Design Research: Getting Inspired and Immersed

Our Interaction Design Research and Synthesis class has given us an opportunity to research a very interesting field – something that we usually don’t think that much about – Animal Food Value Chain. The amount and quality of data we’ve gathered has been keeping us torn between different directions; we finally decided to focus on learning which factors influence consumers’ purchasing and eating of different cuts of meat. In asking consumers to describe how they make choices surrounding their selection, preparation, consumption, and disposal of meat products, we hope to find out how consumers make decisions about which parts of animals they eat, what can influence them to redefine which parts of animals are desirable as food, and what happens to those pieces they purchase but decide not to eat.

This topic touches the majority of people on this planet. It is something that most of the people have experienced, and deal with very often. It is also a source of huge amount of waste and damage to our environment. It is important, and the questions that pop up within this field isn’t something that can easily be answered just out of your own perception of the world. Getting information from other people, and turning it into insights, is critical in order to understand how non-singular this is, how much of a difference there might be in behavior and reasoning of different people. It is fascinating.

The amount of inspiration we get while interacting with people is incredible. We talk to people, we go grocery shopping with them, we cook meals together, we even cut meat together in a butcher shop!

We’ve applied the 5 different types and approaches of gathering information and getting inspiration from people, the 5 types we were taught in the class – and found them all useful:

  • Contextual Interview;
  • Contextual Inquiry;
  • Immersion;
  • Subject Matter Interview;
  • Participatory Research.

Research activities bring us into situations and environments that we wouldn’t otherwise get into. Last week, we were invited into a home of a young family of three to talk about their experience of purchasing and consuming animal-based foods. Our host Anna was home with her 9 months old son. And while an infant would often be considered a distraction in a situation like that, for us it was an incredibly rich source of information about what this woman’s days look like.

We did conduct interviews with people with kids before, and they mentioned how big of a deal, and how much of a struggle grocery shopping or cooking might be when the kids are around; but only after spending 2 hours in an environment like that we’ve truly understood our interviewee: context around her, with her baby being the largest part of it, changed the way she approaches grocery shopping, including the way she selects the meats in a grocery store.

All these words: fast, simple, no thinking, no decision making, straightforward – now it all started to make total sense.

There is a lot of room to grow, a lot of room to improve for us as researchers.

If I was to go through this experience again, I would surely:

  • Make sure the group defines the focus of research as early in the process as possible. What we went through has proved that not having a concise and proper goal, that we all would be on the same page about, is a huge distraction from moving forward effectively. On the flipside, it allowed us to keep a somewhat open mind around the topic of our research.
  • Try to gain more empathy with our interviewees and people we interact with. Maybe even become “friends” with them, in a way, during the interview; and not necessarily trying to keep the whole interaction very “professional” and distanced.
  • Not be afraid to ask questions that I think are dumb – they, in fact, can bring some of the best and unexpected insights.

I am excited to continue this journey with our group, and can’t wait to get to Design Synthesis and generate Insights from all the information we’ve gathered.


My evolution as a design researcher

As I am halfway through my first quarter of Interaction Design Research class, I am reflecting on my evolution in terms of what it means to do design research as well as how my current project researching the animal product food chain has evolved. As a budding design researcher, I am beginning to grasp what it is I need to practice and learn – how do I step into a world I’ve never lived in, feel comfortable with uncertainty, capture data that reflects how people really live their lives, and gain empathy for all of my participants. I am beginning to understand the complexity of this task and am finding that I as I fumble through my first research project how much work it is going to take on my part to embody the methods that will lead to deeper and more meaningful insights.

