Researching solo? Never again.

After one month into the second quarter of AC4D I have one big takeaway: doing design researching solo is the worst. Don’t do it.

I learned this lesson the hard way. At the start of this quarter I decided not to pair with another student for research. I thought I had good reason to do so. I wanted to pursue a unique topic: how food is distributed to low-income families through food pantries. Also, I desired the flexibility and nimbleness that is inherent in working alone. Arranging and executing meetings is significantly easier when there is one less schedule to factor in.

However, my perceptions of researching without a partner changed once I got onto the field. I quickly discovered how hard it was to capture data when I was completely occupied with trying to facilitate a meaningful conversation. Attempting to juggle asking questions, taking notes, and snapping pictures proved to be an almost impossible task. I was constantly frustrated by the lack of data points I was able to capture in each interview.

Things became even worse in the synthesis process. I found that a lack of another perspective meant I was frequently getting into mental ruts. It was extremely hard to effectively navigate through the overwhelming amounts of research data without someone else to provide balance and focus.

Thankfully, I have recently been able to pair up with Jonathan who is also researching low-income individuals. Having another brain involved in the synthesis and ideation process is proving to be invaluable. I find that our combined effort allows us to synthesize data at an exponentially higher rate than doing it alone.

While working alone enabled me to easily get to people, it made it significantly more difficult to record and synthesize the resulting data. As such I am now convinced of the value of having another person with you both on the field and back in the research war room. Next time I do design research I’m going to make it a priority to have someone else at my side.

Update from the field: Interviews in Public Housing Communities

This quarter my research is focused on interactions and behaviors associated with food purchasing and preparation among lower income individuals. I’ve found the most difficult part of the process to be recruitment. I intentionally decided to avoid organizations that work with lower income individuals because I’ve found the navigation of organizational hierarchies to be cumbersome and inefficient. Instead I’ve been hanging outside of grocery stores in parts of town where cost of living is low, and asking people if they would let me watch them shop and ask questions. While this has resulted in some great discussions and observations, it quickly realized that to gain better insight I needed to go to people’s houses and see the space where they prepare food. While most of the people I interviewed were happy to let me watch them shop, they were staunchly opposed to me coming over to their house.

In an attempt to watch lower income individuals cooked, last night I wandered around public housing communities in Austin. I was shocked/slightly disappointed in myself with how out of place I felt.  I was walking in neighborhoods and complexes that were 10 minutes down the road but I definitely felt like I did not belong. As I walked past groups of people sitting outside talking, conversations stopped, people stared. When I asked if I could watch them cook, the responses were either, “No,” or “Come back another night.” I had people come up to me and ask, what I was doing, if I was looking to buy drugs, or if I was an undercover cop.

I did have one good conversation with a young man who asked to not be photographed or recorded. Before letting me in his house, he made me lift up my shirt to show that I was not “wired.” He showed me his kitchen, his refrigerator, and his pantry, then we sat on his porch and talked about food, housing, and life. About 45 minutes into his conversation, he quickly stopped and said it was getting to unsafe for me to be there and that I needed to leave.

Off to do some more sense making of the data I’ve collected thus far.

We’ll see what happens tonight.



Goal for this quarter: get ideas out of my head faster

Upon reflection of last quarter I realize that I failed to execute enough doing, making, or saying largely due to maladaptive thought patterns. The futile attempts to have things align perfectly in my head before I committed pen to paper usually lead to procrastinating the work.  The quality of my assignments suffered as a result. Below is a visualization of how I hope to change this:

Moving into the next phase of design research and reflecting on the past

Now that the first quarter is over and we’ve presented our research findings, I’ve been reflecting on our struggles and successes with the research methods, and the new directions our findings have guided us towards in the second phase of research.

Jonathan and I did our initial contextual inquiry at the Farmers’ Market, where we observed farm vendors in the point of sale process with customers. We learned a good deal about the relationships that are built between community and vendor and became more familiar with the research methods.

One thing that we learned in that process was that WIC vouchers (Women, Infants, and Children), are not accepted at Farmers’ Markets in the Winter months. Because the program is federally-funded, the assumption is that the growing season has ended by Winter. In Texas this isn’t the case. We’re lucky to have a year-round growing season, and because of this, our Farmer’s Markets stay open all year long.

