Five weeks into our Research and Synthesis course here at ac4d, our team has just completed its first iteration through a design research and synthesis process. This process has felt wonderful, immersive, rigorous, structured, uncontrolled, and judgmental. Most importantly, it’s been highly effective at pushing us to new ideas and we will be presenting our synthesis for the first time tonight.
We came to the broad conclusion that food behavior (like most human behavior) is inseparable from the individual identities of the people who interact with food. We came to refer to this subset of personal identity as food identity which we defined as an accumulation of our decisions and experiences that frame our interactions with food. During design synthesis (see our process below) we kept seeing the theme of identity play out again and again. However, as a theme food identity proved too broad for us to make sense of our data.
Eventually we developed a framework for thinking about roles that people take on in food interactions. This framework led to an understanding food identity as a dynamic definition ourselves that is a both a reflection of our past food roles and fame for our current ones.
In our research we defined two large roles:
Makes food and asserts authority over what is consumed.
Food interactions are a process of selection based on time, money, and availability.
Within the spectrum of Consumers we also defined two extreme roles:
An individual who curates their self expression through food experience.
Choice is restricted to acceptance or rejection of proffered food.
While the roles of creator and consumer may seem somewhat obvious, the roles of epicurean and recipient proved crucial in creating a back and forth with our questions and insights and led us to the rapid generation of a lot of ideas. Each role helped us make sense of behavior we were observing.
Our role definitions and many of our key insights were mutually inspired. Here’s some of our key insights and the roles they were associated with.
- Established food roles become a persistent part of our identity.
- Food choices are a daily, malleable, representation of ourselves.
- We are defined more by how we make food decisions than the food itself.
- In a society where everyone is now a food consumer, experience becomes the new expression of affluence.
- Without authority over food choices, people are reduced to wat they are willing to accept or deny.
- In food deprived situations, people can still take on selfless roles and find individual pride through their food decisions in the context of the community.
Finally, we had one powerful influence in our research that seemed to be apart from and also confirm the roles we defined. One of our participants runs and owns a restaurant that provides a food experience that epicureans value. The participant uses the profits from the restaurant to feed the low income community (recipients) in the area with the same quality of food that is served in the restaurant. We intuitively knew what the participant was doing was powerful and our definition of roles in synthesis confirmed and reinforced that instinct. The following insight was one that resonated across much of our research:
- When many choices are restricted, as is the case in low income communities, food choice becomes a vehicle for humanization.
Our design team (Bhavini Patel, Jacob Rader, and Scott Gerlach) focused our research on Food and Behavior in Low Income communities: specifically in the Eastside neighborhood here in Austin, TX. Broadly speaking, the Eastside is an area of Austin that has historically been defined by black and hispanic low-income neighborhoods and is now experiencing rapid gentrification. Over the span of two weeks we interacted and learned from a cross section of the community through a process that included interviews, contextual inquiries, and the production of artifacts (read more). The purpose of this research process was to create highly subjective interactions that would inform our intuition as designers.
The two and a half week Synthesis process we just concluded further immersed us in our research and forced us to apply judgement to our intuitive understanding. Our team’s process built through four phases:
Almost exactly what it sounds like. We took all of our transcriptions, photos, observations, and artifacts and broke them down into bite size pieces called utterances. Then we cataloged each reference and created individual note-cards which we then covered walls with. This created a physical representation of our data that we could interact with, interpret, and manipulate.
After exploding our data we started trying to make some sense of it by moving pieces of data that felt related to each other so that they were also physically located next to each other. This inherently introduced our own judgements and intuitions into the process. Once it felt like the association was obvious enough to categorize we would label the group with a post-it phrase like “Food as a representation of wealth”. As we iterated and reformed our groups through several cycles we started to see relationships between individual pieces of data as well as more broad associations between the groups themselves. Just as crucially, this process highlighted outlying and contrary data.
With the presence of defined groups and associations, we are to start to ask ourselves why. Why is this group happening? What could explain this behavior? The questions that were provoked by the groupings weren’t always obvious. I remember at one point looking at a grouping based on “Cooking as service to others” and writing the question “Why is food an effective way to communicate values?” Finding the right questions was a surprisingly time consuming phase of synthesis. In retrospect this is probably because as we iterated on our questions we slowly worked our way outward from a very close view of the data toward making connections to human behavior on the broad scale.
Insights could be roughly defined as highly provocative statements of truth (which may in fact be false). These are intuitive leaps that leverage rapid hypothesis generation (also referred to as abductive reasoning). When people talk about the “magic of design”, I think this phase of synthesis is what they have in mind. This is where the mental models that have been built up through the research process are re-framed and interpreted by the designer. The designer inherently applies their own experience and worldview in attempting to judge and understand the data in a wider context. It sounds wondrous and complicated. However, once you have been immersed in data and layered subjectivity and judgement into the process you start to get a flow of consciousness and the insight phase doesn’t seem so magical… it just feels like finding the right explanation. The magic is that these explanations are often able articulate something new. In this sense, synthesis is a structured microcosm of one of our most valuable human traits: the ability to teach ourselves new ideas.
-Scott (on behalf of Jacob and Bhavini)
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