At the beginning of the quarter, my teammate and I decided to focus in on how food is distributed from farm to restaurant since it was a topic we were both intrigued by. Our initial research question was to understand how Austin area farmers and ranchers get products to market. Our research started by talking to subject matter experts and doing secondary research. As we began to feel more confident in this brand-new problem space, we practiced contextual inquiries – we tried our best to be able to bear witness to the ways farmers, food distributers and restaurateurs lived their day-to-day lives.  We tried engaging our participants in questions that would reveal the gaps between how they wanted to live their lives and how it was actually unfolding. As we heard stories about how farmers would get their products to restaurants, we heard time and again how important communication was – from building trusting relationships between stakeholders to farmers consistently updating restaurants about what crops they currently have for sale to restaurants making requests and staying updated on all of the farms in the area.  Almost every prompt my teammate and I came up with returned to how important clear and consistent communication was to each stakeholder. Therefore, we narrowed our focus to gain additional rich insights into how individual farmers and restauranteurs feel about their daily communication.

 To begin to unearth how our participants feel about their daily communication, my teammate and I developed several participatory activities. Before the interview, we asked our participants to keep a record of who they spoke with. During the interview, we worked with our participants to create a map of all of their interactions that encodes different information like frequency, importance and method of communication within the map. We then used this map to stimulate stories. At the end, we asked our participant to design their ideal communication.

It was amazing to see how using this kind of activity facilitated storytelling. A powerful moment occurred while my teammate and I interviewed the chef of a well-established farm-to-table Austin restaurant. As he described his relationship with one of his food distributors, he segued into talking about a meaningful relationship he has with a new local restauranteur. At first he was talking about ordering an animal product, how he predicts how much he needs, and what it is like working with this particular distributor. Next, he described challenges he has.

This led into a story in which he recounted a moment last week when a new chef did not have enough fish to serve his customers that day and texted our participant to ask if his restaurant had enough to share. Our participant took out his cellphone to show us the text exchange. He walked us through what happened and how the text moved him to reach out to his other chef friends for the fish. In this moment, I felt like I got to peer into the lives of a network of chefs and how they managed to support each other. In the end, the new chef was supported by his network (who are also his competition!). I believe that entering into the interview with a mindset that my teammate and I would co-create an interaction map with our participant facilitated this meaningful finding.

Of course, as mentioned above, I am a budding researcher and just now learning about how much I still need to learn on how to be an effective design researcher. In my next interviews, I have a few things I want to improve. First, I really need to be prepared for anything. The night before, I should make sure my cellphone can take hours of video (because I found out that it can’t in the middle of an interview), my computer is ready to take notes (after I had typed 8 pages of notes in the field, Word would not let me save the document – something that has never happened before) and I bring several different kinds of notebooks depending on where my participant takes me (small and large notebooks that open in a way that I can carry them one-handed since I need to be ready for anything). Second, I want to modify my participatory methods to go deeper. I see how powerful participatory research methods are at getting participants to open up, share stories, and reveal insights I could not predict. In my next iteration of this kind of interview, I want to ask questions that help me to understand who are the influencers in the participant’s business as well as what the real impact communication has on day-to-day operations. I want to delve into their sense of ideal relationships so I can learn what may currently be broken. Third, I want to internalize possible models I will eventually develop from the data my teammate and I are recording in the field. I believe this will help me to record the right data for future use in the synthesis process.

How Important are You? A Question of Value.

Research Focus: We aim to understand how Austin area farmers and ranchers get products to market. Specifically, we will explore how farmers and restaurants communicate with each other through touch-points along the food distribution chain.

It’s hard to remember all the people we actually speak to throughout the day. And even harder to assign value to those people. How important are they in my life? All of that of course depends on how you define value.

When we set about having farmers and restaurant folk track their communications, we wanted to get at their definition of importance by having them place the people they spoke to on a board accordingly. The closer to the center they placed the person, the more important. I assumed they would define importance by level of monetary value the person contributed to their business. In this I was right, and I was also wrong. What came out was that apart from monetary gain, sometimes a person is important because of the way they make you feel.

My research partner and I conducted this activity with a farmer that we had already spent time with before named Joe.

Joe was in a bad mood that day. My research partner and I could tell from the moment we walked up he was on edge. Busy, aggravated. According to him, everyone was stupid or uneducated. It took some time before he sat down and did the planned activity with us, but eventually he did, and was very open about who he communicated with and which people he thought were awesome and which were annoying.

