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?