How Important are You? A Question of Value.

Research Focus: We aim to understand how Austin area farmers and ranchers get products to market. Specifically, we will explore how farmers and restaurants communicate with each other through touch-points along the food distribution chain.


It’s hard to remember all the people we actually speak to throughout the day. And even harder to assign value to those people. How important are they in my life? All of that of course depends on how you define value.

When we set about having farmers and restaurant folk track their communications, we wanted to get at their definition of importance by having them place the people they spoke to on a board accordingly. The closer to the center they placed the person, the more important. I assumed they would define importance by level of monetary value the person contributed to their business. In this I was right, and I was also wrong. What came out was that apart from monetary gain, sometimes a person is important because of the way they make you feel.

My research partner and I conducted this activity with a farmer that we had already spent time with before named Joe.

Joe was in a bad mood that day. My research partner and I could tell from the moment we walked up he was on edge. Busy, aggravated. According to him, everyone was stupid or uneducated. It took some time before he sat down and did the planned activity with us, but eventually he did, and was very open about who he communicated with and which people he thought were awesome and which were annoying.

Joe likes to talk, and even though we spent 5 hours with him the week before listening to him rattle on, we never really saw him be vulnerable. The point of vulnerability is when a man’s true self can be seen. What we learned was, Joe is scared about his future. “This is the most unsustainable thing I could be doing. I have nothing going for me, we are all just pissing in the wind. I try not to think about it.” We were listening to a farmer that feels like he has no other options in the world except farming and doesn’t know how he could ever leave it. “I wish we could have a life. I don’t have a life. If you’re going to work all the time you got to do at least something enjoyable. At least I don’t have money going out the door.” The low pay paired with lack of expenses has kept him a prisoner to the farming world. He told us often how he loved his work, and we could see he felt some autonomy in his day to day, but love of labor has limits. “I work all day, sit on my porch, and get up the next day to work. This is all I can do now. I can hardly hardly support myself, how could I support a family and kids? That’s out of the question. I have nothing put ahead of me. My dad thinks I’m making a bad decision with what I’m doing. But he’s a knot head. I think I’ll be fine.”

The only other life he can imagine is one where he works at HEB, which is ultimately less appealing to him.

Hearing Joe talking makes me wondering if we’ve been missing something entirely. That it’s not communication with business relationships that’s important for a farmer. Maybe it’s communication with people that make them feel connected and valued as a person that they need, instead of like an outliner on society’s fringe.

“I literally don’t leave the farm except to market. I don’t really complain about it anymore. I’m better just staying here. The more I leave the more depressed it get with the world.” Joe’s energy had dropped a bit by the time we left him.

Moving forward with our research my partner and I want to look at a couple of things. First off, we are ditching an activity using images that we thought would be great, but didn’t land well with any other the participants we used it with. Secondly, we want to expand upon the activity that did work well and incorporate a new element that accounts for the amount of time our participants spend communicating with certain people. Hopefully this can help us better understand the trade offs they make throughout their day. Where do they sacrifice time from one activity to feed another? Lastly… we aren’t sure yet. It’s important for us understand the level of impact and influence these different players have on each other’s lives, but we haven’t defined the activity that will best lead to this insight yet.

And for Joe? The perceived problem of the food value chain is deeper than I first imagined. It’s not just helping farmers make money, moving food to market, convincing consumers to eat local, or even shedding light upon the value and commitment of the people working across the food chain. The problem is shifting power and human-beingness back into the system to the people that keep it afloat.

The Land of the Underlings

After reading 5 assigned articles in IDSE 102, our theory class, I spent some time pulling out ideas from the authors and pairing them with my own thoughts and questions surrounding their theories. From there I attempted to make connections between various statements and sentiments as I worked towards synthesizing all of this information. The result was the story you’ll find below, which is a highly interpreted children’s book style tale that reflects on value, innovation, models of thinking about the world and models of researching for design.

You’ll find my notes in red that point out some specific thoughts sparked by the authors, but I encourage you to create you own meaning from the story based upon your own understanding of design.

The Land of the Underlings

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Here are the articles referenced in the story:

The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation, Jon Kolko http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2A.kolko.pdf

Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf, Donald Norman http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2A.norman.pdf

Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty, William Gaver http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2B.gaver.pdf

A Social Vision for Value Co-creation in Design, Liz Sanders & George Simons http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2B.sanders.pdf

What we talk about when we talk about context, Paul Dourish http://www.ac4d.com/classes/102/2B.dourish.pdf

*Please note you’ll need the AC4D log in to access the articles

-Kaley Coffield

 

The Many Hats of Distribution Man

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Joe sat across from us in his the fluorescently lit office, his employees shifting products into boxes on the other side of his two windows. He leaned back, and rolled his eyes towards the ceiling as he thought about what he was going to say: “Let me tell you an anecdote, I won’t use any names.”

Joe is pretty much the only farm to table food distributer in central Texas. He got his start because he “wanted a life change” and he “likes food”, which feels like a simple and honest way to start a business.

“I used to bring food to this one restaurant guy” Joe’s story wove among his own thoughts of how to explain a thing to two earnest and unknowledgeable grad students. I scrambled to take notes, piecing his words together, while my research partner facilitated the interview with a stoic, yet curious face.

