Research through design — McPill: Look healthy? Be healthy?

Wenhan Ding
13 min readMay 7, 2020
McPill family-2030

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clock was striking fifteen. Carrying a crumpled, greasy paper bag, Mr Smith walked home.

After the full day’s work, he was too tired to cook so that McMeal became the best choice to feed his family. He knocked on the door, the door opened with cheers of children. Sarah and Alex ran to him and tore open the package of McMeal.

“I love you, daddy.”Sarah put the fries in her mouth, laughing. “I want a large size cheeseburger tomorrow!”

“Me, too!” Alex, Sarah’s little brother, shouted.

“No problem, good kids. But you must remember to take McPill.” Mr Smith took out some white pills from the package, “one pill is enough, do not forget and do not take more.”

He brought two glasses of water, left them on the table and walked back to his room holding a newspaper, of which a big bold title said, “2030, will you be healthy, or just look healthy?”

This was a story we tried to tell for our Global Future Design project.

The brief of the GDF unit given by our client BiteBack2030 was to explore the child obesity problem with the speculative design research methodology. We could choose from 3 topics: chicken shop, supermarket and fast food industry, to look into the future food in 2030.

Our team chose the fast food topic and show a family table as our final setting. In our future scenario, people feel responsible towards each other but only look into fixing problems after they arise rather than prevention. Fast food companies are asked to tackle the child obesity problem, so they use drugs to cure obesity and related illness. In this case, families with low income “look healthy” while keeping unhealthy living habits like eating oily fast food.

There is no behaviour change for lower-income families since they keep feeding kids junk food. At the same time, the potential risk of drug abuse and medical side effects are very high for them. They don’t even have any choice because of economic pressure. But if you only looked at the surface, most individuals in this future society look more healthy and the child obesity problem has been controlled.

The first touch of speculative design

Looking at the title Global Future Design, I misunderstood it as a unit in which we design for a future that we predict will actually happen. But after reading related theories, I figured out speculative design was not as I imagined.

“The future can not be predicted because the future does not exist.”(Dator’s Laws, 2007)

“The future is not predetermined, inevitable or fixed. ”(Conway, 2015)

It makes sense, but how can we conduct design research for an unclear, unfixed future? And what is the value of doing speculative design?

Like our tutor Sara mentioned in the first lecture, “Some people may say: ‘future, wonderful, but we tend to design, or we tend to address to this problem(for now), and we are not really thinking about the future that much.’”

“Future actions can be influenced by our action or inaction today.

We are responsible for future generations — every decision made today affects them.

Foresight Methods
The futures cone

There is always more than one future whether preposterous, potential, possible, plausible and preferable.”(Conway, 2015)

“Innovation starts with a story about the future. Imagining and sharing desires and fears about the future is a way for all of us to shape it.”(Bland&Westlake, 2013)

Fortunately, it is feasible to forecast the future based on the trends right now. And the tool, the Futures Cone, can be used to thinking about the difference and connection of multiple futures, which will be valuable for people nowadays to make the decision for walking on their preferable way.

“We don’t design for where we are, we design for where we want to be.”(Signs Bek)

Future trends

Before looking into future trends, we were given a document published by UK government which described 4 different future scenario in 2050.

We were asked to choose one scenario from them as a background story to start our research and brainstorm our concept.

From scenario 2 to scenario 3

At first, we chose scenario 2 as a start point, which looked like a typical Brave New World utopia, but through our design&research process, we changed to scenario 3 because it was more suitable for our concept.

Scenario 2 is a future that people show high anxiety about the future impact of global challenges, and deep concerns about the way inequalities are seen to be driving terrorism. Individuals feel vulnerable and call for action and the need for collective action is recognised. There is a drive towards community governance supported by a strong sense of responsibility to others.

Inequalities are reduced and child obesity problem is effectively controlled.

After we designed our first prototype, we found the scenario 3 suited us more. Because our concept, the McPill, seemed more like happening in a future where people didn’t care much about the long-term problem.

