Design research: a reflection on field research and project work

Our team aims to learn about the factors and actors that influence school menu planning. We have an interest in animal-based food products, such as meat, seafood, pork, and dairy. At the start of the course, we learned from an expert with Greenfield Project, whose work includes advocating for sustainable livestock programs, the humane treatment of animals, and working to promote related government policy changes.

We chose institutional food services because it represents a significant opportunity to influence food purchasing and we thought that it might be a meaningful area for Greenfield Project. We narrowed our focus on K-12 school menu planning because of its connection to wicked problems (such as hunger, poverty, and education), and our desire to use design research to immerse ourselves within a specific cultural context.

Why design research?

The primary goal of design research is problem finding. Throughout our fieldwork, we’ve strived to:

  • Understand the various people involved with school menu planning and what they do, why they do it, and how they feel about it.
  • Cultivate empathy with our participants. This is an important component for me: as a married man who has chosen not to have children, as a professional who has spent 20 years in marketing and spending the majority of my time with other professionals, etc. So I have not spent much time before now thinking about school menus, childhood nutrition, etc.
  • Curate stories from our research findings and data to share with others.
  • Document data, artifacts, photos, etc. that will enable us to move into synthesis (problem understanding) at the appropriate time in the course so that we can make meaning from our research.

Our design research has been generative, and we have approached it with a beginner’s mindset. Our research methods in the field included:

  • In-depth and ad hoc interviews
  • Subject matter expert interviews
  • Contextual inquiry
  • Participatory
  • Secondary research

While we are still recruiting and completing interviews, I have a sense that the design research fieldwork has given us: insights to better define the problem and opportunity with school menu planning; inspiration to identify potential areas of opportunity for school menu planning; and, information assembled over a short period so that we can intelligently talk about school menu planning.

About a boy and his baked potato

Throughout our fieldwork, we’ve heard a variety of stories about creating, testing, and managing school menu programs. There are many constraints and limitations (such as federal, state, and local regulations, budget, facilities, staffing, software applications, nutrition, etc.) that people must manage with school menu programs. And of course, a component of school menu planning is children—their food desires, habits, and nutrition needs.

Working within those constraints can be a challenge. Laura (not real name) has been a chef for more than 18-years and has spent most of her career in restaurant and catering kitchens. After starting a family a few years ago, her interests in childhood nutrition took root and grew into her current role as the food services director for a large network of charter schools. She’s responsible for feeding thousands of children breakfast, lunch, and snack, and she manages an annual budget of more than $4M.

Laura loves to develop creative menu items. And for her, creativity means delicious and nutritious food that children will eat, that her staff can prepare within the allotted time and that her kitchen facilities can accommodate. One of her best resources for ideas is the student. It can be a challenge though—sometimes the ideas of students sound simple, but because of constraints she has a difficult time implementing their suggestions.

Once a young boy in first grade had an idea to share with Laura. She could tell that he had been thinking about this question for days (and perhaps weeks) as he mustered the courage to walk up to her and say, “Hi. You work in the school cafeteria, don’t you?” Laura leaned down to make eye contact as he went on, “I love baked potatoes. Why don’t we have them for lunch?” Laura was moved as they discussed the merits of baked potatoes and she learned more about other foods that he likes.

Laura went back to her office and set out to solve a problem: how might she add baked potatoes to the school menu? She goes on to tell us about the quandary: “It’s complicated. Let’s see, first I’ll need to source 2,000 whole potatoes, then wash the 2,000 potatoes, the staff will need to place 2,000 potatoes on cooking trays and bake them for the required time, and then the front of the house needs to keep them warm for serving,” and this list goes on.

It appears too complicated and time-consuming for the school kitchen. Laura seems crestfallen that she’s not able to include the beloved baked potato on her menu. After all, here’s a young student that wants to eat a vegetable and she’s faced with numerous constraints.

Laura’s still thinking about it months and months later: “how can I serve that brave little boy a baked potato?” There were wins along the way. She was able to add another of his suggestions (pizza fingers!). And yet, she’s still thinking about the little boy and his baked potato.