With this in mind we decided that it would be interesting to adjust our focus going into the participatory interviews to learn how lower-income single individuals select, prepare, and consume food. We set out to target those participating in SNAP (food stamps), but we found it difficult to recruit this demographic. Jonathan and I contacted headquarters at HEB, but they didn’t return our messages. We contacted people who worked at SNAP but for obvious reasons they couldn’t put us into contact with their clients. After handing out stacks of flyers to various food banks we realized that this type of recruitment would best be done in person. We decided to stand outside of City Market grocery and approach individuals hoping that one or more of them would be participating in the SNAP program. We spoke with three individuals who fit our criteria, and we were successful in setting up one interview. We found our two other participants through friends of friends, and though they weren’t participating in SNAP, they were both single individuals living on a teachers’ salary.

We conducted the three interviews in the homes of our participants by first reflecting on the journaling exercise we had them fill out beforehand. We had asked them to write down their experiences selecting, preparing, and consuming one meal that week. How had they felt before the meal, what were they thinking about during the meal, how did it make them feel afterwards, etc. This exercise served to jump start the discussion about their personal experiences with food and inspire interesting conversation around their unique reality. About half-way through the interview we transitioned into speaking about their ideal food experiences by introducing our participants to an ‘Experience Canvas’. An Experience Canvas is a large board with a set of image and word stimuli prepared to help articulate an ideal experience. We asked our participants to look through the stimuli and speak about the one’s that do, and do not articulate this ideal. Jonathan and I taped these words and images to the canvas as we asked them questions about each one that they chose, careful not to refer to the images by describing what we thought they were, but by calling them by the numbers that cataloged them. In this way our participants could describe to us what the images meant to them without our descriptive influence.

Upon reflection, we found the journaling exercise to be an incredibly effective way of inspiring our participants to share their story with us. The canvas was less effective, maybe because we were all getting tired by the end of the interview, or maybe because we had so many words and images to chose from that they felt overwhelmed. The words and images, however, did serve to help articulate some desires and difficulties that may have not come up otherwise. For instance, we found that all three people responded negatively to the image of a rabbit in a hat. Relating food to magic or a card trick most likely wouldn’t have come up in normal conversation, but it served to further articulate a general desire for food to be “real”, or easy to understand. Jonathan and I also realized that we followed the ‘script’ too tightly in the interviews. We forgot to be curious about asking our participants to show us their kitchens, or food preparation methods. We didn’t document many artifacts other than the video of our conversations, and this was a missed opportunity.

Going into the next phase of research we will be drawing upon the themes that we’ve synthesized from these participant interviews. I’m particularly interested in the desire for food to strengthen camaraderie and connection with others as well as allow us to maintain control of our lives. These themes have led me to focus on researching the food behaviors of teenage girls. Jonathan is going to look at individuals experiencing obesity.

Jonathan will be posting our research presentation on the blog shortly. Please let me know if you have any contacts that could help Jonathan in his research on obesity, or Diana and I in our research on young women from the ages of 12 through 19!

Twitter – @cheyenneweaver

Some feedback and observations from Q1 presentations

I took notes last night so thought I’d share them here. They’re raw and not complete, but hope they would be somewhat helpful.

On design research:

  • Need to explain more why design research is different and valuable especially to non-designers.
  • Design research is not supposed to be easy, it’s going to take lots of time, practice, and rigor.
  • Trust your findings. It’s great to tie it to the big picture, but don’t let external stats overshadow your rich insights from the field research you have from spending hours with people.
  • Reflect. Always.

On artifacts:

  • Label your concept maps. They should be stand-alone artifacts.
  • Watch for visual design typo (ex. use icons from the same library).
  • Make use of quotes.
  • Don’t be afraid to use big definitive statements. Take up the full slide.

On story telling:

  • Relate back to what you started with. Stories should be wrapped around a larger theme.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask provocative questions and leave audience thinking.
  • Decide on the one thing you want the audience to walk away from.
  • Learn how to dial up and down with your story to different audience, and the only way to get better is to keep telling the story.

On realizing limitations:

  • Understand what you would like to do more of (ex. new contexts)
  • “Not having enough time” is not a valid limitation

On having a system/process:

  • Have system to capture your whiteboard sessions and defining moments, whether it’s a deck of yellow index cards labelled “good ideas”, taking photos of all your sticky notes and brain-dumping in ppt, plain text file, anything, pick something. Never rely on your memory.
  • Jon once told me one of the most challenging things about being an interaction designer is switching between tasks: doing research, brainstorming, making, project managing, presenting, etc. It’s a skill, embrace it and learn it.

On choosing a topic:

  • Don’t over-worry about choosing the perfect topic. There’s no such thing. Let it evolve and follow where it takes you. You can’t decide in a room what you’re passionate about. Keep working and it’ll come.
  • Best case scenario: you find a topic you’re passionate about and you continue to work on it after ac4d. Worst case scenario: you have a set of new skills and tools to go tackle any problems you come across later on in your lives.
  • The only wrong thing you can do is not doing anything.

