School Food Lunchroom Research : A Reflection

In order to learn about the factors and actors influencing the school food menu planning process more in depth, the team decided to start interviewing the people that make things happen: school food staff.

We started with our first recommendation – KANE (*fictitious name) charter school and their school food staff. After we spoke with Laura, the Food Service Director, we felt that there were still some missing pieces. Struggles in the food service area – like regulations, refundable meals, participation rates, free or refundable meals, co-ops, TDA, USDA, counter-intuitive software tools – were things that showed significant and latent concerns, but had a scope too big to effectively conduct design research for. Where to begin?

We were stuck.

But we knew we were on to something.

So we decided to continue immersing ourselves into the KANE school system for most of our research, speaking with teaching staff, lunch room staff, students, parents, etc. As we honed in our research, we realized there is an opportunity to learn more about the experience of KANE’s school food service staff.

Which is where we first spoke to Martha.

Martha is an Executive Chef at KANE. The first day we talked to her for our contextual interview. She’s sitting at the table across from us, she has a bright compelling smile and an alert gaze, her phone is close to her at all times, “this is so important” she says, as she holds it up for us to see, communication, as in constant texting and phone calls between the Food Production Director and her, is key in her role – “that, and e-mails”. With every answer Martha gives, you can tell that she’s passionate about food, and not only that, but about the children that she cooks for every day.

“We’re feeding other people’s children”, she mentions. Her and her team need to have that in mind every time they design a menu. In her role, Martha’s goal is to provide enough options for kids in KANE to eat good food and develop healthy habits. Martha likes to believe that having children practice at making good food choices, will push them to make other good choices in life – “like going to college”. 

As the conversation unfolds during the contextual interview, we realize that most of Martha’s food related memories take her back to her childhood. Growing up in a Mexican home, bold flavors and textures that characterize traditional mexican dishes, are her everyday inspiration when creating menus. Martha believes that kids are more receptive when the meals her team makes have an eclectic flavor – most of the kids from KANE are from hispanic backgrounds – when this happens, the participation rate is usually higher. When the participation is up, Martha feels accomplished: That means kids have their bellies full. That also means that government refunds will be higher.

After we wrapped up our first conversation with Martha (we met a second time for a participatory research session a few days later), my interest for school food lunch programs grew bigger than it was before. Her passion for her work is compelling and evident. You could tell by the smiling look on her face when speaking about her daily struggle: to create a food menu that tastes good, looks attractive, is healthy, is easy to serve, makes kids happy, and is refundable.

All of this just made me wonder – are all Executive Chefs this passionate about what they do?

As we wrap up these two weeks of user interviews, there’s a couple of reflections about the methods we’ve used that I’d like to share:

After our first round of interviews, I learned not to start our research with such a broad focus. Challenges are always good, but not when you have such a tight time constraint. By starting with such a broad focus initially made us think that we could conquer the world and talk to everyone. But as the days went by, and agendas got synced, and recruiting calls not getting returned, we realized it was easier said than done. This is one of the underlying reasons that made us focus on KANE’s food service in particular, which has been pretty insightful on its own, but it would have been nice to have more time to interview and observe the comparable participants and systems in other schools.


When in darkness, follow the light


For our Design, Society and Public Sector class, we read articles by Donald Norman, Jon Kolko, Paul Dourish, Liz Sanders and Bill Gaver. The articles provided perspectives on the place design research has in innovation, and the importance of including end users to be – not only the subject of the research – but also a key collaborator in the activities that make part of the research methodology.

For this second assignment, we were tasked to illustrate in the form of a story, the key points of view of these five authors.



Norbert is a mechanic from the quiet and small village of Middletown. One day, right after dinner, he was working on his truck when he saw something fell from the sky.