Lessons learned

  • Daily debrief. In class, we learned that daily debrief sessions allow team members to share early observations and highlights from the work they’ve done. During our planning stage, we committed to day-of and worse case, next day debrief sessions. With competing demands and the challenges of time management, we find ourselves with a backlog of debriefing sessions. The next time I will make daily debrief sessions a priority.
  • Preparation, preparation, preparation. We knew that we wanted to talk with students to learn about their experiences with school food programs and knew it would be difficult to get interviews. When an unexpected opportunity presented itself, we had not thoroughly prepared, so we improvised. Improvisation can be our friend and our worst enemy. The next time I will endeavor to be more prepared and practiced.
  • Show me more. During our planning and throughout fieldwork, as a team, we wanted to make data come alive with visual images to help us better understand the problem area and to share with others. We’ve completed several visual images (such as a model of the various actors involved with the problem area and sketches of the school cafeteria), and yet find ourselves with fewer images than we’d like as we near the completion of fieldwork and prepare for synthesis. The next time I will make creating visuals throughout fieldwork a priority.

Value and participatory research: only love and creativity can save the world

Value. It’s a word found across businesses, governments, and other organizations. Everyone is looking to create value or to find hidden value. There’s the value chain. And some industries, such as healthcare with a movement called value-based healthcare, are rebuilding their business models on the concept of value. The top three definitions of value from Merriam-Webster are the monetary worth of something; a fair return or equivalent in goods, services; and money for something exchanged, and relative worth, utility, or importance.

Value has been explored in depth recently in the Interaction Design, Society, and the Public Sector course taught by Jon Kolko at Austin Center for Design. Focusing on the role of research, Jon facilitated discussions centered on value (based on articles by Donald Norman, and Kolko) and participatory design (based on articles by Paul Dourish, William Gaver, and Liz Sanders).

On assignment

Our assignment was to identify the author’s point of view for different ways of doing research and engaging with users. From there, we were instructed to sketch a storyline that explains the positions in a story.

At the end of a recent blog post I asked a simple question: are designers the new superheroes? Since joining AC4D and learning more about the designer role and opportunity, the idea of designers as heroes has come to my mind. Heroes are an interesting archetype and in a world filled with wicked problems, it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine a need for the Justice League—with Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, and Flash—as designers.

Based on feedback from the last assignment, my objectives for the assignment were to go into more depth about the author’s intentions and, importantly, to improve the aesthetics of my Illustrator drawings.


Much like the word value, in chapter four of Exposing the Magic of Design, Jon Kolko recognizes that the word innovation has “crept into the vocabularies of executives….” It’s worth noting Jon’s definition of innovation for product development: “an innovative product is not simply new; it must be new and successful in the marketplace.”

He presents the pressing need for design research (problem finding) and design synthesis (problem understanding). Jon makes the case that design research may describe what to make, how to make it, and how it should feel or look. Jon argues that design research should focus on experiential, emotional, and personal aspects of culture. The goal of design research is to find inspiration for a design project. The goal of design synthesis is to describe the situation and ultimately translate opportunities into specific design criteria.

Jon also speaks to the challenges that designers face. The designer role is multifaceted: a designer should be able to think strategically and to design visuals or other tangible assets that evoke emotion. Designers are now expected to solve a problem and also to decide which problems should be solved. Sounds like a job for Superman!

In Donald Norman’s article, Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf, he puts limitations on what one can expect from design research. Norman contends that the significant technology innovations of civilization came from inventors who invent—not designers who research. “Design research is great when it comes to improving product categories, but essentially useless when it comes to breakthroughs.” As technology is invented and progresses, people discover value and products come second, and later needs.

That’s where Norman sees an opportunity for design research. He argues that ethnographic research can lead to an understanding of human behavior and that leads to uncovering human hacks that will suggest product modifications and improvements. While this limitation may seem narrow, history tells us how “flush toilets, indoor plumbing, electric lighting, automobiles…” were invented—technology revolution led by engineers, scientists, and inventors.

This doesn’t sound like a superhero opportunity!

