A few weeks ago we shared our research plan (here). Since then my team, Eugenia Harris and Lauren Segapeli, and I have been out talking to people and collecting data to fuel the next stage of our design process. We began our research with a focus on how people living in food deserts budget for, shop for and prepare food. Exploring particularly people’s beliefs around nutrition and food availability and the priorities and constraints that govern their choices. A food desert is an urban area where fresh food and produce are not easily available to residents who do not have cars.
Over the course of two weeks we conducted ten interviews with people in three basic groups: People grocery shopping in East Austin, people working to improve food access and nutrition and patrons of Austin area food banks.
The purpose of our research was to help us, as designers, to build an empathetic understanding of the people we hope to serve and to steep ourselves in a rich and varied data set that will provoke new insights and design ideas. As we mentioned in our research plan, one of the methods we used to get this data is called Contextual Inquiry. Contextual Inquiry focuses on watching, learning about and perhaps participating in the user’s tasks and activities. The researcher becomes the apprentice and the user becomes the master, sharing his or her expertise in his or her own life. It is a way to tap into the tacit knowledge that we all have that allows us to do the work of living our lives but that we are not consciously aware of or which seems too low level to be worth mentioning. It is exactly these quirky, specific details, these workarounds and new uses that provoke new insights and ideas.
For example, one of our participants is a patron of local food banks. In our first interview he told us all about how going to the food bank works. The information he gave us was all useful and true, but no where near as rich as the data we got the following week when we went to the food bank and he taught us how to do everything from arriving early to save a place in line, to signing in and selecting food.
As we conducted our research we kept the focus intentionally loose because we were aware that the concept of food desert might not ultimately be the framework that was most useful for understanding the situation in Austin. That flexibility served us well. We found that geographic location wasn’t the major constraint on most of the people we spoke to. Many people, even if they were struggling financially did have cars, although not always money for gas. We also saw that people rely on family and community networks that stretch across neighborhoods to help each other access food and to share food resources. We are interested to see how these informal networks might connect with the type of support people in the government and community are providing and explore other connections and disconnects between these different groups.
We learned a great deal doing this research and were constantly reminded that our interviewee’s point view is not our own. It has been a privilege to meet these people and have them share their lives with us.
Our presentation deck is attached below. Next we will launch into to the synthesis phase of the design process. Look for an update on that in the next few weeks.