Buzz Mill Research: Stories from the Field

Research Team: Shelly Stallings, Sara Miller, Kay Wyman

Over the past three weeks, our team has been creating and executing a process of obtaining research data through contextual inquiry at the local business Buzz Mill Coffee Shop. And what a whirlwind it has been. This is an update on what that process has looked like and some of our discoveries after presenting some stories form the field to the business.

A slide form our presentation "Buzz Mill: Stories from the Field"
A slide form our presentation “Buzz Mill: Stories from the Field”

Our group partnered with Buzz Mill to conduct a service design study. Our first step was to understand a bit about the business. We did this by reading through content on their website as well as visiting and spending time in the space.

From there, we created a focus statement for our research, which centered around how Buzz Mill cultivates community through an organization they’ve developed called Lumber Society. We worked to identify individuals we planned to interview, developed a series of questions that would invoke an understanding of their experience, and reached out to them individually, through email, text (obtaining their numbers through friends at Buzz Mill), or simply approaching them at an event.

We began interviewing folks and realized through our conversations that a sense of community and its value to folks at Buzz Mill extended beyond the Lumber Society. At that point, we changed our focus statement to be a bit more broad, now focusing on how Buzz Mill cultivates community and how people at Buzz Mill experience that community. We also broadened the audience to whom we would reach out and adjusted our questions to have a less narrow focus.

This provided some wonderful data that we have been collecting over the past three weeks by spending many hours at Buzz Mill observing interaction in the space and interviewing 18 individuals. Those individuals were a mixture of patrons and staff (10 of which were patrons, 8 of which were employed by Buzz Mill) spread between their San Marcos and their Austin locations.

Today, we presented our progress to the owner and another member of upper management. Below is one of our stories from the field:

Meet – Olivia!

User Interview PresentationShe has a background in the service industry and has been working at Buzz Mill a few years.

User Interview Presentation copy

Olivia obviously likes her job and feels connected to the people there. 

When asked to describe Buzz Mill to someone who has never heard of it, she says:

User Interview Presentation-2


User Interview Presentation-2 copy

It’s clear that Olivia gets a sense of comfort and well-being when she is at Buzz Mill. When asked what her best moment at Buzz Mill was, she responded:

User Interview Presentation-2 copy 2

User Interview Presentation copy 3

Buzz Mill values and supports its staff going out and doing things that combine their passions and affecting positive change in the world, which they refer as a person’s Purpose Parallel. The owner, Jason, sits down with each member of his staff and has a long discussion to help them develop their unique strengths and interests.

We asked Olivia what her Purpose Parallel is and she had some difficulty articulating it. 

User Interview Presentation copy 4

User Interview Presentation copy 5

Later in our conversation, however, Olivia did open up on working towards an artistic passion and explained how the community at Buzz Mill was instrumental in furthering her personal goals:

User Interview Presentation copy 2

We can see that the Buzz Mill community positively influences Olivia’s life nearly every day.

After this experience, we have many learnings and are excited to get started on the next stages of our design process.

Presenting our "Stories from the Field" to the owner of Buzz Mill
Presenting our “Stories from the Field” to the owner of Buzz Mill

For our presentation, we decided on a format that presented personas for each of the 18 individuals we spoke with, and chose to focus on telling the stories of four. We found it difficult to par down the stories of these four individual’s into a couple quotes. We tried to choose quotes that captured the essence of an individual and were not taken out of context. However, because people most often speak from stream on conscious in interviews, this required making some judgments, of which there is not necessarily a “right” choice. This uncertainty of not knowing is something we each intend on getting more comfortable with over time in order to save time oscillating over “what’s best” and just try putting it together in a story or deck.

That said, we found working as a team in this process was invaluable. As we began to consider how to format our presentation, we printed out photos and all our transcribed utterances from the interviews we conducted and individually considered quotes and photos that captured the essence of an individual we spoke with. Once these were chosen, we shared with one another our thought process in choosing these moments in the conversations as valuable. In this, we were able to critique and challenge one another and were able to create stronger, more compelling and consistent stories because of it. Something a couple of us identified wanting improve upon is communicating our ideas and the reasoning behind our choices.

Human nature can make it hard to let go of personal ideas of how something should be done. While often we were able to talk through things in this process and come to a consensus, there were times, especially as time got short, that we each had to compromise to move the greater process along. This felt like an issue of both an attitude (one that needed more openness potentially) and time.

