Remember that morning when you woke up and immediately read a friend’s post about the amazing night she had at that pop-up downtown, hidden away in that back alley? I didn’t even know there was a restaurant space back there, you lamented to yourself. Or that time the Michelin-rated guy whose restaurant you can’t ever get into popped up in a bar down the street from your place, and you read about it a week later? Sigh… I once read a New York Times article about a series of cocktail pop-ups thrown INSIDE OF A ROOFTOP WATER TOWER down the street from my apartment…a month afterward.

Pop-ups are everywhere, all the time (even during COVID!), but they’re all so haphazardly scattered around social media that they seem secret. What if there were a place that showcased all of them, updated in real time, and allowed anyone to plug into the system whenever they chose? Could such a place create some new kind of dining ecosystem?
The State of Pop-ups

I began this investigation by vetting the current ecosystem of the culinary pop-up while chanting the mantra, “Does the world need this intervention?” Let’s start with some initial data:

75% of pop-up event attendees believe it’s worth paying more money for a unique dining experience.

83% would rather attend these events in non-traditional venues over restaurants.

50% say they’d be willing to pay more for a meal at a pop-up event with a chef interaction than for a meal at a regular restaurant.

75% of diners are more likely to share posts on social media about a pop-up dining experience than about a night out at a restaurant (51%).
The answer to my anxiety mantra appears to be: “Yes.”
The Existing Infrastructure
But might there already be an adequate solution to this problem out there in the world? I scoured the existing webscape to find out:
Analyzing a cross section of the competition revealed a number of efforts that skirted the culinary pop-up problem, but none quite hit the target. Most importantly:
  • None took a real-time, interactive approach with robust mapping.
  • None allowed networking between users.
  • All took a siloed user approach, with fairly rigid boundaries between customers, purveyors, and venues.
  • There could be little to no cross-pollination of these roles.
Above all, no competition focused specifically on the culinary pop-up per se. Following heuristic analyses of several of these competitors, I determined that the problem persists, and that this void presents an opportunity to meet a need.

Moving forward with a valid focal point for further inquiry, I formulated a research plan that set out to answer a few specific questions:
  • What are the challenges and opportunities in conceiving, executing, and discovering a culinary pop-up?
  • What are the costs and benefits of hosting a pop-up?
  • What are the potential issues and benefits with crossover and blurring of the practitioner/host/consumer roles and boundaries?
  • Does this practitioner/host/consumer ecosystem present opportunities for growth as a stand-alone social network with a food focus?
I would need a good cross section of real-world industry perspectives to develop an informed understanding of these issues, so I targeted over 30 chefs, venue owners (or hosts), and potential customer users around the country via a screener survey. Out of these 30+ candidates, I conducted 7 in-depth interviews that offered unique takes on the culinary pop-up, its challenges, and its opportunities.

Affinity Mapping

In order to rapidly process the glut of qualitative data gathered during the interview process, I created an affinity map that identified commonalities and differences among potential users, myriad concerns about industry operations and logistics, and a boon of emotional insights into the world of pop-ups and each of its players.
Empathy Mapping

Distilling this data further, I sketched empathy maps for each of the three identified players—customer, chef, and host—in order to begin to shape discernible user identities.
User Personas

Finally, from these empathy maps, I amalgamated the observed needs, motivations, and goals of the initial interview subjects and synthesized three distinct user personas to act as ongoing guides for design decisions about the pop-up problem space.
Problem Statements

Now that I had a fairly nuanced understanding of the problem space and what it takes to execute a culinary pop-up—including some of the pain points, successes, and failures that might result from the effort—I needed to clearly articulate what the key problems to solve actually are. After iteration and refinement, I wondered,

How might we:

With the problem statements fleshed out, it was time to identify potential features a product that addresses the pop-up problem space might possess, from a Minimum Viable Product (MPV) to far beyond. In a fast and loose process, I riffed on a broad spectrum of possibilities, from the simple and obvious to the outlandish and [perhaps] impossible, sketching freely but thoughtfully:
User Stories

With the broad thinking of the ideation process at the front of mind, I discerned what all the probable user stories might be that could meet the functional needs of a product that integrates the culinary pop-up community, resulting in nearly 80 potential features. I then assigned priority tiers of 1, 2, and 3, with 1 fulfilling all the critical tasks associated with an MVP, and I later tethered these MVP stories  via numeric labels to the app’s site map and its individual screens. A few of the more prominent results:
“As a local chef, I want to easily locate a prospective pop-up venue so that I may lower barriers to executing pop-up events.”

“As a venue owner, I want to provide a detailed list of amenities to prospective pop-up chefs so that I may lower friction in booking new events and avoid later surprises.”

“As a pop-up customer, I want to stay apprised of upcoming pop-ups so that I might avoid the disappointment of missing out.”
product architecture


Given the complexity revealed in the development of user stories, a sitemap would prove critical to properly composing the product architecture, hitting all functional points needed for a working product. The sitemap would function as a living document through much of the product’s development.
User Flows

I then plotted user flows based on the sitemap’s layout, articulating three
RED ROUTES critical to the product’s success:
Screen Sketches

With a robust research foundation in place, I began to strategize visually how the app might accomplish the critical red route user flows, sketching and iterating through each route. Using the sketches, I then created clickable Invision prototypes for the 3 red routes and guerrilla tested them with 5 user subjects.
Wireframes and Wireflows

The sketch test results indicated a number of promising changes to be made, among them:
Proceeding with these findings, I created a series of low-fidelity wireframes and wireflows of the key screens and red routes in order to quickly map the product’s content test layouts and hierarchies for my own understanding of their functionality.

Having gleaned an understanding of the product’s user needs and designed its architectural functionality, I needed to develop its visual character. The subculture of the culinary pop-up could be characterized as sophisticated, quasi-exclusive, and often near-secret. And having known and worked with many chefs, they are infamous for their subversive senses of humor, to put it lightly. I wanted to tap into some of these aspects in the product’s overall appeal, and I did so first by creating a mood board.
With the mood board sensibilities in mind, I began fleshing out high-fidelity mockups of the app screens and building a style guide to maintain design unity throughout the product as I progressed through the screens.
Usability Testing

Again using Invision, I created a clickable prototype using the high-fidelity screens for usability testing of the 3 red routes with 5 new users. Test results indicated that the app appealed to the users conceptually and aesthetically, but a number of issues created friction during the search, booking, payment, and sharing processes. I performed a detailed audit of each test—recorded via Zoom—and reiterated each red route again based on user feedback. I recruited 5 new users for testing once again, processed the findings—discovering additional issues with link design clarity as well as the hierarchy of text sections within profiles—and reiterated for a final product prototype.

Given the burgeoning and vibrant world of culinary pop-ups at large today, I would have preferred to have a more culturally and geographically diverse set of interviewees during the user discovery phase. I put significant effort toward this end in the initial recruiting—and made promising connections in the process—but many prospective interviewees ultimately were unable to participate.

Given additional time, a full reiteration—or perhaps several—of the overall concept at the sketch stage might have revealed promising alternative routes. As is often the case, decisions had to be made quickly.