CSAs & the Community: a Contextual Inquiry

In the past few weeks, we’ve begun our design research process, looking into the overarching topic of food as a social issue. For the contextual inquiry phase of our research, Ben and I chose to look at trends in locally-grown food, and within that topic, we established as our specific research focus the goal of exploring the role that CSAs play in the food culture of the community, and vice versa, the role that the community plays in the operation of CSAs. By observing community relations and outreach at various CSAs, we hoped to discover why people are drawn to engage in local agriculture practices and how the CSA facilitates that engagement.

We chose to seek farm operators as the participants in our contextual inquiry in order to learn about the different methods and avenues they use to engage members and volunteers. We contacted various CSAs in the community and arranged visits to three farms; Natural Springs Garden, near Lake Travis, Tecolote Farms in Webberville, and Springdale Farms in East Austin.

By going through these contextual inquiries, we discovered that it’s important to be flexible and not carry too many expectations into the process. While we had told the participants that our focus was around their community relations, it was hard for them to grasp what exactly we wanted to see. The challenge for us was to convince the farm operators that it was interesting and worthwhile for us to actually watch them, for example, go through the process of writing a tweet or posting to facebook or their blogs. It took a lot of gentle persistence to get them to show us their computers and office spaces at all. It took a few tries for us to learn the art of said persistence, requiring a trial and error process of asking, rephrasing, and asking again to be shown what we were interested in seeing. On the other hand, we learned that by asking open questions we could learn a lot; people love to share their story and what they’re passionate about.

Although we both went into the contextual inquiry phase with minor trepidations, we found that it was not as intimidating as we’d imagined. The process was both interesting and exciting for its opportunities to get a glimpse into people’s lives and livelihoods, particularly since the farmers we spoke with were generous with their time and knowledge, and passionate in communicating their experiences and values. We’re looking forward to the chance to continue our research and refine our interviewing skills during the next phase of our research.

Contextual Inquiry at the H.O.P.E Farmer's Market

Cheyenne and I did our first contextual inquiry this past Sunday at the H.O.P.E. Farmer’s Market. After reviewing our video footage, I feel it’s safe to say that we are the Batman and Robin equivalent of contextual interviewers (I am Batman, in case you were wondering).

In all seriousness, it was a great experience for both of us, and a big shout out to the folks at Johnson’s Backyard Garden who were gracious enough to let us film them for a few hours.

We chose the H.O.P.E farmer’s market and Johnson’s Backyard Garden because we were both interested in the relationship that food has with community eating, and lifestyle choices. Because farmer’s markets are not only linked to the consumption of healthy food but also a space for community connection and cultural exploration we thought it would be a great place to start. Our specific focus was on the point of transaction between the farmer’s market vendor and the consumer. We felt this would give us an event discrete enough for some great flow diagram action but rich enough to provide insight into various biopsychosocial* components of locally growing, buying and consuming fruits and vegetables.

We’re looking forward to seeing what comes of it!



*Biopsychosocial is typically a term used in medicine and psychology. The biopsychosocial model is a way of conceptualizing the various factors that play into human illness and disease at the individual and collective level; biologicial, psychological, and social. It was first coined by psychiatrist George Engel. Even though the most common usage of the word may not directly apply to design-thinking, when put in context with Richard Buchanan’s definition of wicked problems it is another efficient way to describe various complex factors that play into experience, interaction and choice.

The importance of the problem trumps the beauty of the interaction

Design theory, still in its infancy, has many competing perspectives defining it’s domain and scope. Overbeeke argues that designers need to focus mainly on the beauty of the interaction of their products. Papanek instead believes that designers need to remove their learned, limited, and inhibiting factors for more effective generation of new ideas. While it is important to factor the aesthetics of interaction as Overbeeke suggests, it is significantly more important that designers to heed to Papenek’s call to focus on removing their creative blocks so they can more effectively solve problems that matter.

Overbeeke’s call for designers to build interactions that respect their users should not be overlooked. His perspective of design involves viewing a human being in a holistic manner which considers both emotions and perceptual motor skills. This leads to designs that help preserve the dignity of the user in ways that merely utilitarian designs may lack. Overbeeke also focuses on increasing human enjoyment which is important to consider.

However, Overbeeke’s main shortfall is that he fails to discriminate between design problems of importance and problems of a superficial nature. His examples for a better office chair, pager, and scheduler are exciting to read about but soon feel shallow and pointless upon closer inspection. His over-emphasis of the ‘beauty of interaction’ over practical problem solving fails to move designers past the point of frivolous aestheticism that many designers are currently stuck at.

Papenek is instead concerned with problems of significant social impact. He notes that “to ‘sex up’ objects makes no sense in a world in which basic need for design is very real.” He argues that the main way to address society’s increasingly complex issues is to reduce the cultural, emotional, and associational blocks that designers are burdened with. For example, he argues that rejecting the taboo around human waste could lead to better methane powered energy production. Once we are able to remove these blocks, designers will be able to generate creative ideas that address the root of problems and produce new solutions.

While designers need to consider their users holistically, it’s of considerably greater importance that they address problems of real social significance. While Overbeeke’s perspective leads to beautiful but frivolous interactions with VCRs, Papenek’s arguments lead to designers who are freed to confront difficult and complex social issues in increasingly innovative ways.

