Setting the table: How we approached and built the Philly Eats app

We recently launched Philly Eats, a new product that lets our team experiment with ways technology and design can make local news more accessible and useful to people, and help support better decision making. You can read more about the app launch, here.

A preview of the Philly Eats app.

In this post we want to give a brief overview of how and why we built the app, from the early-stage ideation and research through launching the experiment. More posts will follow with deeper dives and analysis as we go—but in the meantime, here is the app code, too.

The idea

The inspiration for this app came from a variety of places, including a series of conversations with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan, nearly 10 years ago. In the early 2000’s I was a mobile product manager at The Inquirer and Craig and I both saw the potential to build a product with features tailored to the food community but lacked the resources to build it.

More recently, the genesis for the Lab itself came from food-focused workshops run by Burt Herman, then interim Chief Product Officer for The Inquirer during the early days of the Lenfest Institute. The area seemed ripe for new experiences that would capitalize on the deep coverage of Philadelphia’s thriving restaurant scene, giving users an easier way to find places to eat in a location-aware, mobile-first way.

Fast-forward to earlier this year, after the founding of the Lab, and members of our team saw the same opportunity. We all believed that local news could compete with other (now much more) profitable and popular digital apps and services in the restaurant space, but on a local level. We believed that the quality, breadth and depth of The Inquirer’s coverage offered a competitive advantage over products offering a slew of user-generated reviews.

That led to us to want to start validating that assumption. This included sending a survey to Inquirer food newsletter subscribers asking if the app was something they’d find useful (it was). We also looked outward at trends in the industry. There were similar-looking products like NYT Cooking, The Athletic and The Information — all targeted at niche audiences willing to pay for high-quality information, community features and excellent product and experience design. We also observed that a few other notable news organizations were refreshing their food coverage, including the LA Times and the Arizona Republic.

The combination of this latent idea, feedback from readers, our team’s passion for the idea and the emerging trend of serving niche verticals were the pushes we needed to decide to move forward. It was a bonus that we had a jump-start on the development from a previous experiment, the HERE app, which had geotagging, maps and notifications built in.

The research and design

Once we decided to move forward with the idea, we needed to further validate some more of our assumptions before building anything new. Faye Teng, the lab’s UX designer, led our efforts to know more. A brief overview of our research methods are below, and you can read much more about what we learned along the way in her full write-up here.

  1. Competitive analysis (What’s already out there?)
  2. In-person surveys (What are people actually using?)
  3. Content audit & card sorting (What info do people want the most?)
  4. Online survey (What do people think is most useful?)
  5. Paper prototyping (What features are easy to use?)

The output of our research was a series of designs, prototypes and eventually specs and Sketch files that our engineers could work with to build the CMS and the app.

The feature set

The feature set in this app was an extension of functionality from the HERE app, allowing us to geotag local news stories, send notifications and display collections of stories on a map. For Philly Eats we created a copy of that app and CMS and added some things — including search and saving functionality, a lot of content (including hundreds of reviews), a guides section and a ‘highlights’ version of each review.

The editorial content

Luckily we had access to a lot of well-structured content to create the foundation for this app. The bulk of the content content came from two Inquirer dining guides: Craig LaBan’s Ultimate Dining 2018 and Craig LaBan’s Best of the ‘Burbs. Garland Potts, the lead developer and designer for both of the guides, thankfully had formatted the review content in a very app-friendly way with separate fields for a restaurant’s address, rating, phone number, etc. This made it relatively easy to import the review content into the app’s CMS.

Additional content / structured data needed

To support some of the app’s features we needed to add cuisine information and tag each restaurant with the neighborhood it was in. We referenced a Yelp list to manually add cuisine to each restaurant.

We initially tried automatically assigning neighborhoods to restaurants by referencing geo-JSON maps of Philadelphia, but quickly found that similar data didn’t exist for the rest of the region. We now use the city name from the restaurant’s address as the neighborhood (i.e. Collingswood, Ardmore and Phoenixville) which holds up quite well for any restaurant outside of Center City. We can also easily add or change neighborhoods in the CMS if needed.

The editing

One of the benefits of the app is that it allows users to quickly access reliable reviews for restaurants, and even better — they can scan the highlights from each professional review first before reading more. In most cases, we curated the highlights from the reviews themselves. Afterward, Craig reviewed them.

The Quality Assurance (or “QA”) process

In order to find and fix bugs in the app, we did a few things: The lab divvied up the restaurants equally and tested the functionality of each restaurant page to make sure that all the buttons and links were working. Team members in Philly also tested the ‘nearby notification’ feature. We discovered some additional bugs and areas for improvement while running in-person usability testing with colleagues at The Inquirer, too. The app may still contain a bug or two, but that’s the nature of experimentation; we fix things as they come up.

The Content Management System (or CMS)

Most of the sections in our content management system directly correspond to user-facing features and functionality in the app. Here’s the rundown of what’s managed through the CMS:

Authors: Allows us to add authors to the app over time.

Bookmarks: Allows us to see which restaurants users have added to their list.

Categories: Allows us to add cuisines and guides.

Images: Allows us to add images to the app.

Nabes: Allows us to manage neighborhood names.

Notifications: Allows us to send notifications for restaurant openings.

Places: Allows to add a restaurant’s address and other details.

Place events: Allows us to see when someone reads a review and visits a restaurant.
Posts: Allows us to add review copy, highlights and other details.

Users: Allows us to see user profiles.

Screens from the Philly Eats CMS; (L) How to create a restaurant, (R) How to create a notification.

The CMS lets us do a few other interesting things. For example, it allows us to set a “trigger radius” and “start and end” dates for content. The trigger radius allows us to decide how wide to cast the net to send notifications when someone gets near a restaurant they’ve added to their list. (The default is 100 meters.) We can also set a display “start” and “end” date for reviews, so that a seasonal guide or a pop-up restaurant can be set to be automatically removed from the app when an editor thinks its appropriate.

The analytics

A foundational principle of our lab is that we’re exploring new user experiences with local news — so it’s critical for us to tag our products in a way that lets us analyze each tap, click and path people take through the app, as a way for us to truly understand what’s easy to use and most useful for people. We also place an emphasis on analyzing not only on “what” people do with the product, but “why” they are doing it. For the latter, that’s where feedback surveys allow us to ask people how their experience with the app has been.

Here is a copy of our analytics dashboard that shows “what” people are doing with the app (the numbers are just placeholders) and here is a sample feedback survey that asks people “why” they’re enjoying or not enjoying the app.

What might be next

We’ll be monitoring the performance of the app over the next few months and we’ll continue adding some reviews, guides and restaurant openings for a short period of experimentation. Then we’ll pause to evaluate its usefulness and popularity.


The Lenfest Local Lab is a multidisciplinary product and user experience innovation team located in Philadelphia supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism is a non-profit organization whose mission is to develop and support sustainable business models for great local journalism. The Institute was founded in 2016 by entrepreneur H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest with the goal of helping transform the news industry in the digital age to ensure high-quality local journalism remains a cornerstone of democracy.

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