.

At this stage, some of our conversations were informational and others were close-up and personal. Our goal was to break our assumptions about street vending and to learn how to develop a deep sense of comfort and trust with everyone we spoke with. 

One of the takeaways we learned was how to communicate with a community that was so different from us- from a socio-economic, cultural, and generational standpoint. We adjusted small parts in our language from “empowering” vendors to being “in service of vendors”.
Our team visited the Downtown Los Angeles Produce Market
In-field conversation with Martha; a Salvadorian food vendor
Our team speaking to Rico, a fruit supplier at the Produce Market.
A visit to Kareem comissiary to learn about the manufacturing of carts

Stage 2: Synthesis - “Wait, Why?”

In the synthesis stage, our team started to make sense of everything we had learned, heard, and observed from our in-field research. We identified meaningful and actionable insights that became the foundation of our design. 

We started out by going through our interviews and reflections from the immerse stage and put detailed captions for the pictures we had taken. From this, we created our learnings: interesting observations, direct quotes, and areas of opportunities uncovered from interviews. 

Some of our learnings were:
We then looked for patterns and relationships in our research and found these areas of opportunity:
We then refined our insights and framed them as the following generative questions:
When picking an area of opportunity to design for, we revisited the vendors that we spoke to. We wanted to design for them, hence their input was crucial. In our conversations, there was one thing that became even louder and clearer:
These insights helped us reframe our project prompt from “How might we be in service to vendors amidst this time of change?”, to “How might we increase vendor visibility in Downtown Los Angeles?”

A snapshot of our learnings
"We are proud to show you our culture!" - A mother and daughter team!
A process picture of our team sorting our observations and learnings from the field.


Stage 3: Ideate - “Yes, and...”

In this stage, we brainstormed tons of ideas and added in creative constraints e.g. If you had $5 to create this, If you were in outer space. The purpose of the creative constraints was to force us to look outside the box and warm up our minds for the ideation process.

The ideation process was iterative, open-ended, and divergent. To add structure we established two guiding principles:
At the end of the ideation session, we grouped similar ideas and voted on our favorite ideas using the following criteria:
We were now ready to build, experiment and turn our ideas in working prototypes!
Our ideas from a rapid ideation and creative prompt sprint!
"Crazy 8" ideation sprint technique
A team member voting on her favorite ideas

Stage 4: Experimenting

In this stage, we started to make our ideas tangible through sketching, building, testing, and iterating.
From our previous stage, we had come up with two ideas: wayfinding using augmented reality murals and creating an interactive digital inventory of street vendor locations. We then dove into an initial - tech exploration of these two ideas in order to learn about the constraints and workflow needed.
Based on our team's capability and from conversations with vendors, we opted to go with creating an interactive digital inventory with vendor locations.
We then listed some constraints we had observed on the field that were crucial to product development. We had observed that:
Listing the in-field constraints was helpful for us and took out initial ideas of costly GPS trackers and developing mobile apps.
We then wanted to understand how our idea would work in practice and integrate into the lives of of vendors. In order to imagine the end-to-end experience, our team role-played out various scenarios and captured them in the form of the following storyboards.

Storyboard: Vendor Perspective

Who is this?
Francisco, a 40-year old taco vendor. He supports his entire family with income generated from vending.
What is happening?
Francisco see's posters and hears from his friends about a Street Vendor Directory he can sign up for. He hears that it will make it easier for customers to find him.
What is happening?
Interested, he signs up on his cell-phone by dialing *144#.
What is happening?
He is all signed up. Customers start to discover him and visit his stand.
What is happening?
A few days later, he hears about a big baseball game on the other side of town. He decides to pack up his stand and move nearer to the game
What is happening?
He updates his location on the directory via SMS. Now his old customers know where to find him and new customers going to the game can discover him.

Storyboard: Foodie Perspective

Who is this?
Claudia, mid-20's. She works in DTLA at PWC. She ventures out at lunchtime to try different cuisines around her. She loves good food in unlikely spots.
What is happening?
She hears about the interactive street-food map on EaterLA, LA Times and food pages on instagram. She logs in the morning to see where she can get good tacos from for lunch.
What is happening?
She finds Francisco's stand 5 minutes away from her office. She and her friends go check it out during lunch.
What is happening?
Whilst at the taco stand, she eye's some mexican candy and purchases some as dessert.
What is happening?
Claudia and her friends love Francisco's Tacos! When they return back to the office, they tell everyone about him and add it to their list of "Places to eat near the office."
What is happening?
A few days later Claudia is craving some fruit. She uses the Chilimango Platform and discovers Martha's cart.
After identifying the flow of our idea, we started by drawing out sketches of our concept. We then created paper mockups which we taped to laptop screens and phone screens and tested with vendors and foodies. These conversations were crucial in shaping up our idea and helping us decide the user-interaction flow.

First Row: Low fidelity sketches of our concept
Second Row: More fleshed out concepts
A compilation of feedback from in-field testing. In this particular sprint, we were working on the visual product identity
Running through a mock user-testing process
Testing the concept out on the field with vendors. In this image, we are testing out the post-sign up process.

As the product took shape, we wanted to ensure that we were still designing for our intended users, hence we held user-testing sessions. As a team we created feedback activities that helped prioritize the feedback we needed at various stages.

These were some of the exercises that we conducted:

These exercises helped us create a usable product and even develop an additional feature. We even heard from some foodies that they would love to learn to learn more about the culture behind the food, but did not know how to start conversations with vendors. This inspire us to introduce prompts that could be used as conversation starters.

Final Protoypes

This is the front-end side of the interactive street vendor directory. We named it "Chilimango.LA". This is a functional website on which foodies can search for street food around them.
Landing page of the website
Results from search for Tacos 2.1 miles around me

This is the back-end of the directory where vendors can sign up and update their location via SMS. For those that have access to data or wifi they can create the same changes too via a special link shared with them. We wanted the vendor facing side of the directory to be as minimal cost as possible.
Screenshot of the vendor onboarding process
Online form for data input for vendors with access to data

Stage 5: Reflect

We spent almost a year immersing ourselves in the street vending community. They are a marginalized group surrounded by assumptions and stereotypical narratives that are far from reality. This project taught us the importance of dialogue and storytelling in breaking down these assumptions. We hope that one day vendors can live in a world where they feel respected, safe and supported by the surrounding community and government. We hope that for Angelenos, a platform like Chilimango can inspire them to explore nearby neighbourhoods and support local businesses along the way.

We packaged the findings from this project and sent it to the Los Angeles Mayor's office.
A portion of our team on the field enjoying food from the street vendors we interviewed