We also learned much from the reactions of the business leaders to our presentation. In this regard, the format appeared to be successful. They understood the depth of our conversations by the depth of the stories we told but also the breadth of our research as we presented all 18 personas to them.

In our process, we attempted to pull out quotes or part of stories that suggested a divergence from the way the business hoped people were experiencing things. While we may have been successful in that, the individuals we told stories about seemed to be ones they were familiar with, whether by knowing that persona or guessing the actual person. There was almost an expectation that they would hear stories that were brand new, even if there was knew information in the stories that we told. And in that way, we may have disappointed.

This poses two questions to consider: could we have done a better job of choosing stories? And could we have done a better job of choosing quotes that communicated the value of their experience?

Regardless, this is been a wonderful experience with much to reflect and iterate upon in the coming weeks!


All Design Begins with Research

Our latest tussle with design theory had us examine the role of research in design. If we break up the design process into component parts, research sits at the very beginning, and thus influences everything that comes after.

As designers, we will often be challenged to explain how our design process works and why it has value. At a glance, observing the behavior of a small group of individuals does not seem like like a rigorous approach that could lead to valuable design solutions. It is our job to understand and communicate how the design process is different from market research and the scientific method, while also providing insights those two approaches cannot reach.

Our class read and discussed articles from the eight authors below, and each author posited a view on how designers should think about research in design.

Paul Dourish
– Asserts a conceptual theory for designers
– Context is dynamic and complex
– Designs for designers
– Can test if a technology is responsive to chaining social settings

Chris Le Dantec
– Design needs ambiguity and interpretation
– Designs with people using Participatory Design
– Subjective results due to designer’s insights and interpretation

William Gaver
– Focuses on designs that evoke pleasure
– Design research is about inspiration for the designer
– Uses Cultural Probes
– Subjective results due to designer’s interpretation

Jodi Forlizzi
– Creates a formalized research framework for designers to follow
– Subjective results as designer’s decide which methods to use

Liz Sanders
– Values co-creation in social impact projects
– Social design should include all stakeholders
– Subjective results are dependent on people’s needs and inspiration

Jane Suri
– Advocates for a variety of research approaches to understand users
– Approaches focus on the designer’s experience

Don Norman
– Technology drives innovation
– The role of design research is o make incremental adjustments
– Designers respond to user demand
– Objective results as design products are either adopted or, otherwise, fail

Jon Kolko
– The role of design research is to assist the designer
– Design for people using mainly observational methods
– Subjective results rely on designer’s inspiration

Phew! – That was a lot to get through! The reading was heavy at times, but very rewarding.

We were asked to synthesize the authors’ views and represent them in a diagram with one axis labeled “Design for / Design with” and the other axis labeled any way we choose. I labeled my y axis with Objective Results and Subjective Results. You can see how I plotted each author below:

Author views on how they work with people in research and the results they can expect.
Author views on how they work with people in research and the results they can expect.


As I examined my placement for each author, I started to think about what their quadrant represented.

In the first quadrant, Norman and Dourish represent the role of designer as a Genius-Creator – someone who builds things that are objectively useful to people.

The second quadrant is empty, but would represent the designer as an Educator – someone who teaches the “right” way to design for particular results.

The third quadrant holds Forlizzi, Kolko, and Suri, who represent the role fo the designer as an Autocrat – someone who knows what’s best for the people.

And finally, the fourth quadrant houses Gaver, Le Dantec, and Sanders, who view the role fo the designer as a facilitator – someone who guides the process of, more or less, co-creation.

My main takeaway from this section of readings is an “ah-hah” moment when I realized that Kolko had synthesized all of the other authors’ views, neatly explaining that the value of design research is that it leads to unique insights about people. While the engineer and the marketer bring predictions about how people might behave, the designer can give insight into why people interact as they do.

Slow Learner

As our third week in the program is in it’s final hour, I am reflecting on several of my failures so far. Until this week, we had been learning about expectations, tools, and experimenting with research to see what works. Now that I have a foundation for what we ought to be doing, its possible to discern where I’ve gone wrong. I think it’s helpful to do some reflecting on what went sideways in order to, hopefully, correct course a bit for this week.

As I sat down to write this blog post, I was embarrassed to discover that the post I wrote last week had not been published, only saved. Arg! What a rookie mistake. At least the blog post was appropriately titled “The Struggle is in the Details.” It is my objective to become more organized and meticulous over the course of this program. I think that I currently lack the mental checklist for what’s important and I hope that will develop over time as I practice and notice my mistakes. Publishing blog post and checking how it looks – check!