Norman might not agree with that last statement. He recognizes that small, incremental innovation is the bread and butter of product management and organizations since they can lower costs, add features, make a product simpler and easier to use, solve user problems, and so on. Design research can lead to novel innovations and market success. Incremental innovation can be a slog because new ideas for product innovation are viewed as strange, can be politically unpopular, and they compete for scarce resources within an organization. Designers can help overcome these hurdles by telling stories and promoting value from the participant’s perspective.

Sounds like a job for Wonder Woman after all!

Participatory design

Liz Sanders, a co-author of A Social Value for Co-creation in Design, makes the case that all people are creative and seek outlets for creativity. What if we tap into that creativity to co-design with participants?

Sanders boldly positions that designers should do just that: move from the role of designing for users, to one of designing with users. She argues that co-design should exist across the life of the design process and describes four levels of creativity: doing, adapting, making, and creating. Sanders aspire to a design process that is for the longer-term, more humanistic, and more sustainable.

William Gaver, a co-author of Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty, takes Jon Kolko’s goal of design research, to find inspiration for design, to new heights by embracing interpretation, emotions, uncertainty, and subjectivity. Probes are “evocative tasks meant to elicit inspirational responses from people” that provide designers with inspiration, fodder for storytelling, and hidden information that may or may not be true.

And unlike the superhero Martian Manhunter who can read minds, Gaver’s recognizes and embraces that fact that even with Probes a designer cannot get inside of someone’s head. That’s okay by Gaver. It’s almost as if storytelling and inspiration from Probes activities may have the ability to transform a designer to an artist as they go about creating products and services.

In What We Talk About When We Talk About Context, Paul Dourish argues that context is more than a setting—it’s something people do. As an international computer scientist, he presses the case for ubiquitous computing, also known as context-aware computing. The idea is that “ubiquitous computing proposes a digital future in which computation is embedded into the fabric of the world around us.”

Dourish states that context is critical for understanding activity and information. He goes on to write, “…context and activity are mutually constitutive.” So for the designer, recognizing that context is a feature of interaction is central to our opportunity to understand the meanings that people find in the world and the meaning of their actions.

One last superhero reference. It sounds like Batman must have embraced context-aware computing when he developed his bat suit, the Batmobile, and more!

Designer tips

  • Use immersion perspectives focusing on human behavior to learn about opportunity and potential (Kolko)
  • Watch people (Norman)
  • Design with participants (Sanders)
  • Get inspired by participant’s subconscious (Gaver)
  • Understand context, the connections between context setting and activity, and how it’s constantly changing (Dourish)


As I reflect on the readings, several comments and questions come to mind as I take steps to becoming a designer.

  • Creativity as a high-wire act. Quantitative + qualitative + creative thinking = new and interesting ideas (Kolko). I’m inspired by the idea of designer as artist and research as inspiration for the artist (Gaver). If designers find problems, understand problems, and then take these insights to make things… How will I know when my artistic-side has jumped the shark? When does a designer transform from being a talented artist to one that cuts his ear off? How do I maintain balance?
  • Tell me a story. Throughout the articles, the importance of storytelling and the role of the designer kept coming up. And not just stories to sell ideas, gain empathy, etc. From gathering fodder to create stories, to being effective storytellers, and so on. How might I work to become a better storyteller (and writer of stories)?
  • Technology and design research. I don’t take too much issue with Norman’s argument about the history of civilization and technology. What if inventors and designers worked more closely together? If the goal of design research is to understand culture and human behavior, how might that put technology innovation on steroids?
  • Something new. Valuing co-creation is a shift in my thinking that occurred over the past few years. Before that, I was the typical business executive that thought he knew what our customers wanted… After all, I had been in the business for over 20-years, had worked alongside customers at the beginning of my career, etc. Co-creation is a rich area for design insights and inspiration. How might I include co-creation within my design practice?

Story: Justice League Designers

Value and Research, 1 of 8

Finding focus: are you my mother?

In the Interaction Design Research and Synthesis 101 course at Austin Center for Design, we are learning the methods of qualitative design research and synthesis used to study complex problems, such as technology, behavior, and society. As students, we are learning techniques and processes to gather data in the field, rigorously analyze that data, and gain insights, meaning, and trends.