He walked a couple of miles and reached a big crater. A huge meteorite had crashed and, with the impact, had burst into thousands of pieces. To Norbert’s surprise, around the crater left by the impact, he found a few pieces of branches and trunks that appeared to light up as if they were lamps, odd sound waves were also transmitted right when Norbert approached one of the branches. It appeared like when in contact with a piece of meteorite, a piece of wood would become energized and made it emit light and sound.

After a few tests and experiments, Norbert thought of designing some cool, never before seen musical instruments. He was convinced that the village would love his new inventions. He announced the news to the rest of Middletown and everyone seemed excited for his discovery but, much to his surprise, they had no interest in acquiring any of these instruments.



Donald Norman claims that technology comes first, designers and users assign meaning and use to it after, therefore, technologists are indispensable and drive revolutionary innovation. In the other hand, designers only drive incremental innovation by engaging with users at the end.

Dorbert, the village’s electrician and philosophy teacher was one of the few people that felt truly intrigued by the discovery – He was certain that a source of power like the one Norbert discovered could be of great use only if it was applied in a way that corresponds to the needs of the people in Middletown.

Dorbert decides to reach out to Kolbert, the village’s private detective.

Kolbert, the detective – throughout his lifetime, has learned that by immersing himself in a particular context and understanding the people’s struggles and motivations can, not only help define problems in a particular space, but also, help detect opportunities and potential areas of improvement. It is by doing this immersion and synthesizing his findings, that Kolbert discovers a particular insight that he had not been aware of: A large part of the Middletown population have to walk across the woods every night when coming back from the factory outside of their village. This made villagers feel anxious and paranoid.


Paul Dourish claims that it’s challenging to translate observations from participatory research into technical requirements, but elemental to adapt to an ever changing environment. Participatory research is helpful to get a sense of what should be taken into consideration when designing for a person’s context.

In “the Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation”, Kolko claims that it is by immersing oneself into an end user’s context, and focusing on gathering data related to the user’s behavior and emotion, that makes design research so valuable for innovation.

Inspired by Kolbert’s findings, the village’s government representative, Gabert, decided to reach out to several villagers. He asked 10 of them to draw and describe the favorite and least favorite part of their routine for one week. The results were interesting, and consistent with detective Kolbert’s findings, most of the villagers’ least favorite part of the day had to do with their commute back from the factory . With these artifacts the villagers handed to him, Gabert was able to familiarize himself better with the people from Middletown and get a bigger understanding of needs that were not being met involving their commute to their village from work.


Designers engage end users to participate in activities that help them visually document their environments, interactions and relationships. With these probes in hand, designers gain empathy for their users and, according to Gaver, are able to “predict with confidence which systems (their users) might prefer”.


During his immersion, Kolbert was able to empathize with the villagers as they walked back from work every day for a week. Listening to ominous sounds and screams, and darkness so absolute, no torch could light up more than a couple of inches out. On the same note, with his artifacts, Gabert was able to get a sense of what the villagers inherently hoped and wished for: a feeling of safety when walking back home from the factory.

With all of these findings at hand, Lizbert, the village’s architect, brought 10 other villagers together for a creative session. By having everyone ask themselves “How can we improve the commute experience for Middletown villagers when walking back home from work?” Lizbert tasked the villagers to describe how their ideal commute to the factory looked like. “Safe”, “light”, “comfort”, were just a few of the words that villagers came up with when describing their ideal road.




According to Liz Sanders, people are creative beings and seek an outlet to express their creativity in diverse ways.Continuously involving end users in the design process gives room to uncover problems that users didn’t perceive as a need or opportunity before. This makes the collective design process more engaging and precious.

Dorbert, who was part of these creative sessions, suggested how these findings could be addressed by Norbert’s newly discovered source of light. By applying an array of purple meteorites to the roots of the trees surrounding the walk to the factory and back, the trees will light up the path, providing a sense of security for factory workers, and the beautiful music coming from the trunks will numb down the ominous sounds coming from the rest of the forest.



