Moving into the next phase of design research and reflecting on the past

Now that the first quarter is over and we’ve presented our research findings, I’ve been reflecting on our struggles and successes with the research methods, and the new directions our findings have guided us towards in the second phase of research.

Jonathan and I did our initial contextual inquiry at the Farmers’ Market, where we observed farm vendors in the point of sale process with customers. We learned a good deal about the relationships that are built between community and vendor and became more familiar with the research methods.

One thing that we learned in that process was that WIC vouchers (Women, Infants, and Children), are not accepted at Farmers’ Markets in the Winter months. Because the program is federally-funded, the assumption is that the growing season has ended by Winter. In Texas this isn’t the case. We’re lucky to have a year-round growing season, and because of this, our Farmer’s Markets stay open all year long.

With this in mind we decided that it would be interesting to adjust our focus going into the participatory interviews to learn how lower-income single individuals select, prepare, and consume food. We set out to target those participating in SNAP (food stamps), but we found it difficult to recruit this demographic. Jonathan and I contacted headquarters at HEB, but they didn’t return our messages. We contacted people who worked at SNAP but for obvious reasons they couldn’t put us into contact with their clients. After handing out stacks of flyers to various food banks we realized that this type of recruitment would best be done in person. We decided to stand outside of City Market grocery and approach individuals hoping that one or more of them would be participating in the SNAP program. We spoke with three individuals who fit our criteria, and we were successful in setting up one interview. We found our two other participants through friends of friends, and though they weren’t participating in SNAP, they were both single individuals living on a teachers’ salary.

We conducted the three interviews in the homes of our participants by first reflecting on the journaling exercise we had them fill out beforehand. We had asked them to write down their experiences selecting, preparing, and consuming one meal that week. How had they felt before the meal, what were they thinking about during the meal, how did it make them feel afterwards, etc. This exercise served to jump start the discussion about their personal experiences with food and inspire interesting conversation around their unique reality. About half-way through the interview we transitioned into speaking about their ideal food experiences by introducing our participants to an ‘Experience Canvas’. An Experience Canvas is a large board with a set of image and word stimuli prepared to help articulate an ideal experience. We asked our participants to look through the stimuli and speak about the one’s that do, and do not articulate this ideal. Jonathan and I taped these words and images to the canvas as we asked them questions about each one that they chose, careful not to refer to the images by describing what we thought they were, but by calling them by the numbers that cataloged them. In this way our participants could describe to us what the images meant to them without our descriptive influence.

Upon reflection, we found the journaling exercise to be an incredibly effective way of inspiring our participants to share their story with us. The canvas was less effective, maybe because we were all getting tired by the end of the interview, or maybe because we had so many words and images to chose from that they felt overwhelmed. The words and images, however, did serve to help articulate some desires and difficulties that may have not come up otherwise. For instance, we found that all three people responded negatively to the image of a rabbit in a hat. Relating food to magic or a card trick most likely wouldn’t have come up in normal conversation, but it served to further articulate a general desire for food to be “real”, or easy to understand. Jonathan and I also realized that we followed the ‘script’ too tightly in the interviews. We forgot to be curious about asking our participants to show us their kitchens, or food preparation methods. We didn’t document many artifacts other than the video of our conversations, and this was a missed opportunity.

Going into the next phase of research we will be drawing upon the themes that we’ve synthesized from these participant interviews. I’m particularly interested in the desire for food to strengthen camaraderie and connection with others as well as allow us to maintain control of our lives. These themes have led me to focus on researching the food behaviors of teenage girls. Jonathan is going to look at individuals experiencing obesity.

Jonathan will be posting our research presentation on the blog shortly. Please let me know if you have any contacts that could help Jonathan in his research on obesity, or Diana and I in our research on young women from the ages of 12 through 19!

Twitter – @cheyenneweaver