Getting started and fumbling (in the dark seems harsh, but perhaps) along the way reminded me of the classic childhood book, “Are You My Mother” by P.D. Eastman. A mother bird goes off to find food for her unborn bird. Meanwhile, back at the nest, the egg “jumped and jumped. Until…” the little bird pops into the world and asks, “Where is my mother?” That was the start of the bird’s journey to meet a wide-variety of characters as he asked his burning question, “are you my mother?”

Are you my focus?

After learning our topic area—the value chain of food produced from animals—we strived to determine a focus for our project. In class, professor Lauren Serota highlighted that “focus is the point of view you take while conducting design research. The focus is an active perspective that helps you find the right people and ask the right questions. It’s an anchor for your research.”

Karen Holtzblatt wrote that a project focus is important because “it tells the research team what to pay attention to—of all the overwhelming detail available, what matters for the design problem at hand. Before starting a project, the team defines the problem to be solved, the users who are affected, the relevant activities and task, and the relevant situations and location.”

We used an affinity diagram, multiple iterations, and team discussions to land on our research focus: we aim to learn what factors and actors influence school menu planning particularly around animal-sourced food products.

Are you my problem?

We chose schools because there is an opportunity to make a difference today and tomorrow: institutional food programs represent a significant budget and related choices on how to spend it, and a child’s nutrition and relationship with food may set them on a path for their entire lives.

At this point in the research project, we are beginning to get overwhelmed with the sheer number of key players and influencers we have uncovered. For example, to name just several:

  • Administration: district-level, school principals, and leadership
  • School: teachers, nutrition, and food staff
  • Policy and finance: federal, state, and local government
  • Influencers: activists, NGOs, lobbyists, big money/business, etc.
  • Vendors: producers, suppliers, food commodity program
  • Key relationships: co-op procurement, nutritional associations

Our completed and pipeline interviews primarily draw on administration, school staff, and parents (and students) for contextual interviews, and influencers and vendors as the subject matter expert interviews.

As we begin to develop a plan to integrate participation design methodology, we find ourselves asking an important question: who is our customer? Due to the nature of the learning situation, we did not wrestle with that question earlier, so we have a luxury of being our customer. For our purposes, one could say that the customer—that we might co-create a solution with—is the food/nutrition staff such as the food director and executive chef whose roles are deeply embedded with school food services. With our broad list of factors and actors, the customer could be anyone.

You are not!

I find myself wondering if better criteria and focus would have helped the bird find his mother sooner. He spoke with cows, construction equipment, dogs, and more. At the same time, what would he have missed if he only asked animals with feathers? With that said, to understand the factors and actors of such a complex ecosystem like school food programs, a funnel type approach where we start broad and then quickly narrow might be the best approach.

“Yes, I know who you are,” said the baby bird. “You are not a kitten. You are not a hen. You are not a dog. You are not a cow. You are not a boat, or a plane, or a Snort! You are a bird, and you are my mother.”

Suspending judgment and embracing ambiguity is important as we try on the design researcher role. The questions we ask. The questions we learn over time to ask. Who we ask. Who we do not ask. Tossing the discussion guide aside as our curiosity is sparked in the moment. Our research focus continues and what we learn along the way is important for our project and our educational journey to becoming designers.

Ethically positioning design and society: manipulation and globalism

Over the past two weeks in the Interaction Design, Society, and the Public Sector course we focused on design ethics and responsibility. Jon Kolko facilitated a discussion about manipulation (based on articles by Maurizio Vitta, John Dewey, and Edward Bernays) and globalization (based on articles by Michael Hobbes, Victor Margolin, and Emily Pilloton).

Background. Our assignment was to identify the author’s point of view to ethically position design in society. From there, we were instructed to sketch a storyline as a comic strip that explains the positions in a story.

I chose to work with the construct of a fairy tale for storytelling. The medium seemed relevant since some elements of a fairy tale are vehicles to express design ethics and responsibility. There’s royalty (a designer who lives in a tower removed from those that he designs for); a village with people trying to get by (representing the developing world in most need of social impact design); a dragon (symbolizing design initiatives that are unconnected and with a scale too big to succeed); and universal truths (hopes to make a mark in the world).

