My evolution as a design researcher

As I am halfway through my first quarter of Interaction Design Research class, I am reflecting on my evolution in terms of what it means to do design research as well as how my current project researching the animal product food chain has evolved. As a budding design researcher, I am beginning to grasp what it is I need to practice and learn – how do I step into a world I’ve never lived in, feel comfortable with uncertainty, capture data that reflects how people really live their lives, and gain empathy for all of my participants. I am beginning to understand the complexity of this task and am finding that I as I fumble through my first research project how much work it is going to take on my part to embody the methods that will lead to deeper and more meaningful insights.

At the beginning of the quarter, my teammate and I decided to focus in on how food is distributed from farm to restaurant since it was a topic we were both intrigued by. Our initial research question was to understand how Austin area farmers and ranchers get products to market. Our research started by talking to subject matter experts and doing secondary research. As we began to feel more confident in this brand-new problem space, we practiced contextual inquiries – we tried our best to be able to bear witness to the ways farmers, food distributers and restaurateurs lived their day-to-day lives.  We tried engaging our participants in questions that would reveal the gaps between how they wanted to live their lives and how it was actually unfolding. As we heard stories about how farmers would get their products to restaurants, we heard time and again how important communication was – from building trusting relationships between stakeholders to farmers consistently updating restaurants about what crops they currently have for sale to restaurants making requests and staying updated on all of the farms in the area.  Almost every prompt my teammate and I came up with returned to how important clear and consistent communication was to each stakeholder. Therefore, we narrowed our focus to gain additional rich insights into how individual farmers and restauranteurs feel about their daily communication.

 To begin to unearth how our participants feel about their daily communication, my teammate and I developed several participatory activities. Before the interview, we asked our participants to keep a record of who they spoke with. During the interview, we worked with our participants to create a map of all of their interactions that encodes different information like frequency, importance and method of communication within the map. We then used this map to stimulate stories. At the end, we asked our participant to design their ideal communication.

It was amazing to see how using this kind of activity facilitated storytelling. A powerful moment occurred while my teammate and I interviewed the chef of a well-established farm-to-table Austin restaurant. As he described his relationship with one of his food distributors, he segued into talking about a meaningful relationship he has with a new local restauranteur. At first he was talking about ordering an animal product, how he predicts how much he needs, and what it is like working with this particular distributor. Next, he described challenges he has.

This led into a story in which he recounted a moment last week when a new chef did not have enough fish to serve his customers that day and texted our participant to ask if his restaurant had enough to share. Our participant took out his cellphone to show us the text exchange. He walked us through what happened and how the text moved him to reach out to his other chef friends for the fish. In this moment, I felt like I got to peer into the lives of a network of chefs and how they managed to support each other. In the end, the new chef was supported by his network (who are also his competition!). I believe that entering into the interview with a mindset that my teammate and I would co-create an interaction map with our participant facilitated this meaningful finding.

Of course, as mentioned above, I am a budding researcher and just now learning about how much I still need to learn on how to be an effective design researcher. In my next interviews, I have a few things I want to improve. First, I really need to be prepared for anything. The night before, I should make sure my cellphone can take hours of video (because I found out that it can’t in the middle of an interview), my computer is ready to take notes (after I had typed 8 pages of notes in the field, Word would not let me save the document – something that has never happened before) and I bring several different kinds of notebooks depending on where my participant takes me (small and large notebooks that open in a way that I can carry them one-handed since I need to be ready for anything). Second, I want to modify my participatory methods to go deeper. I see how powerful participatory research methods are at getting participants to open up, share stories, and reveal insights I could not predict. In my next iteration of this kind of interview, I want to ask questions that help me to understand who are the influencers in the participant’s business as well as what the real impact communication has on day-to-day operations. I want to delve into their sense of ideal relationships so I can learn what may currently be broken. Third, I want to internalize possible models I will eventually develop from the data my teammate and I are recording in the field. I believe this will help me to record the right data for future use in the synthesis process.