Creative collaborative techniques and a deep analysis of a community’s way of life, which are methodologies used in design research, helped Middletown villagers improve an aspect of their daily lives that they were so used to, they forgot it was a daily nuisance. This is how Middletown used design to follow the light while being in the dark.



School Lunch Menus: Future à la Carte

There’s this special kind of feeling when someone hands you over a brief for a design project. Personally I can describe it as a mixture between anxiety and excitement. You read the topic and you already start thinking about what you’re going to do – products, tools, materials, interactions, branding? But, when you’re learning how to conduct design research, you need to remember to take a step back – your experience is not the only one that counts, therefore, your solutions are probably lacking some serious intervention from the outside in.

Set the table

And then your mentors hand you over your research topic: “Animal Food Value Chain” – think about it. So simple and yet so complex. We could even say that our lives have evolved around and thanks to this topic, and therefore, so many systems have been created due to the need and demand of animals and food.

To narrow down the possibilities and create our focus, each member of the team raised the questions that immediately came to mind, and with affinity diagramming we created patterns that slowly started taking us to a potential area of focus:

What are the factors and actors that influence school menu planning specifically around animal based food products.

The interest was there, we all consider that a healthy diet is key to a good academic performance. But we’ve also learned that various perspectives of what a healthy diet should look like differ from context to context, priorities to priorities. But after we discussed enough about what we know or what we think, it was time to hand the microphone to humans in a school setting.


Tell me about yourself…

When conducting a contextual inquiry, you approach someone and your intention is to know how to talk to them, so that they can tell you their story as it relates to a subject in particular; they’re in their space (be it work, home or car) and you’re there to learn from them. Your conversation has a goal – you want to know what a person in particular has experienced that will guide you closer to uncovering a problem.

So we went on a Contextual Inquiry adventure and approached an Austin charter school’s food service staff – that was Laura, or the coolest Food Service Director that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing- and believe it or not, we didn’t talk about food half the time.

So far, we have discovered that school food staff not only works with the common goal of feeding children healthy and delicious food to warm their hearts and give them energy. Their goal is to instill them good eating habits and taking them away from potential metabolic diseases that are related to bad eating practices. Their goal is to empower students at a young age, and guide them towards reasonable decision making so that they can continue pursuing good choices and do so all their way to college and adulthood. They think about the children’s future and they cook with that in mind.

What about the beef stroganoff?

Creativity is the fuel of makers, artists, designers, performers, chefs, etc. We’ve learned that cooking might sound fun for some, but it can become quite complex and can even inhibit your creativity when you have to work under so many constraints and government regulations. Laura and her staff seem deeply passionate about what they do. If they could improve the service, they would buy all locally sourced food, they would have more vegetables and fruits for children, and make the serving bar lower so that the little kiddos can have a good look at their bright colors and choose the one they like.

So far, exhaustive and tedious processes make Laura’s job less enjoyable than she would like it to be. We wanted to uncover what were the factors and actors that influence school menu planning specifically around animal based foods? We have gotten our answer fairly quickly. Now the question is, who are we designing for?

Potential of Design in Society: Pixie the Traveler

In Jon Kolko’s Design, Society and the Public Sector class, we aim to study the theory behind the social and ethical responsibility of design. We do this by reading the works of several philosophers, design theorists and design practitioners, like John Dewey, Edward Bernays, Maurizio Vitta, Victor Margolin, Emily Pilloton and Michael Hobbes, and interpret their point of view as it relates to the role of design in society.

Our first assignment was to illustrate these six author’s main positions in the form of a story.

I chose to do this through the story of Pixie the traveler:


In a fiction planet, Pixie is a young traveler that wants to know everything about her world. She is a teacher, so whenever she has time, she will go and visit new places. She’s visited hundreds of places, and met wonderful people, languages, cultures and food.

Until one day,

Pixie went down a beautiful mountain and arrived to the land of the Sepan. Sepanese didn’t greet her like Pixie would normally get greeted in other parts she had been. Some of them hid, others looked curious, others panicked, they clearly did not know what to do with this creature that suddenly appeared from the top of the mountain, a mountain that they’ve never tried to cross before.