Joe likes to talk, and even though we spent 5 hours with him the week before listening to him rattle on, we never really saw him be vulnerable. The point of vulnerability is when a man’s true self can be seen. What we learned was, Joe is scared about his future. “This is the most unsustainable thing I could be doing. I have nothing going for me, we are all just pissing in the wind. I try not to think about it.” We were listening to a farmer that feels like he has no other options in the world except farming and doesn’t know how he could ever leave it. “I wish we could have a life. I don’t have a life. If you’re going to work all the time you got to do at least something enjoyable. At least I don’t have money going out the door.” The low pay paired with lack of expenses has kept him a prisoner to the farming world. He told us often how he loved his work, and we could see he felt some autonomy in his day to day, but love of labor has limits. “I work all day, sit on my porch, and get up the next day to work. This is all I can do now. I can hardly hardly support myself, how could I support a family and kids? That’s out of the question. I have nothing put ahead of me. My dad thinks I’m making a bad decision with what I’m doing. But he’s a knot head. I think I’ll be fine.”

The only other life he can imagine is one where he works at HEB, which is ultimately less appealing to him.

Hearing Joe talking makes me wondering if we’ve been missing something entirely. That it’s not communication with business relationships that’s important for a farmer. Maybe it’s communication with people that make them feel connected and valued as a person that they need, instead of like an outliner on society’s fringe.

“I literally don’t leave the farm except to market. I don’t really complain about it anymore. I’m better just staying here. The more I leave the more depressed it get with the world.” Joe’s energy had dropped a bit by the time we left him.

Moving forward with our research my partner and I want to look at a couple of things. First off, we are ditching an activity using images that we thought would be great, but didn’t land well with any other the participants we used it with. Secondly, we want to expand upon the activity that did work well and incorporate a new element that accounts for the amount of time our participants spend communicating with certain people. Hopefully this can help us better understand the trade offs they make throughout their day. Where do they sacrifice time from one activity to feed another? Lastly… we aren’t sure yet. It’s important for us understand the level of impact and influence these different players have on each other’s lives, but we haven’t defined the activity that will best lead to this insight yet.

And for Joe? The perceived problem of the food value chain is deeper than I first imagined. It’s not just helping farmers make money, moving food to market, convincing consumers to eat local, or even shedding light upon the value and commitment of the people working across the food chain. The problem is shifting power and human-beingness back into the system to the people that keep it afloat.

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

The designer I want to be

As a student in his first quarter at the Austin Center for Design, I am beginning to develop my own philosophy for how I want to be a designer when I enter into the professional world. In the course titled Design, Society and the Public Sector, I read foundational texts written by design practitioners and academics that are reflections of what it means to them to have impact as an interaction designer. In the most recent cycle of readings, we focused on the meaning and development of value as well as the underlying principles for creating value for consumers and citizens of the world. In order synthesize the articles, I created a short comic that I will present below. First, I will provide some context for the story I wrote.

As a basis for understanding my perspective, I start with two of the readings (written by Jon Kolko and Don Norman) that introduce differing perspectives of innovation and that pushed me to ask the question: “Where does/should the concept of innovation live?”

innovation-01 innovation-02

As expressed in the diagrams above, the authors focused on two kinds of innovation. Innovation from the perspective of new technologies can lead to conceptual breakthroughs and eventually change how humans interact. Examples of this are the automobile, the computer and the cellphone. On the other hand, innovation can be seen from the perspective of the consumer. This kind of innovation is subjective and defined by individuals – in the ways they see their own lives and how they use or do not use services and products.

As a future designer, I am interested in focusing on innovating from the perspective of users. Thus steeping myself in the human centered design process makes sense.