The designer I want to be

As a student in his first quarter at the Austin Center for Design, I am beginning to develop my own philosophy for how I want to be a designer when I enter into the professional world. In the course titled Design, Society and the Public Sector, I read foundational texts written by design practitioners and academics that are reflections of what it means to them to have impact as an interaction designer. In the most recent cycle of readings, we focused on the meaning and development of value as well as the underlying principles for creating value for consumers and citizens of the world. In order synthesize the articles, I created a short comic that I will present below. First, I will provide some context for the story I wrote.

As a basis for understanding my perspective, I start with two of the readings (written by Jon Kolko and Don Norman) that introduce differing perspectives of innovation and that pushed me to ask the question: “Where does/should the concept of innovation live?”

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As expressed in the diagrams above, the authors focused on two kinds of innovation. Innovation from the perspective of new technologies can lead to conceptual breakthroughs and eventually change how humans interact. Examples of this are the automobile, the computer and the cellphone. On the other hand, innovation can be seen from the perspective of the consumer. This kind of innovation is subjective and defined by individuals – in the ways they see their own lives and how they use or do not use services and products.

As a future designer, I am interested in focusing on innovating from the perspective of users. Thus steeping myself in the human centered design process makes sense.

Comparing the positions of each of the authors we read (Norman, Kolko, Sanders, Gaver and Dourish), I am beginning to build a framework for thinking about how to develop innovative solutions to wicked problems (as they are experienced on the human level). At its core, the human centered design process is, “…an approach that values uncertainty, play, exploration, and subjective interpretation as ways of dealing with [the limits of knowledge].” (Gaver, pg. 1) This pushes against the dominant belief in the value of quantification, predictive models and a positivist methodology for understanding how to design innovative solutions. However, humans do not experience the world in predictable and rational ways. Instead they are constantly creating the world they live in. The context that people operate in is embodied. Context is, “…something that people do. It is an achievement rather than an observation; an outcome, rather than a premise.”  (Dourish, pg. 22)

Since I want to be a researcher and designer who wants to innovate from the perspective of users, I have to be able to get at the lived experience of humans. I need to figure out methods for capturing that data and making sense of it. It is not as simple as coming up with all the variables that need to be quantified, making objective (context-free) observations, and asking people to respond to surveys. It requires getting at how people really behave, think, and feel. In order to do this, I need a mindset in which I believe I can co-create with my users so that I can access my users’ experiences. Co-creation is an “…act of collective creativity that is experienced jointly by two or more people…where the intent is to create something tis not known in advance.” I believe this loops back to the quote I presented from Gaver. An act is only creative if it is playful, uncertain, and leads to subjective interpretations. As a human centered designer, I need to embody this mindset in order to capture rich data on how my users think, behave and feel. I can do this through creative activities or presenting them with cultural probes wherein I capture reactions to unexpected and irrational stimuli. Of course, just as any positivist scientist would tell you, you need to process lots of data. In the qualitative research world, we do this through synthesis. As Kolko states, “…Synthesis is a sense making process that helps the designer move from data to information, and from information to knowledge.” (Kolko, pg. 40)

Now that I’ve laid out some of the thinking I have been doing on what kind of designer I want to be, I will speak about the story I will present below. As I reflected on the articles, the idea of play stood out.  When humans play, they are doing, creating, and revealing truths about themselves they would not in a rational state of mind. Thus, I centered my story on three individuals, Marvin, Kolko and Sanders. Marvin is lonely and wants to play. Kolko shows up and stimulated by an artifact (a stick), their unconscious desire to fight is acted upon. Sanders shows up and stops them. She works with the boys to co-create another solution to helping them all feel included. They synthesize this information and come up with an insight: they all want to play in a treehouse. I believe within these simple interactions I summarized the above points: the kids innovate changing their lived experience, co-create, play, imagine, and act as a designer should.

Value comic-01 Assignment 2-02 Value comic-03 Value comic-04




Where’s the value? Or how I got lost in the haze.