With a few clues, Pixie was able to figure out what was going on; the Sepanese were made to believe by their long gone leader that they were the only people left on earth. Seeing someone new that wasn’t part of their hundred year old community was not an easy thing to process for them.

Pixie unveiled the truth to them, she showed them pictures of what she had seen past the Sepanese mountains, she tried to play music they’ve never heard of and tried to cook things for them that they’ve never tasted before.

Education is an elemental tool for those who seek the wellbeing of society as a whole. In “The Need of a Theory of Experience John Dewey states that it is only when an individual learns about the world by experiencing it that he can then look forward to become the best version of himself and therefore, better contribute to society. In “The Why & the How” Bernays mentions that society tends to get attached to retrogressive habits, which is why we’re most likely to need a dramatic intervention of a new idea in our lives to get our minds wondering about things we’ve never experienced or thought of before. Both authors illustrate two dissimilar but connected perspectives, if we theorize that there are two types of individuals in the world, those that opt to know the world by genuinely experiencing it, and those that are ok with grasping a summarized version of the world that was previously prescribed to them. According to Dewey, teachers that are given freedom in the classroom to keep their students engaged and that have an understanding of human behavior can better prepare a student to give back to their society and, to Bernay’s point, give them tools that allow them to self-express and therefore, safeguard themselves against any sort of tyranny.

IDSE102-Assignment1 5-8

For her following crusade, Pixie is joined by a Sepanese friend who is curious about the world. They travel the world together after a long journey, Pixie and her new Sepanese friend, Nan, stumbled upon a landfill of artifacts and a river of what looked like unused gadgets. Without knowing it, they had arrived to the land of the Coseeks.

The Coseeks were well known for always being up to date with the latest technology, but this made them lose sense of what was real and valuable. Huge billboard size screens showing beautiful but artificial landscapes would cover the garbage landfills giving the impression that they were in a harmonious environment.

Also curious about their new guest’s culture around objects – which they clearly lack – Cron, a Coseeker, decides to join them in their final part of their journey.

Society has given more value to physical objects, setting aside the initial intention of function and adding unnecessary features and elements that “allow” the individual to project their sense of self. But this is not without consequence. In “The Meaning of Design” and “Design and the World Situation” there’s a connection between Vitta and Margolin’s point of view as it relates to society’s current state of mass consumption. Designer’s practice appears to have become “inadequate and ineffective” and calls for a culture change in the design practice in order to start investing in a “social change” in order to “make possible a different and more balanced relationship with things”. Ideally, the once product designer then becomes a system designer, evolving his current practice from designing vehicles of communication to designing systems based on complex problems. Designing in the intersection between a system of abstention and a system of capitalism, seeking to integrate human beings into a broader more ecological and cultural environments.  IDSE102-Assignment1 9 - 10

While experiencing the things and situations that life has to offer, Pixie was able to positively impact the life of her two new friends. Being almost opposites, Nan and Cron traveled and saw the world through Pixie’s eyes. Their minds grew bigger and their ideas as well. After their travel abroad, all their learning experiences, Pixie, Nan and Cron felt inspired and decided to go back to their own communities and share their experiences, cultivate their kin and their community. There are certainly things that could be improved there, if only they could see what they’ve seen.

A thorough analysis on the users that are meant to use a product before even start to design it is not enough, pervasiveness is what keeps the implementation of your design alive. This is where both Pilloton and Hobbes’ point of view intersect as they refer to design as a practice that should be scalable – concentrating in one place, “cultivating ecosystems rather than plant single trees” and “test models constantly”. This goes back to Margolin’s call out to designers suggesting that they need not only to design products but consider the entire system when they do so. Design’s potential to address complex problems has become a great vehicle to connect entire societies, share their knowledge, and become a stronger ecosystem together.