A glimpse inside the kitchen

From the outside, the building is unassuming – brick, short, and with a simple, flat facade. As we walked through the front door, however, we immediately heard the chatter of teachers in the school cafe and the clanking of dishes, the whirring of washers, and the banging of ovens in the cafeteria kitchen. We began our first design research project for the AC4D design program just a few weeks ago, and our focus is to learn about the factors and actors that influence school food service. The day we walked into that school was the day I really got a taste of just how little I knew about the world I was about to design for. It’s now clear to me just how important contextual research can be to paint a more rich picture of that world and to inform our design.

Up until that point, our team had lived in a world of stickies, conversation, laptops, and the interior of the AC4D classrooms, with occasional breaks for tacos nearby. We talked in class about the importance of user interviews and ethnography to gain a fuller perspective of our research topic and to develop greater empathy with the people we would design for, and as we delved into scoping out our research topic, it felt alive with curiosity, questions, confusion, personalities, and debate.

But in a way, we didn’t really known anything about our topic until we arrived to the first school cafeteria.

We arrived at the school, and the noise, sights, and people who we had previously only talked about came to life. In fact, most of what we saw and heard we hadn’t even talked about or imagined. The teachers’ separate cafe and meeting space, distinct and shielded from the din of students in the cafeteria; the cafeteria workers’ conversations in Spanish; the very small staff that ran a huge cafeteria operation – these were all unforeseen details of a world that kept unfolding before us, proving the topic more complex with every new glimpse inside it.

This was clearly not the world I imagined. Indeed, the world is not what we think.

I think of a school cafeteria, and images from sitcoms immediately come to mind. Or maybe images from my own experience attending school come to mind. Or else images sparked by news articles and stories about school cafeterias come to mind. When I tried to imagine the world of school food service prior to this visit, these images were likely feeding my imagination. But all these sets of images are blurred by vagaries of my own memory, and more importantly they represent superficial impressions of that domain as a whole.

During our first visit, when we met our participant, she didn’t look anything like what I imagined a school food service director would look like. What’s more, during the interview, instead of viewing her job as a relentless barrage of administrative and regulatory tasks as I had projected, she painted a quite different picture for us. When we asked what feedback she got from parents, her response was that yes, she does get feedback, requests, and complaints – and she completely understands parents’ earnestness to communicate with her. After all, she’s responsible for feeding thousands of other people’s children, and it’s an honor and a huge responsibility.

How did I never think of it this way? This food service director has a strong emotional connection to her work, and an immense responsibility and connection to that charge. But for some reason, my mind was busy with looking at the emotions that may arise due to faults or snags in the system, administration, or logistics. This insight into how she sees her role and her responsibilities could be central to a design solution. It could inspire solutions that create more caring, devoted, and responsible school nutrition services for thousands more children. If I had projected my lens on her role, making administrative tasks easier, that would likely have inspired a much different and likely less effective, energized solution.

Over and over, throughout that first visit, the world I only faintly had imagined grew bigger, more complex, more rich, more connected, and, in a way, more incomplete. Our minds want to make things whole, so we imagine we see the whole. This illusion of wholeness, of the completeness of our knowledge, however, can be the undoing of the solutions we strive to create. Once we assume we know the whole picture, we stop learning and developing an even more complete picture that can be used to inform the design process. Contextual design is a process that not only gives designers a better picture of the world they’ll design for but also reminds them of how incomplete their ideas are. It is certain that our perspectives are far, far from complete. To put another way, every meal has a story, and if you want to know what’s on your plate, it’s best to look inside the kitchen and ask the chef – but even then, it’s just a glimpse.