The fairy tale designer first struggles with lack of empathy and understanding due to living in a tower and separating himself from the villagers. Once he overcomes that obstacle, he does not have an easy path to becoming an ethical and responsible designer.

Mindful Manipulation. Manipulation requires skill and often is to the benefit of the manipulator. A definition of manipulating is to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner. An example might be to manipulate people’s feelings.

Edward Bernays reasoned that public opinion could be manipulated to become champions of ideas, causes, and products. Bernays argues a moral obligation to shape public opinion thereby advancing new beliefs, ideas, etc. Many might describe PR in softer language, such educational and an attempt to raise awareness about an important topic. An example that comes to mind is LGBTQ perception and role in society. My reality as a gay man is light years away from what I thought it would be when I was growing up. Much of this can be attributed to a comprehensive campaign to shape public opinion.

Even with this understanding of the power of PR, manipulation is inherent in PR. The same can be said about design. Designers should operate a mindful manipulation framework.

Maurizio Vitta radically steps away from the traditional thought of design as form and function. He focuses on a consumer-oriented society by which people express their identity through consumption. Products become semiotics, and their sole purpose is to signal identity to others. My Fitbit becomes a signal to others that I value exercise and wellness. Vitta reasons that the role of designers becomes equally trivial and superficial.

Manipulation comes to mind with John Dewey’s writing of the importance of continuity of experience over time to reify identity. Experiences and continuity can be limiting and arrest a person’s identity/character.

Globalism. Turning to globalism, Emily Pilloton makes a passionate argument for designers to work locally, to be embedded in the community, and to “hold a personal stake in the community.” Uninterested in building a robust portfolio of unrelated small projects (which she calls planting trees), she advocates for a mission driven approach in which designers “…cultivate ecosystems rather than plant single trees.” She goes on to describe, “…multiple initiatives within one community become an ecosystem of projects (multiple trees, shrub, and moss) that feed off each other and support each other symbiotically.” Pilloton takes empathy a step further by stating the case for empathic investment where a designer “must genuinely identify with the community and consider ourselves part of it….”

Michael Hobbes makes the case that big ideas (with lots of money behind them) often go bust because we presume that what works in one place will work in another. His example is the PlayPump, which worked to bring clean water “every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel…” in rural sub-Saharan Africa. One success over a short period resulted in worldwide media attention and millions of dollars to install PlayPumps across Africa. Without testing the service more and understanding the local needs, the pumps were “…abandoned, broken, unmaintained.”

Hobbes lambasts the “paradigm of the Big Idea—that once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic basket.” He goes on to state that “the point is, we don’t know what works, where, or why. The only way to find out is to test these models—not just before their initial success but afterward, and constantly.” The pressure NGOs and others involved in development are under pressure to deliver big, not to build on a small success incrementally, similar to companies that chase quarterly profits for the sake of so much more.

Victor Margolin presents two world models: equilibrium (where the world consists of ecological checks and balances with finite resources) and expansion (where the world is reduced to markets instead of nations and cultures). Margolin writes that designers have the skills to work at the convergence of the two models.

Reflection. After being accepted into the AC4D program, I started to read about the courses in more depth. The first assignment I read was the one that I am about to finish. At the time, perhaps only 4-6 weeks ago, it provoked anxiety: from not being comfortable with sketching to being unfamiliar with Illustrator to learning and discussing theory and so on. And here I am now—the first assignment complete. Sketching felt better than I thought it might and basic Illustrator lessons (and peers) were helpful. It’s a good feeling. With that said, I now have anxiety about my ability to synthesize theory. A new challenge!

As I reflect on the readings, several questions come to mind as I take steps to becoming a designer and learning more about the designer role, responsibilities, and opportunities.

  • Are designers the new hero? If so, what are the pitfalls and how to avoid?
  • How do I manage manipulation that is inherent in design?
  • What degree of empathy is required to be a successful designer for humanitarian causes?
  • What does it mean to identify with a community and maintain objectivity?
  • What are the limitations of proximity and empathic investment constructs?
A fairy tale comic strip about ethically positioning design in society.
A fairy tale comic strip about ethically positioning design in society.