Yumit: Another Bad Idea

Not from Silicon Valley, per se, but certainly from designers with the “Silicon Valley Disease”.

Yumit is an interactive meal set, specifically designed for kids to get them interested in eating. It helps them focus on their food by turning meal times into a fun game.

Tackling a real if small problem of spoiled children who do not want to eat their meal, the creators decided that the solution is to “offer kids an incentive” to eat, and to make it a “fun game”.

Let’s start with whether this will even work. The website claims that this “helps them focus on their food”. Is this really the right problem to be solved? Are the kids not eating because they “can’t focus”, or even because it isn’t “fun”? I don’t know, but I suspect that the behavior is sustained by other factors, including preference for sweets, desire for attention, and desire to do other activities (such as play video games or watch TV). If so, then how well does this device compete with these temptations? I don’t know.

Second, the device is monitoring the amount of food on the plate, which it tracks and rewards consumption. Ignoring the possibility of cheating (toss the food to the dog), it’s not clear to me that rewarding the amount of food consumed is the most important metric—though, “just eat your dinner” isn’t a terrible goal to set.

Third, the consumption is apparently relayed to a mobile device (which apparently belongs to the child), where it is recorded and can be used as points in video games. Essentially, the kid is paid to eat his dinner. Sigh. Very innovative.

Child rearing is something for you to work out in your own family, so who am I to tell you what to do?  But this product does raise many troubling issues that are worth thinking about.  Here are my own views.

I’m imagining that the context is the child eating in the family home, probably along with other family members. So “refusing to eat” the food is not just a matter of nutrition, it is also part of a social interaction within the family. Therefore, deploying  Yumit should be viewed a part of this same overall family interaction.

Message to the Kid

This product sends some problematic messages to the kid. It is designed on the principal that “everything must be ‘fun’”, which does not seem to be the best lesson for children. There are many things in life that are not “fun”, but we must do them anyway. (And eating your vegetables is certainly one of them.)

One might also worry about the “pay you to eat” contingency in this product. There are many reasons why one might not want children to learn that they should expect to be rewarded tangibly and immediately for behaving correctly. Eating your vegetables is important and will pay off in the long run, but not because you might win prizes for doing it. That’s a bad lesson to be teaching.

I’m also concerned about the application of electronic surveillance to enforce these contingencies. A child will learn that he or she is being watched at all times, and that his phone is cooperating with authorities to enforce the rules. Since this surveillance is imposed without consent, a child could be forgiven for hating and fearing computers as a tool of his or her repression.  She might even be motivated toward black hat hacking, to turn the tables on the network that spies on her from childhood.  Are these the lessons we want to teach children?

We could go on. At the same time that many children do not have enough to eat, the Yumit child is taught that he or she is so “special” that he deserves fancy, expensive, gamified place setting to “help him focus” on eating. C’mon.

Messages to Parents

Advocating that parents deploy this product sends troubling messages to them, as well.

Should parents follow the principle that “everything should be ‘fun’”? Clearly, the world is not always “fun”, and children must learn to act properly even when they don’t instantly enjoy it.  Do we want the IOT to foist this philosophy of instant gratification onto parents?

“Gamification” is the flavor of the month, but it is not necessarily the best technique for all occasions. Is it desirable to “gamify” daily routines for children?  What will they learn from a video game that encourages them to “power up” by eating?  Will they learn that eating your vegetables is good for you, or will they learn that eating creates imaginary, magical powers in a fantasy world?

Most troubling of all, this product deploys powerful electronic surveillance technology to impose parental authority. As a parent, would you like other people to monitor either you or your child in this way? If not, then how is it OK to do it yourself?

And so on. The parent is invited to spend a lot of money to “solve” a problem by outsourcing to a digital system. How is this good for parents?

Family Life

Viewing the family meal as a social setting, this product is extremely problematic.

Yumit basically introduces a video game into the family dinner. It operates by drawing attention to the place setting, most likely at the cost of attention to the other people present. This adds to a ubiquitous problem, and capitulates to the digital competition for attention.

(In any case, I generally have a firm rule that no digital devices (or TV) are allowed during a communal meal. This just seems like common sense to me.)

In predigital days, the problem of “picky eaters” was dealt with through human communication, especially verbal instructions, verbal reinforcement, and possibly contingencies (such as no desert if you don’t clean your plate). These imperfect social transactions are one way that children learn to talk to people, as well as a basic grounding in the unhappy facts of life about power, bargaining, and the hard truth that you can’t always get your own way.

Yumit replaces this important human exchange with a gamified, “fun”, digital system. Parents need not even be present, so far as I can tell.  Is this a good thing?

Finally, I have already noted the hazards of the expectation that digital surveillance is acceptable and normal. As far as I’m concerned, a family should trust each other, they should not deploy spy systems to monitor behavior within the home.

Design Problems

Yumt is a terrible design for a number of reasons.

Assuming that this problem needs a digital solution (which I doubt), Yumit is an expensive and environmentally awful solution. Dinner and dinnerware did not really need to be “disrupted”, and this “innovation” probably does more harm than good.

I would note that there are potential privacy and security issues, though I can’t tell for sure without a much closer examination. I wouldn’t be happy to have hackers accessing the sensor stream that is monitoring my child, for goodness sake. Nor would I be happy to have my child’s eating habits put in a database and used to generate targeted ads. Who knows what Yumit may expose your family to?

I have to wonder if this device is based on any valid research at all. Their description of the perceived problem, and the design of the solution seem divorced from real life. (Of course, I don’t know very much about the life of people who could contemplate spending this much money on such a device.)

For that matter, has this product been tested? Has it been shown to be safe and effective? The company does not offer any indication that any such testing has been done, or even imagined.

As I outlined above, I suspect that this product probably will not work, or at least, will not work for most kids or for very long. On the other hand, it may have quite a few deleterious side effects.   This is not just bad design, it is irresponsible design.

I am consigning this to the Inappropriate Touch Screen File (TIOWTMT division).

2 thoughts on “Yumit: Another Bad Idea”

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