As a student at the Austin Center for Design in his first quarter, I am learning how to practice design research. Design research is a process for uncovering opportunities for innovation within complex human-based systems. As fledgling design researchers, my class was tasked with understanding the animal product value chain within Austin. My team decided to narrow our focus to understanding the distribution chain between farmer and restaurant. We have been practicing ethnographic techniques for producing qualitative data – interviews, stories, photos, drawigs, and observations – which we will learn to synthesize later in the course. Practically speaking, this means my teammate and I have been traveling around Austin speaking to farmers, restauranteurs, a food distributor, a farmer educator, and a meat manager for a grocery store. We are attempting to get at how the distribution chain is experienced on the human level through the stories of the people that interact within the problem space on the day-to-day. We want to analyze the mundane in order to find something extraordinary and unexpected – to discover insights that are meaningful and actionable.

What my research looks like
What my research looks like

Just three weeks into the project and I am already swimming in data – transcripts of hour long conversations, physical and remembered images, sense experiences, participant constructed artifacts, my teammate’s perspective, and my own baggage – all of these bits and pieces contribute to how I am trying to make sense of the food distribution chain. I feel like my head is in a thick fog of information. Listening to how people make meaning of their work is endlessly fascinating and complex. So far, I am finding that to stay somewhat grounded, to stay focused on what I am researching, I look for themes that connect all my disparate experiences. (Even though the teacher practitioners keep reminding the students not to make sense of the data right now. That’s what we will do during the synthesis phase.)

In fact, as I write this blog entry, a clear theme starts to emerge: how the food value chain is co-constructed. The first interview my teammate and I conducted took place on a local farm. We were led on a tour by an energetic and industrious farmer who is just as passionate about the feel of healthy soil as she is in talking to potential future farmers at the local elementary schools. She consistently returned to where she finds value – in keeping the community healthy through nutritious food. She has been committed to farming for years sustained by the beliefs like that when a mustard green is bitter enough, it will help consumers eventually avoid hefty medical expenses that consuming non-nutritious food will lead to. One of the most salient moments happen when she plucked two pods of okra and urged us to eat it.

And so, we did.

Lovely okra

Much like Proust’s madeleine, as I tasted the okra, I got lost in memories. Though unlike when Proust was brought back to his childhood at first taste, I got lost in memories I never participated in. They were the memories of the local landscapers that contributed to the compost on the farm that ultimately led to healthy bacteria rich soil. They were the memories of the decades of love that the owners of the land had put into tilling the land, the necessarily accurate data collection, and 20 year long relationships between the farm and community that support the farm keeping in operation. This bite of okra represents how rich the ethnographic research experience is. I get to experience first hand the product value chain.

And then, as my teammate and I meet other actors along the value chain, we learn about how  they contribute to the flow of value from the nutrient rich soil and eventually to the plates of (discriminating? – need to research) consumers.

In the abstract, value is easily translated into monetary terms — how much something is worth in dollars and cents tells the world how much it should be valued. And this perception then reinforces itself – if today I paid x amount for a carrot, I demand that tomorrow that price remain stable. Yet, as my team has worked its way through the value chain of food, we have discovered other forms of value from the perspective of the humans who interact with the product before it lands in front of the customer – rich relationships between a food distributor and the farmers he trusts to work with (he often gets lost in conversation on his pick up route as he gabs with the farmers he has been working with) and the restauranteur at a high end restaurant who pridefully lists all of the vegetables local farmers are currently harvesting (because to excel in the farm-to-table market you “gotta be in the game”).

As my team and I move forward in our research, I start to see gaps in our information. How do customers perceive value? Why do they choose to eat the way they do? How does distribution support or inhibit the value chain? Where are there disruptions that may lead to a monetary devaluing of products? How can the perceptions of food providers contribute to or inhibit more sustainable farming practices and fair exchange?

Design in society

In my first assignment for Design, Society and the Public Sector, I summarized six design theorists through a story about aliens that visit earth to bring back knowledge to their dying planet.

As they speak with a wise person, the aliens make idealistic statements based on rumors they’ve heard about the good life of earthlings. The wise person responds to each statement with concepts that expose a reality of living on our planet. Each one is also accompanied by a quote from one of the theorists. I believe that when the reader makes sense of the three components of each panel (statement, concept, and quote), they will get the gist of each author.

Ultimately, creating this comic provided me with the opportunity to synthesize the six authors and begin to develop my own stance on what it means to be an ethical design.

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