And for scenario 3, it looks more into fixing problem after they have been shown to the public. Collective decision making predominates in this future. People have numerous concerns, including high house prices, indebtedness, lack of pension provision and immigration levels. It is increasingly difficult to deal with the pressures of everyday life and people look to each other for support. Indeed, co-operation is essential in this difficult environment, with families remaining together largely from economic necessity.

Horizon scanning

To better understand this scenario, we did a horizon scanning, which means to discover the political, economical, social, technological, legislative, environmental and values from 3 layers: weak signal, trends and micro trends(driver of change) and to look into related services.

Trends in values: Short-term fixes are successful and highly regarded globally, long-term projects, in a risk-averse society, have very low priority.

This phenomenon is shown in every aspect in scenario 3. People only deal with urgent issues. The successful resolution of a number of problems further drives the belief that dealing with issues as and when they occur is the best route forward.

Since there are so many social problems waiting to be worried about and to be discussed, child obesity looks not that urgent to be tackled, therefore the public doesn’t pay too much attention to this topic which causes a rise of the child obesity rate. The obesity issue is drowned out by the noise from other issues.

For the healthcare sector, people focus on immediate health needs, so they only seek the method of treatment instead of prevention. Enterprises also lose the sense of being responsible for the long-term health of people. Medical research for long term problems could not get support from society or the government anymore. However, drug development shows rapid progress in the field of treating child obesity. Rather than prevent child obesity, people prefer to treat it after the problem arises, although there is a risk of drug abuse.

Trends in technology: New tech is well accepted by the food and medical industry. Food additives and nutritional supplements become more popular.

Nowadays, there is already a trend that people use food supplement in normal life. “Supplements are not a substitute for a balanced healthy diet. A diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, adequate protein, and healthy fats should normally provide all the nutrients needed for good health.” But there are still some people getting used to take them because of unbalanced diet caused by various reasons especially lacking time to cook.

Food additives are also common to use right now. People drink diet sugar to reduce the intake of real sugar which they believe can avoid getting fat. However, some research has proved taking some artificial sweeteners will not make people healthier since they will affect the metabolism.

Is it right to allow people ‘feel healthier’ or ‘look healthier’ using advanced technology without ‘living healthier’ in the future?

Trends in politics: Collective decision making predominates. Everyone has an opinion and demands the right to be heard, and online discussion forums become part of everyday life.

Since everyone has a voice, policies are affected by the public easily and swing with fashion.

Sometimes since policies change a lot, individuals can not keep on the same page about the situation. So that a lot of people don’t really understand the policy or don’t know clearly the result of their choice which leads to endless debate and campaign after some policy being made.

We can see this phenomenon in our life. For example, after the vote of Brexit, a number of people believed it was a mistake and some people regretted choosing Brexit. The discussion lasted for years around this topic and the impact is shown slowly. People have to get used to a huge amount of new policies in the coming few years.

Trends on food: It’s not only about the price to eat fast food, but it’s also about taste and living style

Fast food, such as McDonald’s, is known as the unhealthy cooking method and cheap price. There is an opinion that the price is the main factor which attracts people to enjoy fast food like this. We challenged this assumption by primary and secondary research.

Through our survey, we found a large number of people chose the taste/flavour as the reason they enjoyed fast food. (We doubted if people feel shame to mention that they were attracted by the low price, so we would not exclude price from the main reasons people chose fast food.)

Instagram survey

And through our secondary research, we found people actually know about the bad effect brought by unhealthy fast food.

They don’t know any other way. Put the food in front of them, and what choice will they think they have? There’s the sign. There’s the food. Were hungry? Let’s eat.”

They don’t care. Sometimes people just don’t care, and they are too tired to care. There are so many other things to think about. Food is almost a thing that privileged people get to worry about. When there drugs, crime, abuse, and neglect in the mix. Thinking about what’s healthy is the last thing on your to-do list sometimes. You just need to take the kids to get something to eat, and you don’t have time to cook.”(Mike, 2017)

So yeah, it is also about the living style. The social inequality makes a few families feed their kids with fast food, which is sad because they don’t have other choices.

Trend on the environment: The view is that the nations that make the greatest contribution to the problems should be the ones taking action.

