I completed the Scramble sample and overall was very happy with it. I'm picking up some Dream Dinner meals tomorrow and will evaluate that, but if I decide I want to take the meal planning route, I think I will probably just go ahead and join the Scramble. It seems like the best degree of specialization of the programs on the market now; it incorporates side dishes, and updates your shopping list based on the meals you pick.
Despite my selecting them as the best options, there are definitely areas in which they could improve and areas of this genre that are untapped. I have examined both the areas in which a product could be distinguished within the industry first and then things that are specific to The Scramble.
Areas for Differentiation in the Industry
With all this thinking about meal planning websites, I have had some ideas of ways that either one of the existing meal planners could distinguish their product and increase market share or a newcomer could even enter the field and do well.
Allow other additions to shopping list. All of the current products that I've looked at provide a shopping list and some alter this list to match your customized meal plan, but none allows you to enter in other extraneous products. Being able to stick your need for cereal and Ziploc bags would be of value. Ideally, the site would place as many of these added products as possible in the correct section, but it could just put them all in one lump and perhaps allow the user to drag them to the correct sections before printing.
This is an area that a company could distinguish themselves to an even greater degree by adding some additional functionality. By allowing email or SMS submissions (look at I Want Sandy for the functionality idea) or even an iPhone app, they could provide full grocery store list support. There are tons of options, such as Jott, that could be used to make this as easy as possible. Any company looking at this should be careful that adding this ability just adds flexibility and does not add burdensome, mandatory maintenance, but done carefully, I think this could be a great may to make a product distinct.
Include relevant skill tutorials. I actually got this idea from an NPR story on yarn. This story discussed a store called Jimmy Beans Wool that has established a strong market share by unique features such as video reviews and project support. I think a meal planning site could see a similar result if they added tutorials, possibly even video ones.
In my mind, there should be general tutorials, i.e. how to dice an onion, that can be accessed from the website, preferably with a clearly labeled, easy-to-find section of their own. I do think they need to have a stand-alone area, but I think their best value would come from each recipe containing links to tutorials applicable to it. In the case of a program like The Scramble that already has a system set up to customize what you print, the system should allow you to select any or all of the applicable written tutorials to include within your weekly printout.
Ideally, there would be both written tutorials and video tutorials, as this would facilitate transfer of knowledge and successful mastery of the contained skills by a variety of types of learners.
Allow Addition of Subscriber's own Recipes. Allowing easy, stress-free customization of a weekly plan is a big selling point of any of these programs. Allowing the subscriber to import his or her own recipes could enhance this feature. As far as I know, only Meal Mixer currently supports this functionality and it is much more time-intensive than what I believe most people are looking for in this market. A company considering this should review some of the many desktop recipe tools in order to implement this as best as possible. There is a good review of 10 Mac-based products including the popular Mac Gourmet to look at as a starting point.
Implementing this functionality would not allow subscribers to add their favorite dinner meals, but also additional side dishes to add to the program as well as information for meals such as brunch that are outside of the normal scope of most of these programs.
Features such as allowing importing of recipes from other websites, discussed in detail in the review above, should be considered, but I think it's important that the company make its first priority keeping the website as straightforward and effortless as possible. Include a feature if it can be blended in, and particularly if it's an option that members can just ignore with no ill effects if they so desire, but consider it very carefully if it will add required time requirements to the subscribers.
Add-on Support of "Other" Meals. I think it is critical for the majority of programs in this genre to stick to the core area of 5-7 weekly dinners by default. However, add-on options that provide assistance for other meals would enhance the appeal of a program. Allowing members to opt-in to adding other meals to their planning and their shopping list would make the product make more closely with the needs of most members throughout a week.
As discussed, the ability to add your own recipes should include these meals, but I think a strong program should include recipes of their own. If the member wants to incorporate them, they should just have to customize their plan and then the recipes will be included in the weekly plan and all the ingredients will be added to the shopping list.
Planned Lunches/Leftovers. This one was actually my husband's idea and I think it's a great one. Contained either within the normal recipes themselves or perhaps as options you can select through the customization process, recipes using related ingredients, leftovers or byproducts could be provided. So, if you're making a meatloaf, a tip for how to combine this meatloaf with bread and some greens to create a sandwich. If you're already baking potatoes, a recipe to make one into a twice-baked potato while you're eating dinner that you can then take for lunch the next day. If you are making pesto for a baked pasta, a recipe for a sandwich incorporating pesto along with directions on how much additional pesto to make.
Calendar Interface. The most basic implementation of this would be to provide a calendar each week that contained all the meals that you'd added for the week. I would like to see this calendar include slots for all the meals that are not included in the planning program as well that you could fill in. Adding some drag and drop ability to move meals around would be nice, but if a company had the technical savvy to get this done, I'd actually advocate developing an interface with products such as Google Calendar, iCal and Outlook. For the sake of simplicity, the company could just develop an interface with Google Calendar as members could then use Google Calendar to update one of the other products if they so desired.
I would like to see the ingredient details and even the entire recipe appear in the detail part of the entry for each meal if this interface with Google was achieved.
Panic Week. A final feature that I believe could be used to distinguish a meal planning site from all the others would be providing what I'm dubbing a Panic Week. This would be similar to the normal weekly plans, but would emphasis quick and easy to the extreme. This would exist so that a member could select it instead of the normal weekly plan if they were feeling very overwhelmed or had a very crazy schedule that week. In my mind, this would consist of quick, simple, low-prep meals, ingredients that are easy to locate and perhaps even some attempt to minimize the number of ingredients needed.
