Zest: how to build a cooking app that works

Zest is an app designed to complement the entire cooking experience -- and it's the best we've seen.

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Plenty of Zest

There's a plethora of cooking apps on the market for the home chef. One thing we've noticed, however, is that most of them sort of stop at recipe collection. They're usually little more than a slightly interactive cookbook that lets you share recipes or save them in a file. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- but the medium is capable of so much more.

Never was this better highlighted than with Zest. Rather than letting you sort through a bunch of pre-loaded recipes, the entire app isn't built around a cookbook, but you -- the cook. When you load it up, one thing stands out straight away: the relative lack of recipes. It has a few built in to get started -- but the idea of Zest is to search the web and add your own, scraping pages via a built-in browser to add recipes to your own personal cookbook, automatically sorting them into summary, ingredients and step-by-step method.

"When researching recipes I like to search online, not just on the big sites but also more specialised blogs -- there are a lot of inspiring recipe bloggers out there! But I wasn't very good at keeping track of what I found, and on top of that bookmarked recipes would sometimes move or disappear from the site," creator Jason Sankey told CNET.

"I wanted an easy way to collect recipes in one place. There are metadata standards that make it possible to import automatically from many sites, but it was important to also have an intuitive way to manually help the import process for those smaller sites that often don't include metadata. With any luck this will encourage other Zest users to discover some of those great blogs!"

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Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

When you tap on a recipe from your main hub, it takes you to the recipe's main page, with a photo, a list of ingredients and instructions. This is where most cooking apps would stop, but Zest has another trick up its sleeve: when you tap the "Cook" button in the lower left, you're taken to a screen where the steps are displayed in a minimal layout so that you can easily see them and navigate, with different views to choose from (all steps or one at a time), requiring minimal taps from users with food-covered fingers -- easy to accomplish with a knuckle.

"Before I made Zest I had looked at other options out there, and was surprised that very few apps had a dedicated mode for when you're in the kitchen cooking," Sankey said. "For me, organising and browsing my recipe collection is a very different situation to cooking, so trying to use the same screen for both doesn't make sense. The text is too small and the screen filled with things that aren't needed, making it hard to see and control. With the dedicated cooking mode in Zest, we've made it practical to prop your iPad up in the kitchen and follow the recipe through step by step."

Sankey -- who is not a professional chef, but an enthusiastic home cook -- said that the idea was to keep things simple -- to create something that was familiar enough that users would know how to use it, but offering the features that he had found lacking in the cooking apps he'd used himself.

"Our approach to design is first and foremost to keep things simple. This is harder than it sounds! We use familiar patterns where possible and prefer smart defaults to constant choices. We try and strip back the app UI and focus on the recipes themselves and particularly the photos. I wanted to make an app that inspired me to cook, like a great cookbook, by showcasing stunning food," he said.

The app does use recipe photos where possible, but you can take photos of what you've cooked for easy visual reference if the photos aren't good -- or, if you're adding your own recipes, you can take a photo in-app. You can then share these recipes with other users via email and social network, with the Zest team considering how to best implement a recipe browsing and sharing platform.

"We would love to encourage people to share their recipes and have multiple ideas about this. In Zest today people can swap whole recipes via email and share links to their favourite online recipes via Facebook and Twitter. We're also discussing ways we can help people publish their recipes and their cooking experiences to a wider audience, either on their own blog or via our own Zest site. In our view recipes, like food, are best when shared, so anything we can do to encourage that is worth considering!" Sankey said.

Since its release in November last year, Sankey has received a lot of feedback from users, and the app is constantly evolving in response. The most recent additions are an iPhone version and cloud support so that users can share their own recipe collection between devices -- with more features to come.

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Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

"In the early versions of the app we ran a small feature survey to help us guide future development, and we're using the results to shape our roadmap. There were a few surprises in the results, but as we suspected there was strong support for an iPhone version with cloud syncing to share a single recipe collection with the iPad version. So we got straight on to delivering those features in the next two major releases," Sankey said.

"Shopping list support is now top of our list, as it ranked very highly on our user survey. Naturally you want to have the list on your phone to take shopping, so now that we have iPhone and syncing support, a useful shopping list is possible. I'm always pulling my phone out at the shops trying to remember what to buy so I'm keen for this feature myself! Once we've got the logic to build a smart shopping list we'll also be able to provide other tools for ingredient lists, e.g. calculating scaled up or down versions of a recipe."

Of course, an Android version of the app is on the way -- and, even further down the pipeline, perhaps even some third-party hardware support.

"We've had some ideas around hardware accessories but haven't pursued any partnerships at this stage," Sankey said. "We have, however, made some connections with food bloggers (and our app does include some of their recipes!) and are open to making similar connections to other innovative companies in this space. I can imagine how the Range thermometer could be integrated into Zest's cooking mode, which would be really cool!"

Zest is available for free download from the iTunes app store.

 

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