Are you my mother?

Finding focus: are you my mother?

In the Interaction Design Research and Synthesis 101 course at Austin Center for Design, we are learning the methods of qualitative design research and synthesis used to study complex problems, such as technology, behavior, and society. As students, we are learning techniques and processes to gather data in the field, rigorously analyze that data, and gain insights, meaning, and trends.

Getting started and fumbling (in the dark seems harsh, but perhaps) along the way reminded me of the classic childhood book, “Are You My Mother” by P.D. Eastman. A mother bird goes off to find food for her unborn bird. Meanwhile, back at the nest, the egg “jumped and jumped. Until…” the little bird pops into the world and asks, “Where is my mother?” That was the start of the bird’s journey to meet a wide-variety of characters as he asked his burning question, “are you my mother?”

Are you my focus?

After learning our topic area—the value chain of food produced from animals—we strived to determine a focus for our project. In class, professor Lauren Serota highlighted that “focus is the point of view you take while conducting design research. The focus is an active perspective that helps you find the right people and ask the right questions. It’s an anchor for your research.”

Karen Holtzblatt wrote that a project focus is important because “it tells the research team what to pay attention to—of all the overwhelming detail available, what matters for the design problem at hand. Before starting a project, the team defines the problem to be solved, the users who are affected, the relevant activities and task, and the relevant situations and location.”

We used an affinity diagram, multiple iterations, and team discussions to land on our research focus: we aim to learn what factors and actors influence school menu planning particularly around animal-sourced food products.

Are you my problem?

We chose schools because there is an opportunity to make a difference today and tomorrow: institutional food programs represent a significant budget and related choices on how to spend it, and a child’s nutrition and relationship with food may set them on a path for their entire lives.

At this point in the research project, we are beginning to get overwhelmed with the sheer number of key players and influencers we have uncovered. For example, to name just several:

  • Administration: district-level, school principals, and leadership
  • School: teachers, nutrition, and food staff
  • Policy and finance: federal, state, and local government
  • Influencers: activists, NGOs, lobbyists, big money/business, etc.
  • Vendors: producers, suppliers, food commodity program
  • Key relationships: co-op procurement, nutritional associations

Our completed and pipeline interviews primarily draw on administration, school staff, and parents (and students) for contextual interviews, and influencers and vendors as the subject matter expert interviews.

As we begin to develop a plan to integrate participation design methodology, we find ourselves asking an important question: who is our customer? Due to the nature of the learning situation, we did not wrestle with that question earlier, so we have a luxury of being our customer. For our purposes, one could say that the customer—that we might co-create a solution with—is the food/nutrition staff such as the food director and executive chef whose roles are deeply embedded with school food services. With our broad list of factors and actors, the customer could be anyone.

You are not!

I find myself wondering if better criteria and focus would have helped the bird find his mother sooner. He spoke with cows, construction equipment, dogs, and more. At the same time, what would he have missed if he only asked animals with feathers? With that said, to understand the factors and actors of such a complex ecosystem like school food programs, a funnel type approach where we start broad and then quickly narrow might be the best approach.

“Yes, I know who you are,” said the baby bird. “You are not a kitten. You are not a hen. You are not a dog. You are not a cow. You are not a boat, or a plane, or a Snort! You are a bird, and you are my mother.”

Suspending judgment and embracing ambiguity is important as we try on the design researcher role. The questions we ask. The questions we learn over time to ask. Who we ask. Who we do not ask. Tossing the discussion guide aside as our curiosity is sparked in the moment. Our research focus continues and what we learn along the way is important for our project and our educational journey to becoming designers.