Membership Expiration. This is more of a general issue than a suggestion for a site in the genre. I think these sites, particularly if they are incorporating some of my ideas above, should carefully consider and clearly communicate their policies for memberships and expiration. If your membership lapses, do you immediately lose all of your saved calendar history, menus, recipes and more? Do you have an inactive period in which all your account information will be saved such as one year? Do you commit to maintaining the information for all your members regardless of active or inactive status for as long as you are in business?
General Evaluation. If you are considering starting a site in this genre or have one now that you are reviewing, I think my list of issues to be considered in evaluating a meal planning site are a good think to make sure you consider.
The Scramble-Specific Areas for Improvement
Website Improvements. This is the area needing attention. Overall, the site is quite useable and not bad to look at, but there are some specific areas where it's not performing at it's best.
The FAQ needs to be changed. Tomorrow. Even today would not be unjustified. There are many FAQ products and tools that have been developed including many free and shareware products. If researching and choosing one of these does not make sense either for the short-term or at all, a reasonable alternative would be just to create a list, perhaps divided by the current categories, of questions and answers. It's almost bad enough to advocate removing it entirely if that's the only option, but since a lot of this information is quite valuable to potential subscribers, if they can get into it that is, this isn't actually a good idea.
Links to the sample menu need to be available throughout the website in much the same fashion that the subscribe links are. This kind of product is very personal and since the shortest subscription is 3-months, I think they would get more subscribers if they facilitated more people knowing about and trying the sample menu. This attitude should expand beyond the basic site. For example, there should be a visible, colorful button saying something to the effect of "free Scramble sample menu" placed on the owner's blog that takes the reader directly to the sample menu. Ideally, this will be a page written for this purpose that provides some of the traditional basic info/links as are on the homepage, but the first priority should be to ensure that getting the sample is almost mindless for the person who clicked the link even if this means just linking to the normal sample page.
The "buzz" area, consisting of subscriber reviews, could be improved. Adding the ability to do a search or view by topic would make these more useful. Ideally, the company would go through and tag these with key words when they come in prior to posting to facilitate this. If the company were willing to set up tags, I would highly recommend they then add a tag cloud (example shown). This would not only help people find the comments that are relevant to them, it would also be a visual way of communicating information from the large number of comments that most visitors will never review.
Communication. Despite sending an automatic response to comments stating, "we value your input and will respond to your comment/request within the next 24-48 hours," I have received no response after 14 days. I hope that there won't be much need to contact them as a subscriber, but knowing that they are available if there is a problem, including billing, would be a plus. If they can't manage responses due to volume and time constraints, they should at least get rid of the email promising reply.
Cost Information. There is currently little cost information on the site unless you dig into some of the articles or fight your way into the FAQ (I don't recommend this). As this is actually a strength of the program, I think they should make this more visible.
Articles. Adding links at the top of the articles page to each subject would enhance the value of this resource. In addition, providing the weekly Scramble tips, such as the previous sample one about how to adapt the plan for smaller families, would make absolute sense. This is possibly available now for subscribers, but I have found nothing to indicate that this is so.
General Appearance. This relates to the first topic of website improvements, but while those ideas were specific, this is a general, vague feeling. I don't like the website. I noted that from the onset as The Scramble's biggest problem. I have had trouble identifying what I don't like about the site, but it's blatant enough that I think they should spend some time with a website designer and see if they can figure out what they could do to improve the appearance. This was the best of the five programs that I looked at, but the appearance is such that it has made me hesitant to make a commitment to them.
It might be the huge font on page such as the "buzz", the odd blank spaces between things, maybe the color scheme, or the odd positioning, but something is very aggravating. Why is the quote on the home page positioned at the absolute top of its framing box with large space below and quotation marks that seem out of line with anything escaping the frame? Why is there a huge space under the title of the main page? Why is the font used in basic narrative sections larger than any header or button anywhere else on the webpage? Why is there text in a green font that's very light?
In an interesting irony, the webpage given for the webpage designer just loads a red "x".
For fairness, the website is definitely useable, possibly excluding the FAQ. It's just not at the level that I would expect. Possibly, since the site has been around for five years, they just haven't updated it in which case it is actually nice for 2003. If this is the case, then they really need to suck it up, defy inertia and decide to make a change.
There are a plethora of companies in the meal planning software industry: Meal Designer, Daily Home Planner, e-Mealz, Meal Mixer, eMealsforyou, menus4moms, Menu Planning Central, Dinner Planner and more. Reviewing their sites, much less preparing a sample week, for each is a daunting task. The Scramble seems to meet our purposes, so rather than dedicating the next six months to trying others a week at a time, I am most likely just going to try The Scramble for a quarter. However, if there is a product that someone particularly likes and recommends, please let me know because I will take the time to try any recommended products.
Despite this plethora, I do believe that these is a position for someone to enter the market with a new subscription product and be highly successful by distinguishing themselves from the field and having a well-conceived web product. If you decide this person is you, let me know and I'll be happy to be a beta tester.
If you are lookingn for some more general information, reviews, Real Simple published an article in 2006 looking at 6 of the sites.
Bonus: I just saw that the sample menu for the Scramble has changed! Five different meals, five new sides and a new article. I don't know if they routinely change their sample meal, but if so, it's a brilliant idea to get more people to decide to subscribe. Provide a free sample one week out of each month and send notification of this update to opted in people and they could be golden.