Under the Shadow of the Sign

When considering design as a discipline, it’s possible to consider it from an broader social perspective or from a practical user-specific perspective. The former approach is taken by Maurizio Vitta in his essay “The Meaning of Design,” while the latter has been taken up by “User Guru” Jakob Nielson. Both authors are interested in solving for what they view as negative tendencies in the realm of design, and both are interested in heightening the awareness of both designers and users about our interactions with the objects that surround us. However, Vitta is more interested in exploring the larger picture of human relations to the objects we create and consume, while Nielson explores the efficiency of the user experience.

Nielson argues for advancing methodology and metrics in designing a more efficient user experience. He is interested in the nuts and bolts of usability that can be quantified and demonstrated to allow for the most universal and wide-reaching human experience. Nielson views the role of the designer as a vehicle for the user’s experience with the object; therefore their responsibility is in producing the most measurably effective experience. His metrics include learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction: If the user can’t get none… it can’t be considered an effective design. Nielson promotes a kind of methodology whereby the designer should iterate and prototype to attune their attention towards developing around user needs. This type of awareness throughout the process can help ease the larger issue of how we consume the products of design, from the root.

Vitta on the other hand, is more concerned with the ramifications of the social experience of consuming the object. He would not position himself against a more efficient user-centric experience, but he would argue that at a certain point the process becomes irrelevant. Society has reached a point of consumption in which, to a certain degree, the usability of objects becomes moot. At this point the function or utility vanishes in the shadow of the sign. For Vitta, designed objects are goods people use “not for their functionality but as images of himself or herself to be projected toward the outside world as the sole contact with others.” In this view, objects of consumption substitute for the loss of identity, and thereby replace the individual with manufactured signs that serve as social connections. Vitta goes further to posit that the identity of the designer thereby becomes entwined with and ultimately subsumed by the objects they design.

By taking this perspective, Vitta introduces the notion that there is a larger, more threatening problem with how dominant societies interact with themselves via the multiplicity of objects that surround us. This is not a new idea, but one that needs to be better addressed by the system of design education. Vitta suggests that by introducing varying disciplines into design education we could begin to be more aware of the contradictory role of design. It may be a ‘painful awareness,’ but we must begin to confront it in order to avoid collapse under an “avalanche of goods.”

It may not be practical in our everyday lives to espouse the concept of the object as sign, but we would argue that it’s necessary to do so, in order to understand and contribute to the larger social dialogue, and thereby to keep a critical eye on our methodologies, from the utterly practical level to the holistic facilitation of disciplines. Designers should keep the user needs in mind throughout the process, but we should likewise also address the impact of our designs within a broader social context.

[by Cheyenne Weaver and Diana Griffin]

Major over-thinking followed by a minor epiphany

If I had to break down my process for revising my brand statement this week and moving into the realm of storytelling, it would work out to about 85% wallowing in introspection and over-thinking, 12% frantic mad-dash rush to produce something, and 3% post-all-nighter epiphanic “OH! I get it!” moment. All in all, not a very successful or well-planned approach. But I did learn a few things, at least.

In the midst of my vortex of inward thought, I tried to break out of it by getting some outside perspective; I made up a little survey about how others see me and asked my friends and former teachers to fill it out for me. It was only three questions, asking first, to choose three adjectives that describe me, second, to name the biggest strength and weakness in my work or way of thinking, and third, to complete the thoughts: “I know you care about…” and “I think you should be…”. I spent some time (probably too much) gathering, grouping, and distilling the responses. Below is the word cloud I generated from the results.

With these words in mind, I sat down to rewrite my brand statement. Last week it was declared too academic and not actually saying anything, which is true, but still hard to confront. It means that this week I had to cut the crap and actually make a statement about what I believe in. “Less ‘I am’ and more ‘I am about’,” as we were advised. After many iterations, here’s what I’ve got right now:

I believe that design is a process that is strategic, creative, and participatory, and I’m passionate about using it to tackle social and environmental problems.

The next step was to make a story out of this statement. For me that meant trying to be concise and compelling, in plain language, without hiding behind big words and long sentences. In order to visualize it, I relied on photos more than sketches, which was a cop-out that I’ll have to cut out in my next iteration. For now, though, I made a short video to present my story (somewhat) dynamically. See it at the link below.

What I Believe

Meanwhile, besides all of this delving into my own values and ideas, I had to take on the task of visualizing two other stories as well; one, the story of another classmate, and the other, a visualization of a process. For the first, I interviewed Cheyenne about her most recent artwork, and used her story to infer a statement about her process. I visualized it as below; the background image and type tell the story of the sculpture, while the foreground text is my interpretation of her process.

Cheyenne's Story

The second visualization, of a process, was much less involved. I chose a simple, anecdotal process to illustrate, inspired by Jaime’s having interviewed me about my experiences as an ESL teacher:

How to Explain Peanut Butter

It wasn’t until after all of that, and after waking up from my 2.5 hours of sleep last night, that the point of the “Not ‘I am’ but ‘I am about’,” advice got through to me. I’d been so resistant to letting go of what I was trying to capture in my first version of my brand statement, because I felt that my new statement just didn’t capture everything about me. This morning it very suddenly occurred to me that it doesn’t have to. Of course, right? I’m not trying to express every single nuance about myself all smashed up into a little nugget of wordiness. I’m just trying to express the essence of what motivates me to do what I do (or try to do what I want to do). Not that that’s easy, but it seems a whole lot easier than how I was approaching it until now. Here’s hoping the next iteration will come out more smoothly.