And here… some words of wisdom sent to me by Ms. Tran from LA.

Heart work takes hard work. Tell everyone what you’re working on. I really enjoyed the presentations. Thanks for letting me be a part of last night and I’m looking forward to Q2!

Reflections and Lessons Learned from SDNC11

I gave my very first talk at the Service Design Conference 11 in San Francisco last week. It was a really good experience and I wanted to share some of my reflections and lessons learned.

1. Biggest takeaway from the conference

This is my first exposure to the “service designers”, and it’s very different than the Interaction Conference in Boulder. As a gross over-generalization, the field often associates interaction designers with software developers, service designers with business analysts, and product designers with mechanical and electrical engineers. Interaction designers speak in the language of user interface and usability; service designers speak about customer journey map and touchpoints. At the moment, while interaction designers are asking if they should learn to how to code; service designers are asking how to show the business value of their existence to management.

One of my favorite talks was by Brandon Schauer from Adaptive Path, on how to “capture lost revenues from the Service Anticipation Gap by applying just a portion of the overwhelming ad spends on the optimization and creation of services”. He defined Service Anticipation Gap as the gap between customers’ expectations and perceptions vs. what they are actually getting. While ad spend creates promises, service design is what actually deliver those promises. His arguments are compelling and illustrated by great examples. Presentation can be downloaded here.

Richard Buchanan was the closing keynote with the conference. AC4D students should all be familiar with his definition of “wicked problems” and the four degrees of design – signs, things, actions, environment. After two days of talks focusing a lot on the tactical of how to make a case for service design to management, Buchanan reframed the discussion to why management itself should become a design discipline. He left Carnegie Mellon and went to Weatherhead School of Management (note: management school, not business school), because he envisions management as design activities and is currently working with organizations at all levels – corporate, government, foundations, community, to look at how we should build our future organizations. Going back to management literature in the past, Buchanan reminded us that the purpose of an organization is not to make a profit. Profit is the means that allow the organization to fulfill its purpose. The purpose of an organization is to provide goods and services to citizens. We, as designers, are at the heart of what makes an organization valuable. He concluded his talk by saying that design is a very humble profession, and suggest that as designers, we should let go of trying to be the star, but instead, the facilitator of the world around us.

Relating back to my own personal reservations about starting companies, calling myself an entrepreneur, and the general hype in the start-up world; Buchanan’s perspective on design continues to give me a strong ground to plant my feet on when I think about how this is not as much about “starting a company”, as it is about designing at the 4th degree – the environment and the organization, in which will hold and deliver the products and service I’m designing, in order to create the impact I want to make. As AC4D aims to turn students into founders and projects into companies, there are different tactical skills required for design (ex. making) and business (ex. marketing). However, I think it’s helpful for us to remember that it’s a similar creation process: how do we design at an organization/environment level to create an impact? what activities and interactions need to happen, collectively, to achieve the original vision?

2. Personal step forward in public speaking

I had 10 minutes for my talk. As I was preparing, looking for photos, and trying to put together powerpoint slides, it just didn’t feel right. It felt like I was forcing the limited amount of photos I have on my computer to tell a very powerful and emotional story. So in the end, I decided to go with one slide. It had one photo on it: the photo from Church under the Bridge.

I explained Church under the Bridge to the rest of the conference by saying that was where everything started, and is what keeps us grounded in everything that we do. So I wanted that to set the context of my talk. From there, I shared the leap of thinking and the journey of going from a homelessness project to an education startup. Finally, I concluded by stating that at HourSchool, we measure our success by the number of people we are able to turn from a student to a teacher. Overall, I think the talk was well received. It was short and not in-depth. But I didn’t think it was meant to be.

Personally, this is a huge step forward for me. For those that started ac4d with me last year could attest that I hated speaking in public, I was bad at it, and I would do anything to get out of it. But here I am, a year later, signing up to speak in front of over 300 people. I can pinpoint a very specific moment of this turning point. It was when I had to go present to the staff at ARCH with Ryan and Kat because Alex couldn’t make it. After that, I wrote about how rewarding it was, and how it was different – because it mattered. Since then, I have been willing, and wanting, to talk in front of crowds, because the story matters. And I want as many people to hear it as possible.

One of these nights I was working late at Thinktiv and overheard some conversations from Jon’s class. He said something along the lines of needing to get used to presenting our work and being confident in what we’re able to do. I share many of the same sentiments with the other students – it’s intimidating, it’s scary, it’s hard, to put yourselves out there, to be judged, criticized, and compared. I understand. But next time when you’re unsure of yourselves, just remember that this isn’t about us. Your stories need to be told, your work needs to be presented. Because it matters.