In scenario 3, since it is very hard to divide the responsibility of tackling long term climate change, people care less about these things. Scientist claims that climate change is based on exaggerated science and is not anthropogenic in nature and there is no need to pay too much attention to it. In addition, some measures had been paused because the effect was hard to be shown in a short time.

Research through the design process

After horizon scanning, we brainstormed 10 more concepts and discussed them together.

Some of the concepts overlapped, so we clustered them, rephrased the description, and mapped them with 2 dimensions: provoking and convincing.

We found the idea McPill balanced these attributes very well, and the story behind it was funny and valuable to tell.

So we chose McPill and developed Persona based on it.

First version

The McMeal experience in a ‘McDonald’s shop’

We took a video about eating the McMeal with McPill in McDonald’s shop. The story in this video was about a girl who enjoyed the meal without guilty about not eating healthily because she felt taking the pill could solve most of the problems.

Feedback from our tutors.

Marion gave a very positive comment: “the pill is a very good tool which could lead the audience into your story!”

We also received suggestions from Tobias: “You make me feel this pill is perfect. Is there any problem? It’s like magic in Harry Potter but It would not provoke thinking if it just sweeps all the problems.”

Lara also gave us advice: “You’d better change background scenario from 2 to 3.”

According to the feedback, we changed our scenario and made some iteration.

Second version

Designing for the second prototype

After receiving the feedback, we discussed how McPill could change this world and human’s behaviours. We found, even for us, this future became clearer.

Since we changed to scenario 3, which only fixed things after they happened and has higher inequality and more social problems, we rewrote the story and add more background by showing them in the newspaper, through which the audience can see the world around the fast-food industry(and McPill).

But where should our story happen? At that point, we had 2 plan, one was fast food restaurant, another was a family table. We felt the family table can show more about the impact which McPill left on child and family, so the second plan won.

We prepared settings and radio broadcast to tell some news, we also prepared some kids’ painting to show how they think and feel about McPill.

The second feedback

Tutors gave us suggestions like playing short Ads of McPill on TV to make it stronger(and much more annoying).

The final setting

McPill family-2030
Advertisement of McPill
News about McPill


Detect through design

The whole process of the Global Design Future project is very interesting. It is to some extent a detective novel. First I dropped in this story and I tried my best to understand the world setting and structure(scenario 3, 2030). Then I found the victim(stakeholders like kids), suspects(fast food) and type of the crime(obesity). And then I discovered the weapon and evidence(McPill). To fulfil the unclear gap in this story, I visited different places and witnesses to collect the information. Finally, I knew most details of the story. But as a naughty detective, I chose not to tell the story directly, but to drag my audience to a scene of this story and let them think by themselves.

Inclusive design thinking — Your utopia maybe someone’s dystopia

We received a talk from Natalie Kane on May 6th, which was very inspiring. She highlighted the importance of universal thinking in speculative design. “Your utopia maybe someone else’s dystopia.” Since there were different groups, it was inevitable that a future that looked perfect for some people could be a disaster for some other groups, especially those from a lower socioeconomic background.

From problem-solving to problem-finding

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,” Albert Einstein said.

The current profession of designing has its origins in the very strong intent towards problem-solving in particular ways, known as modernism. But what if we haven’t addressed the right problem?

Speculative design could be a way that helps to locate the problem. Like the analogy I made earlier, designers play the role of detective in speculative design, so they don’t need to punish the criminal, which should be the responsibility of the police and prison. The value of the detective is to unveil the real criminal, the problem, and let the innocent be proved.

How will speculative design affect my design method

Speculative design can make the problem or the micro-trends around us more visible, so I think it is a way to discover pain point and understand people.

Speculative design is also a very good method to co-discover with stakeholders. Especially under the COVID-19, when research has to be moved online, it would be helpful if we use some online cultural probes to provoke dialogue.

The horizon scanning tool is also useful when I enter a field that I am not familiar with. For example, now I am stuck in my final project topic. I mapped for some days but felt the thoughts were even messier. So I am planning to make a horizon scanning for it to manage my findings. And yeah, under this pandemic, it would be necessary to think about the changing future.


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Wenhan Ding

MA Service Design student in London College of Communication