Comparing the positions of each of the authors we read (Norman, Kolko, Sanders, Gaver and Dourish), I am beginning to build a framework for thinking about how to develop innovative solutions to wicked problems (as they are experienced on the human level). At its core, the human centered design process is, “…an approach that values uncertainty, play, exploration, and subjective interpretation as ways of dealing with [the limits of knowledge].” (Gaver, pg. 1) This pushes against the dominant belief in the value of quantification, predictive models and a positivist methodology for understanding how to design innovative solutions. However, humans do not experience the world in predictable and rational ways. Instead they are constantly creating the world they live in. The context that people operate in is embodied. Context is, “…something that people do. It is an achievement rather than an observation; an outcome, rather than a premise.”  (Dourish, pg. 22)

Since I want to be a researcher and designer who wants to innovate from the perspective of users, I have to be able to get at the lived experience of humans. I need to figure out methods for capturing that data and making sense of it. It is not as simple as coming up with all the variables that need to be quantified, making objective (context-free) observations, and asking people to respond to surveys. It requires getting at how people really behave, think, and feel. In order to do this, I need a mindset in which I believe I can co-create with my users so that I can access my users’ experiences. Co-creation is an “…act of collective creativity that is experienced jointly by two or more people…where the intent is to create something tis not known in advance.” I believe this loops back to the quote I presented from Gaver. An act is only creative if it is playful, uncertain, and leads to subjective interpretations. As a human centered designer, I need to embody this mindset in order to capture rich data on how my users think, behave and feel. I can do this through creative activities or presenting them with cultural probes wherein I capture reactions to unexpected and irrational stimuli. Of course, just as any positivist scientist would tell you, you need to process lots of data. In the qualitative research world, we do this through synthesis. As Kolko states, “…Synthesis is a sense making process that helps the designer move from data to information, and from information to knowledge.” (Kolko, pg. 40)

Now that I’ve laid out some of the thinking I have been doing on what kind of designer I want to be, I will speak about the story I will present below. As I reflected on the articles, the idea of play stood out.  When humans play, they are doing, creating, and revealing truths about themselves they would not in a rational state of mind. Thus, I centered my story on three individuals, Marvin, Kolko and Sanders. Marvin is lonely and wants to play. Kolko shows up and stimulated by an artifact (a stick), their unconscious desire to fight is acted upon. Sanders shows up and stops them. She works with the boys to co-create another solution to helping them all feel included. They synthesize this information and come up with an insight: they all want to play in a treehouse. I believe within these simple interactions I summarized the above points: the kids innovate changing their lived experience, co-create, play, imagine, and act as a designer should.

Value comic-01 Assignment 2-02 Value comic-03 Value comic-04




Fascinating Findings of Food Value Chain Research

“The one unusual thing I eat is Liver Pâté on bread because it’s something all children in Norway grew up on.  All kids in Norway eat liver Pâté.” 

Lene, immigrant from Norway


During the past few weeks, my team here at AC4D has been performing research on Animal Food Value Chain, focusing in particular on undesirable meats and other parts of animals.

It is incredibly fascinating to learn how, and why, people choose certain kinds of meat to purchase and to eat, and the reasons why certain parts of animals are not used in American cuisine.

For every interview, we tried to choose people from different cultural backgrounds to get richer data from different perspectives, since food is always something very culture-related. Cultural difference was never the main focus of our research, but it is something that gave us some really interesting and fascinating data on our topic.

Lene was born in Norway and lived there almost whole her life; she used to work in a restaurant back there. She told us about her experience buying and eating animal products when she just moved to the US. “When I moved to Houston and I went to HEB, I saw these big trays of chicken breasts, and they were so big and so cheap! I thought: “Wow! I can buy that tray and we’ll have dinners for a week! We can share one chicken breast with my husband, it’s enough for both of us. And then I started to realize that it’s not normal, the size of the chicken. They are too big, something is wrong with them, they can’t be 3 times bigger than chickens in Norway. And of course! I started to do some research and watch documentaries, it’s growth hormones they put in. It’s not good for anyone: not for your body, not for the chickens. I saw a documentary which showed how chicken can’t walk because their breasts are too big, they are falling forward. It’s crazy. It shouldn’t be allowed. It’s not allowed in Norway. And now I buy only organic and grassfed meat and only at Whole Foods.”