In our Studio Foundations class yesterday, Pat Marsh elucidated expectations for how work is to be presented. I have always treated drawing as a means to develop my own skill, and usually ignored presentation. My work is a bit messy, with several sketches to a page no regard to composition if I am just practicing sketching. I haphazardly label pages and draw on anything, which means I have handed in ripped paper. It hit me today that presentation of work is just as important as what’s on the page when you’re trying to communicate an idea. I’ll work on developing a neater labelling method and create more full-page sketches, while considering composition on practice pages. Below are a few sketches from our 2-point perspective assignment.

My Daily Object drawing with 2-point perspective boxes
My Daily Object drawing with 2-point perspective boxes


Imagined scenes in 2-point perspective
Imagined scenes in 2-point perspective

Moving forward, I’ll keep working towards increasing the quality of presentation for everything I create.

The Struggle is in the Details

(Week 2)

This week our our coursework began to feel deeper and more demanding. We started conducting interviews for our research projects, had over 2,000 shapes to draw, and put together a presentation on some heady material on ethics in design. While the work is challenging and takes time to complete, I can clearly see that my education is all about what I put into it. It is entirely possible to do what is asked, but to do it well is to struggle for a long time in a mire of details.

While conducting interviews at Buzz Mill with my team, coordinating times to go out and do the research took a lot of effort, and there was no guarantee that our target users would even be present, much less want to speak to us. After conducting some interviews and seeing a need for improvement in our approach, we are still refining our focus statement and our scripts. We could just go out and try to interview people on the fly with what we have, but my team really wants to dig in with good questions and we know it is important for later parts of the design process that our interviewees are given similar stimuli, so that they are speaking about similar topics. We had a scare when, after one evening at a Buzz Mill event, we though we had lost all of our audio recordings due to an improper setting on the app we were using. While we were all lamenting the loss of our best data yet, we figured out that it had been uploaded to a cloud location and was saved. **Pheeew!** We will be doubling up our audio recorders and checking settings (as originally instructed by Jon and Matt) from now on!

My presentation for our theory class was also bogged down by not understanding some digital tools. So far, I have felt confident and engaged with the theory material. However, the presentation required a simple graph, and I had never any design toolkit other than Photoshop. So a few simple lines and words took me awhile to put together using Sketch for the first time. I felt the simple graph was a great way to start understanding how to use Sketch, but I will definitely need to give myself a few hours with the software for the next assignment.

Ultimately, I feel good about the work I did this past week, but I wish I had spent more time on most everything. I think most assignments so far have been straight-forward, but actually doing the work unveils new blunders, queries, and unforeseen obstacles.

Critical Dialogue in the Ethics of Design

When we first approach the idea of design, we view it through a narrow and often extremely subjective lens. Through design thinking, we widen the scope of our understanding to find not only new, but “good” design solutions.

But how do we know what the criteria is for “good?”

After reading selections from five prominent theorists on the role of design in society, one can see a clear delineation in how each author treats ethical constraints:

Victor Papanek, writing in 1971, believes that the current conditions of the world demands social conscientiousness in all design. He promotes thinking forward and pointing design toward moral outcomes and views industrial design as an inherently harmful practice as it has the capacity to do the most damage to people and environments.

John Dewey has a more abstract and less doom-filled prescription for design. He believes that anyone in the business of creating experiences should take an individuals particular circumstances into account when designing that experience and make sure to only promote personal growth and inner resilience.

Neil Postman, in a bid to influence how we think about technology, urges us to consider how ineffective science is at soothing a troubled soul. He cautions enthusiasts of tech to look at the unforeseen consequences of major scientific advancements and question if technology can do anything to positively affect the human condition.

Maurizio Vitta is a bit more middle fo the road with ethics. He believes that things designers create often become more of social symbols than meaningful or useful objects. A Casio watch, for instance, tells time just as well as a Rolex, but they have different social significance. Vitta encourages designers to be aware that they have some power to influence culture, but it is the nature of the creation of products for that power to become trivial.

And lastly, we have Edward Bernays, nephew to Sigmund Freud and father of the modern field of public relations. Bernays argues, perhaps disingenuously, that people are rational creatures with complete free will, and therefore, all tactics to manipulate them on a large scale are just fine. The individuals will gain insight from all kinds of ideas, and will be able to decide for themselves what is ethical and what is not. Therefore, a designer’s only responsibility is to be persuasive.