Joe proceed to tell us about how he lost business from one restaurant owner, because the man started buying his food straight from the farmer instead. He knew this because he would see the man at the Farmer’s Market buying directly from the same farmer he would deliver food for. The twist however, was that this restaurant owner ended up coming back to Joeohn, asking to do business again. The restaurant owner had experienced a series of food orders that he had throw out due to a less than perfect appearance of the veggies.

The restaurant owner ended up losing money, not saving, by bypassing the distributor. And he told Joe, “I know you won’t screw me” as his main catalyst for returning as a client.

Joe told his last part of the story with a hint of pride in his voice. It’s always nice to be the guy that provides value, the guy that can be trusted. However, what I learned from this story is that Joe has another role I didn’t realize before. Joe is the mediator between farmer and buyer, with the task of knowing the wants of the restaurant buyers, wants that are apparently unknown to many farmers. He wears the hats of Quality Assurance Guy, Interpreter, Supervisors, as well as Delivery Man.

There is more than a distance gap between the person on the farm and the person with the chef’s knife. There is a mentality disparity, with very few people acting to bridge the two ways of thought.

Joe, along with another person we spoke with on this topic, expressed the importance of educating farmers on how to work with restaurants. As though the concept of frequent communication and honest management of expectations was a foreign concept. The truth is, although most people (farmers and restaurant owners included), would tout the importance of effective communication, rarely it is executed well. And that can be said across multiple types of business and human transactions.

“You don’t sell a 7 pound zucchini to a restaurant, you give it to the pigs. Some farmers don’t get that.” Joe noted.

A farmer’s proximity to the earth gives them the attitude that all food from the rich soil is valuable. A restaurant owner’s proximity to the customer, breeds the attitude that food must be pretty. And a customer’s distance from the farm is what created the “pretty food” expectation in the first place.

The reason this anecdote was significant is because it caused a shift in my thinking. Distance, perhaps, is the ultimate communication barrier, because it provides the context from which we communicate. Even with all the technologies in the world to shrink the gap, none of them can account for the breakdown in communication that happens when two people are looking at the world through very different lenses.

This became the focus for our research project. We began listening for these invisible gaps in the food value chain that were hiding behind the multiple desires, value systems, and definitions of common words our participants shared with us.

“Distribution is key!” Joe repeated this last phrase. I think he is right, but for more reasons than the physical movement of food products. Distribution is key because the communication gap, not merely the distance gap, is still so large. Those moments of connection when food travels from one man’s hands into another’s is the opportunity for insight to pass between professions. And it’s these same moments of connection that my research partner and I aim to learn more about.

-Kaley

The Magician.

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When a young magician completes his studies, his is endowed with a sense of duty to create good. So he sets off into the world of people, and as it happens there are people with problems everywhere you go

He happens upon a group of people looking for food. Luckily, a magician is great a figuring out what the problem is immediately. Emily Pilloton warns, “you cannot design solutions for people who need them unless you fundamentally understand the problems,” but confident in his untested solution, he creates for them field and introduces the group to agriculture. 

What’s happened here can be summarized by Victor Margolin

  • We have a desire to help
  • Our experiences are framed in a value structure unique to our country
  • We try to drive change in a geographic area
  • We inadvertently or explicitly export our value structure

When the magician returns, he realizes that for some reason his solution didn’t stick. Maybe the people just didn’t “get it”. Luckily, he has a solution. As Bernays claims, all it takes is one small, powerful group to sway the larger public in its attitude towards ideas. And after all, this for their own good.

So he creates two influential leaders to guide them. Bernays says that anyone may try to convince others and to assume leadership on behalf of his own thesis. It is the power of the group to sway the larger public in its attitude towards ideas.  This is exactly what the two helpers do.

The first Helper teaches the people Margolin’s expansion model. He shows them that markets drive the world and the path towards happiness is the consumption of goods.

The second Helper believes in Margolin’s equilibrium model and teaches them that the world is a set of ecological checks and balances.

Allowing themselves to be influenced by these two flashy leaders, the people have what John Dewey would call, “miseducative experiences”. They learn a way to live, they learn a way to think about themselves, they learn what they should value, but they don’t learn to think for themselves. 

When the designer comes back, he sees collision and chaos.

Some of the people, influenced by the expansion model hustle get more and more things. They begin to identify with the these objects. A women is no longer a woman, but known as an estate owner after amassing an enormous field.

She’s fallen into an experience that Vitta would summarize by saying: “The individual is overwhelmingly surrounded by goods, constrained to use them only as a way to portray themselves to others”.

Other people, living under the equilibrium model are subject to their goods being taken. They starve and don’t know how to help themselves

The young designer is distressed to see his design cause such chaos and sadness.  His original solution created unintended consequences, just as Hobbes states: “When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected”. 

He falls into the pit of despair, and the people don’t know what to do. They have had a series of miseducative experiences through the teachings of the “Helpers”.

That is until…

His next idea!

Realizing that he never understood what these people needed in the first place, he decides to flip the script. The magician gives all the people their own wands. Then instead of leaving, as he was so apt to do in the past, he decides to stay. Taking Emily Pilloton’s advice he grows roots and strives to depth over breadth, and scattershot methods of “saving the world”.
The young designer, no longer the master and manipulator of the people, spends his days alongside them learning. They teach him how they live, and he develops deep relationships.