Something to think about, right?

We’ve talked with people with different backgrounds: second-generation immigration from Mexico, who spent his childhood in a Mexican part of LA; an owner of a food truck serving halal food – he moved to the US with his family to avoid the Iraq War; a recent immigration from Norway and was a cook back home, mentioned earlier…. Every time we come back from an interview, we say: WOW!

Having a chance to see different points of view on a problem, from Americans and immigrants, we see how some things that seem very obvious in one culture, can be very unusual in another. It helped us to find problems we would never see or think about if we talked only to long-time locals.

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?

The Many Hats of Distribution Man


Joe sat across from us in his the fluorescently lit office, his employees shifting products into boxes on the other side of his two windows. He leaned back, and rolled his eyes towards the ceiling as he thought about what he was going to say: “Let me tell you an anecdote, I won’t use any names.”

Joe is pretty much the only farm to table food distributer in central Texas. He got his start because he “wanted a life change” and he “likes food”, which feels like a simple and honest way to start a business.

“I used to bring food to this one restaurant guy” Joe’s story wove among his own thoughts of how to explain a thing to two earnest and unknowledgeable grad students. I scrambled to take notes, piecing his words together, while my research partner facilitated the interview with a stoic, yet curious face.

Joe proceed to tell us about how he lost business from one restaurant owner, because the man started buying his food straight from the farmer instead. He knew this because he would see the man at the Farmer’s Market buying directly from the same farmer he would deliver food for. The twist however, was that this restaurant owner ended up coming back to Joeohn, asking to do business again. The restaurant owner had experienced a series of food orders that he had throw out due to a less than perfect appearance of the veggies.

The restaurant owner ended up losing money, not saving, by bypassing the distributor. And he told Joe, “I know you won’t screw me” as his main catalyst for returning as a client.

Joe told his last part of the story with a hint of pride in his voice. It’s always nice to be the guy that provides value, the guy that can be trusted. However, what I learned from this story is that Joe has another role I didn’t realize before. Joe is the mediator between farmer and buyer, with the task of knowing the wants of the restaurant buyers, wants that are apparently unknown to many farmers. He wears the hats of Quality Assurance Guy, Interpreter, Supervisors, as well as Delivery Man.

There is more than a distance gap between the person on the farm and the person with the chef’s knife. There is a mentality disparity, with very few people acting to bridge the two ways of thought.

Joe, along with another person we spoke with on this topic, expressed the importance of educating farmers on how to work with restaurants. As though the concept of frequent communication and honest management of expectations was a foreign concept. The truth is, although most people (farmers and restaurant owners included), would tout the importance of effective communication, rarely it is executed well. And that can be said across multiple types of business and human transactions.

“You don’t sell a 7 pound zucchini to a restaurant, you give it to the pigs. Some farmers don’t get that.” Joe noted.

A farmer’s proximity to the earth gives them the attitude that all food from the rich soil is valuable. A restaurant owner’s proximity to the customer, breeds the attitude that food must be pretty. And a customer’s distance from the farm is what created the “pretty food” expectation in the first place.

The reason this anecdote was significant is because it caused a shift in my thinking. Distance, perhaps, is the ultimate communication barrier, because it provides the context from which we communicate. Even with all the technologies in the world to shrink the gap, none of them can account for the breakdown in communication that happens when two people are looking at the world through very different lenses.

This became the focus for our research project. We began listening for these invisible gaps in the food value chain that were hiding behind the multiple desires, value systems, and definitions of common words our participants shared with us.

“Distribution is key!” Joe repeated this last phrase. I think he is right, but for more reasons than the physical movement of food products. Distribution is key because the communication gap, not merely the distance gap, is still so large. Those moments of connection when food travels from one man’s hands into another’s is the opportunity for insight to pass between professions. And it’s these same moments of connection that my research partner and I aim to learn more about.


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.