Below is a diagram showing how these five prominent thinkers view ethics as applied to design.
Ethical Boundaries in Design

Applied Philosophy: The Work Begins

When I began examining design thinking, everything I read and heard resounded within me like an affirmation of my personal philosophy. However, my understanding of design is primarily intellectual, so the real work of design is a new experience for me. While orientation week was a bootcamp that introduced us to the design process, there was always a sense that the timeframe was so crazy, nothing truly meaningful would be created.

This past week we began a deeper search for the roots of design thinking, and the real work began. In our methodology course, Interaction Design Research and Synthesis, we were challenged to find a local business with humanitarian goals to approach, pitch a service design project, and convince to pay our group at least $1000 for our ideas. Shelly Stallings, Sara Miller, and myself approached about eight businesses, some in person, and some per email. We only had three days to secure a “yes,” write a research plan, and create a short presentation of our plan. After getting a green-ish-yellow light from PelotonU, a startup working to make college degrees accessible for non-traditional students (isn’t that most people these days?), we committed to crafting our research plan and presentation around them. On a call last Friday, it became clear that they are undergoing some internal reassessments, and could not begin work with us right away. Our group received low marks for not clearly setting client expectations up front, which helped me to see that we’d need to craft a clearer message next time. We needed to regroup and find a new business!

Thankfully, Sara had reached out to Buzzmill, an initiative that strives to cultivate community, and happens to take the form of a 24-hour cafe. We need to rewrite the research plan and begin research and interviews immediately. I know the timeframe for gathering data is extremely constrained – and we are already behind. We will need to be cognizant and efficient with time.


I made a calendar for our group to keep track of progress goals and deadlines.

Our next class, Design, Society, and the Public Sector, focuses on the theoretical underpinnings of design as applied to wicked problems. This weeks readings discussed the role of the designer in society, with some authors arguing that designers should work for a higher cause than just the aesthetic , while one, Edward Bernays, argues that swaying public opinion is a good act because it provides a perspective to be compared to all others; it is the responsibility of the individual to decide what is right and moral. This heady examination of theory is a comfortable realm for me, but the synthesis of ideas is challenging, and we are tasked with explaining our results in one black and white slide, ranking each idea according to importance on a single axis graph by Thursday.

Our third class for the quarter is a studio foundations course focused on sketching techniques that both “communicate and recruit others to your vision of the future.” This is a powerful way to explain the purpose of sketching, which is to clearly exhibit an idea in narrative form, that makes people excited about it. We practiced simple lines and shapes, as well as very simplistic figures doing various activities and conveying emotion and individualism with minimal details.


A snapshot of my sketches of stick-figures

 I think I spent the most time on assignments for this class over the weekend, which means that I am almost finished with this week’s homework, and that I have not spent enough time on my other, more pressing coursework. When drawing, I reach a sort of meditative state, and I can focus for hours. I used to say that drawing to me is like taking Adderall, where I go deep into the process and it is difficult for me to switch over to anything else. I’m glad to be drawing again, but I see I will need all of my time management skills to keep the other work in focus.

How to make a teamwork sandwich

This week several of us reflected together over beers and margaritas on the topic of teamwork – what it meant this week, and our ideas on how to work together moving forward – in the form of a podcast.

With Christina Davis, Cristina Suazo, Kay Wyman, Catherine Woodiwiss

Moderated by Adam Niederpruem

Driving toward the Minimum Viable Product without breaking down

So far our orientation week has been about learning about process, listening to users, and mustering “design ideas” from the data. While a good deal of time and emotional effort went into those, we hadn’t had to lean far out from source material to create something and then justify it. But today we were tasked with collaborating to reach a goal far away from the data. Things got messy.

Picking an idea: COMMITMENT

When Pat started talking about sketching and storyboarding, the general mood was almost playful. The really tough part came when we had to go back to our walls of ideas on sticky-notes and pick just FIVE to sketch. Our group had a slow start because we could not decide on a method for choosing the “best ideas.” I see now where time-boxing is helpful, a term of which I had not heard until last Monday. It seems the design process does not have to be democratic, just open to all opinions and favorable to better ones. Since there were lot’s of ideas to go through, it might have been easier if we had each picked three favorites (ours or otherwise) and then compared those as a group to get down to five.


