Over the first quarter of this program, I have had the great pleasure to work with Jacob Rader and Bhavini Patel in the Interaction Design Research and Synthesis class at the Austin Center for Design. Together we dove into the topic of how cultural and emotional factors affect food behavior in low income communities: namely the Eastside here in Austin, Texas (note: the Austin Center for Design is located in the Eastside area). What we found is that people’s identities are shaped by the food roles they take on and this leads to important questions concerning the long-term effects of restricted food choices on populations in need. Our work and thoughts culminated in a research presentation about Food and Identity.
Our work began with two weeks of research that was aimed at learning about a diverse set of viewpoints and informing our intuitions about the community. This research took on several forms including interviews, contextual inquiry, and artifact collection. Contextual Inquiry is a term I had never heard before coming to ac4d; it’s the act of putting yourself in an environment with the intent of investigating and observing behavior. The underlying assumption is that there are things you can learn from participants that they are unlikely to tell you in conversation. By going through activities with them and letting them actively teach you about themselves, you are able to see meaningful behavior in action rather than in hypothetical. Furthermore, your intuitive understanding of a person and the environment they are a part of is greatly enriched through this technique. Overall, this highly subjective and immersive research process served as a concentrated blast of information and understanding that was crucial to provoking thoughts in the remainder of our work this quarter.
After research we started exploring our data. First we transcribed every significant phrase or thought from our interactions, indexed them, put them on small notation cards and covered the wall with them. We also included observations from our contextual inquiries and photos from our research. This served as a physical medium for us to manipulate and begin making sense of. One way we did that was by pushing our data through different frames of reference in a technique called work modeling.
In work modeling, the goal is to focus on only one specific aspect of interactions that are taking place and in limiting perspective you open yourself to new ways of understanding the data. Here’s a few examples from our research:
Pictured above (Diagram 1) is a Flow model in which each participants interaction with other people or objects is diagrammed. This can often reveal focal points in the environment as well as bottlenecks and breakdowns in interaction.
Pictured above are the Physical model (Diagram 2A) and the Artifact model (Diagram 2B). These two models are often useful in tandem for helping people who were not part of the research process gain some context for the environment the participants are in. This is a powerful tool in presentations of Design because they allow the research to convey more directly and ultimately make it more real.
Making New Ideas
Regardless of the fidelity or volume of data, design research is only significant if it provokes designers to new ideas. Synthesis is the process of making sense of data. In this process of sense-making our minds often are able to generate new ideas called insights. Insights are provocative statements of truth about human behavior (which may in fact be wrong). Insights are the result of non-linear–often illogical and serendipitous–connections in our mind. But as we’ve learned in through the first quarter, methods can be introduced that make these connections much more likely to occur.
One powerful way of doing that is by making groupings with the data. In our case, we took all of the indexed notecards, photos, and observations that were covering our research wall and started rearranging them to represent relationships. As the relationships became more robust we tried to name them. This is a long process that often requires several iterations but you end up with compelling representations of affinity and isolation that your mind can start to comprehend. And your brain’s way of doing this is some form of the question “Why?”. Why are these statements related? Why are these people behaving this way? What is this person behaving differently? Why? Why? Why?
The background and judgements of the designer start to actively mingle with the structure of the data: pushing, pulling, and slicing it in new ways. This process is highly subjective and depends on the skill of the designer to draw upon their intuitive empathetic understanding from research as well as their ability to push their mind into new points of view. And occasionally they are able to articulate something about the behavior that clicks. An insight intuitively fits on to the data giving it greater definition and meaning in our minds.
In our case, our research with food produced a great number of insights which we eventually culled to focus on just a few that were inter-related and felt significant and provocative in relation to our research. What we found are two insights about food behavior:
Insight 1: Without authority over food choices, people are reduced to what they are willing to accept or deny.
Insight 2: Established food roles become a persistent part of our identity.
Taken together these two insights force us to ask what persistent lack of choice does to a person’s identity over time. Food choices feel fleeting, but decisions about food are one of the most prevalent forms of problem solving in our lives. When options are restricted over time, we believe there is erosive effective to someone’s creative problem solving and consequently to their humanity. And that’s why our third insight, though somewhat obvious in statement is also quite significant:
Insight 3: When options are restricted food choice becomes a vehicle for humanization.
We have seen the impact of this insight on the community here on in the Eastside. But we believe it also has a broader design implication:
Choice is an essential element for food interaction with populations in need.
Food isn’t just about the delivery of calories and nutrients. We all know this, yet when confronted with hunger or poverty the standard operating procedure seems to be to simply throw food resources at the problem. Our design research calls for a more broad view of how those food interactions affect the people involved, especially in situations where the interactions are a persistent part of human lives.
Thank you for your consideration and we’d love you hear your thoughts or comments.
-Scott Gerlach (on behalf of Jacob Rader and Bhavini Patel)