In recent years, numerous cities around the world have adopted systems that require restaurant health inspection scores to be communicated clearly at the restaurant. In New York City, prospective diners see an A, B, or C grade in the restaurant’s front window. Elsewhere, customers see a percentage score out of 100. Communicating a satisfactory amount of information in a simple placard is no small feat and, on the whole, many consumers experience confusion and dissatisfaction with the information as it’s presented. Restaurant_Kitchen_406x250That’s the conclusion of a crowd-funded consumer survey conducted by design students at the University of Washington. The researchers sought out consumer feedback on a range of restaurant grading systems to better understand how people react to them: Are they helpful? Could they be better? The report also aims to better inform the design process in Washington’s King County for a new restaurant placarding system that will cover Seattle and the rest of the county. They learned a lot from the consumer surveys. For one, the participants valued the most recent restaurant inspection score over past scores. They also felt that a number of common systems lacked informational depth, and they wanted to see the inspection dates and individual inspection scores that factored into the average rating. The study was organized by Sarah Schacht, an open government consultant and two-time E. coli patient. After coming down with her second E. coli infection from a restaurant with poor health inspection scores, Schacht created the original public petition to require clear displays of restaurant grades in King County. As the sole member of the public serving on King County’s committee for developing the placarding system, Schacht felt the system needed more input from the people it would be designed for — King County residents. She turned to students within the University of Washington’s Human Centered Design Department, who would conduct the study, and then raised $840 on crowd-funding platform IndieGoGo to cover expenses for the preliminary research. The study’s participants were most accustomed to seeing scores represented as letter grades in ABC format. If a system used numbers, people expected them to be a percentage score out of 100 and were confused if the scale was different, Schacht said. Pass-fail systems were not a popular option, and participants generally expected that a star-rating system would be associated with food reviews and not health inspections. Of the participants, 83 percent said they were most concerned about the most recent inspection score compared to past scores. “We thought the average scores would be interesting to people,” said Will Richey, a UW design student and one of the three members of the research team. “But in both focus groups, people brought up the fact that the restaurant industry has such a high turnover with workers and managers that they’re most interested in seeing the most recent score.” When the team members presented their findings to stakeholders in government and the restaurant industry, the stakeholders were also surprised to hear that people weren’t predominantly interested in the average score, said Leilani Roylo, another UW design student and team member. The team also found that 57 percent of participants said they have never looked up restaurant inspection scores before. Establishing an effective restaurant placarding system could make a big impact on how restaurants perform in their inspection and how consumers choose where to dine, Richey said. “I’m really hopeful that this will be effective,” he said. Schacht agreed. The introduction of placarding systems to Toronto restaurants in 2002 coincided with a 30-percent reduction in foodborne illness. In February, consumer review website Yelp revealed a study showing that restaurants with health inspection scores displayed on the website were more likely to improve their scores the next time around, compared to restaurants without publicized scores. In Seattle, the new system is still under development, and health department officials hope to be testing a pilot program in late 2015 or early 2016. As for the consumer survey itself, Schacht said it was a great example of what governments could accomplish on a small budget. “For governments considering borrowing this model, or nonprofits who want to replicate our work at a local level, this is valuable research that’s possible to do on a budget,” she said.