Next we had to whittle down our five sketches to one idea to storyboard. This was hard both because we each had an attachment to the ideas we had chosen to sketch, and because we all had to have a vision of a product we would hypothetically want to build. Scenes were already filling storyboard pages in our minds. I think we decided on the sketch of “Metro Rewards” because we were running out of time and it seemed like the simplest concept. And isn’t simple good?

Minimum Viable Product: CONSENSUS

Emiliano gave us an overview of what Minimum Viable Product means and what it should mean to us. We should deliver something that gives value to users and tries to get value in return. It should be delightful or at least on the delightful side of the fence before releasing it into the world. Then he tasked us to think of the MVP for our storyboarded ideas and to ask ourselves what our greatest assumptions are. Our idea had seemed simple when we storyboarded it, but now we all had different conceptions of what the thing we were making was. We went around in debate about features and the core product, sometimes getting lost at why we were building it in the first place. The easiest thing to agree on was that we were making a bunch of assumptions.

Testing our assumptions: HUH?

Finally, it was time to come up with a way to test our biggest assumption… How do we do that? What makes a good test before building anything? Do we have to spend our own money on incentives? If we do this, will the data we receive mean anything? How will we know? I feet completely lost. This is a problem space where I swim in circles in a vast ocean. Our “simple” idea seems impossible to test without rigorous data on how people use the bus system. We will be in the field tomorrow with our script and our test to gather data to see if people will actually respond to our idea-products and then we will return for presentations and critiques. If I do not learn a good way to test our assumption, then I at least hope to understand any and all flaws in the test we will try.

Looking back, I think it would have been helpful for us to affirm the core question/problem that we started with from the prompt to the data at each step and level, so at least we’d have a guidepost for why the thing should exist and a criteria for measuring success. We have that, to an extent, but it feels vague to me. Maybe this is that vague space in which we are to accustom ourselves. Maybe this is just my new home.

Orientation: Day 2 – Reflections

Trying is much easier with permission to get things wrong. Jon Kolko and Ruby Ku have both impressed upon us the necessity and value of taking action when you do not know everything. Today’s field activity seemed an exercise in pushing ourselves into uncomfortable spaces while still performing and trying to understand the complexities of doing user interviews.

Jon began the day with a short lecture on the rise of design thinking in the corporate world and design strategy. He emphasized the need for empathy with user and ways to build it. While it is easy to define empathy, an understanding of the thoughts, feelings, or overall experience of others, it is a difficult thing to achieve purposefully. A positive connection to another human being does not necessarily mean one understands the other, and empathy can blossom from unexpected interactions.

Our group of four were tasked to hit the streets of Austin and interview people to figure out how they plan their route on public transportation. We were supposed to write down three possible locations to search for users and five open-ended questions. We spent a lot of time discussing where we should go to find concentrations of our target users, how we would get there, the kinds of people we might find there, whether they would be representative enough. Perhaps a pool of just bus users at one location would suffice to unearth insights into rout planning, so perhaps we worried a bit too much about getting all over the city. In actuality, we drove to a few locations to find enough people to interview, so we did get a geographic spread.

When we had discussed the questions to ask, we were not even sure if we should all have different questions or if uniformity of approach mattered. We wrote down mostly different questions, but they were similar in that they were geared towards teasing out information about the kinds of transport used, tools for route planning, and feelings around the experience of planning. As we spoke to more and more people, our approaches sort of melded and we usually just asked one or three questions from our cache and tried to follow relevant ideas the conversation.

Interviewing is hard! There are so many things of which to be aware and to guide. I walked up to people who seemed receptive (and a couple who didn’t). I requested an interview. I asked them questions. I asked them to explain. I repeated myself. I asked two to three questions at a time. I wasn’t aware of my body language. I felt a bit inauthentic when speaking with some people, most notably two young, tall MBA dudes who seemed uneasy and impatient with me. I tried to keep in mind that, since I am approaching a stranger on the street, the onus is on me to give them adequate information for both what I am doing and what I want from them, as well as to read them and try to put them at ease – but what puts people at ease?

I am grateful to my group-mates for their camaraderie and mutual support. We kept providing feedback to each other after each interview, and tried to refine the approach. If we did this tomorrow, I’d probably be just as clumsy. I think the point was to just start practicing and trying to notice all the things one should notice. When we returned to AC4D, Jon asked us all how we had tried to build empathy. I felt silly when we had to admit we had not gotten on a bus. :-/