From Systems to Experience: Shfiting Perspectives of Research

Before I came to AC4D, I spent six years working at a non-profit called the Connecticut Pre-Engineering Program (CPEP). At CPEP, I went from teaching classes to middle school students in the CPEP educational science and math summer program to managing that summer program. I eventually shifted to managing the CPEP organization while serving as Acting Director for five months. I realized recently that the systems mindset I developed over the years at CPEP has had shaped how I tend to make sense of things, and that systems approach has had some unwanted influences on how I’ve approached shaping my team’s design research.  I’ve changed my tune, I’m happy to say. This is the story of that change.

The revelation occurred one night during Research class. We had prepared our participatory design plan and were very satisfied with how the activities were laid out. Our focus was to understand what impact schools had on students’ awareness and agency in their food choices.

We were prepared to interview several school administrators who had the power to effect policy changes to improve students’ awareness and choice regarding food, such as through developing educational programs or integrating more food sampling into the cafeteria to habituate students to new and healthier foods. By interviewing these change-makers who had so much experience with students’ habits and reactions to new food, we presumed to develop a big picture of where there were opportunities to improve their system.

We had several participatory design activities set-up like pre-session homework questions to prime their thinking about student food choice and ideal solution activities that would help explore what a solution might feel like, e.g. simple to administer, community involvement, and so on. These activities would set-us up well to inform the development of policies or programs that would improve students’ awareness and agency regarding food consumption.

Here I was, looking to learn about the system so we could improve students’ experience. It turned out this was just a tad backward for the requirements of this research.

Class started, and we presented our ideas. The instructors patiently waited for us to complete our five-minute presentation. Then the curtain was pulled way back. To paraphrase them: “This is exactly how things are currently planned. Top-down. Why aren’t you interviewing students about their experience of food choice? Or else ask the administrators about how they experience food service planning.”

Our team was completely surprised. We had completely misinterpreted the nature of the process. We had tried to understand the system and then shape the experience, but this is not the proper way to approach it. The way I have come to understand it better is to frame the research around defining the solution and experience, and then to shape research around those definitions. Let me explain.

First, who owns the solution? Second, who’s having the experience? In the case of creating a solution for student’s awareness and food choice, it’s true, the administrators largely “own” the solution. They are the ones who would have to enact it, and they understand many of the constraints around creating the solution. They also have to “experience” the solution from the point of administering. But they aren’t the primary subjects who have the “experience” we are defining. The students are having the experience. What do they know about food? Where do they learn about it? What’s it like to see a new food item in the cafeteria? What choices do they feel they have around food?

My background as an administrator and educational program designer largely stilted my approach to this research. Teachers and administrators are (supposed) to be experts in education. They may know more about what is administratively possible or what is pedagogically researched and sound when developing lesson plans compared to a middle school student, but they are not the ones having the experience. If we were to develop a solution for a classroom, a key subject to interview would be students, and whatever the solution proposed may be, the teacher can own the solution.

After class, my team was faced with a challenge – we had spent almost 6 hours developing our participatory design research materials, and now we had strong criticism of the very basis for those materials. We had three interviews already lined up that were to take place within forty-eight hours, and it was now 10pm. What to do?

I’m happy to say that we changed our whole framework and question that night. Given our interviews were lined up with food service staff members, we decided to inquire about their experience rather than try to interview students about our prior research question. Our question was “what’s the experience like of developing school food menus?” We tested our the questions and material the next day with an executive chef, and it went swimmingly. The responses were rich, the stories were aplenty about the logistical, conceptual, and even aesthetic choices faced when developing menus for cafeterias that serve 5,000 students each day.

In summary, I’m slowly learning to adjust my approach to this kind of research. Even though I often took students’ and staff members’ input when developing the educational programs I managed, my headset is still to observe and learn about whole systems. As much as it is possible to learn about the system in which experiences take place, I am learning more and more to shift my lens for the lens to the singular experience of people in that system. I’m shifting my lens, pulling it into focus, and it’s making the research even more enjoyable.