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.

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.

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?

Reflections on Race

I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to understand how life is different for 2nd Generation Asian Americans. I spent weeks showing up to stranger’s homes and asking them what being Asian American means to each of them; I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about race. How do I–as a six-foot tall, red-headed ,white woman–show up to someone’s home with the explicit intention asking difficult questions to understand experiences that are impossible for me to have? I’ve had to acknowledge that I might not always get it right. Right now, I’m working through how I can share what I learned with others in a way that speaks to the specific experience of the (rather diverse) people we talked to. I am constantly thinking of ways to make this topic resonate with a mostly white audience without people having a defensive or dismissive reaction.

I have to admit, it’s the first time I’ve actively had to worry about an audience connecting because of ethnicity. I recognize that many people have similar thoughts every time they walk out their door. Last week, a classmate’s colleague talked to our Research class about White Privilege. She talked about taking cultural expectations other than White America into consideration when designing anything. I thought that was an important conversation to start. In the time since, I’ve had a couple of conversations with classmates about White Privilege, and I realized when reflecting on those conversations, that “White Privilege” was being used synonymously with “racism.” Each individual, human or otherwise, has advantages and disadvantages in their life. Each individual has challenges in their life. You can understand that and treat people in full equality and that can be a wonderful thing. But if you look at things macroscopically, there are patterns in those individual experiences. Why are black people more likely to be in debt? Why are white people more likely to have someone in their lives that they can borrow money from to cover small debts? The answers are complicated, but it’s part of Privilege. Systematically, there are biases that help people who look like me, probably because people who look like me built the system. As we go forward as designers, I do think it’s important to think about how we present ourselves to our research participants. How do we honor diverse experiences in our design?

Asian Americans, as the highest educated and highest earning minority population in the country, have an interesting relationship to the Privilege framework. There’s a diverse group of people who are lumped into the category of “Asian American” who’s only shared language is English. There’s a whole lot of pressure put on Asian Americans to “succeed:” to have high earning jobs, live out the American Dream, be the “Model Minority.” One pattern I’ve noticed in our research, is that when fitting in means financial success, and money is synonymous with whiteness, people of color don’t have a clear idea of where they fit into American society. I’m thinking a lot about how we can tell stories about our participants, giving our audience context, without falling into outlining “The Asian American Story.” Whatever that is, it’s varied, it’s complicated, and I’m really not sure that it’s for me to tell.

Letting go to gain control

This week, two people told me to focus on what I can control. In both cases, I said “ok, sure” and kept on working on a ridiculous amount of things all at once. Mid-week, I was forced to take a breath, and when I did I realized that I was thinking of what I can control as what I can get control over, instead of actions I can take right now. That was an uncomfortable realization for me. I haven’t been making as much progress as I could be, because I’ve been letting outside forces influence my productivity.

I’ve decided to look at everything, especially my shortcomings, as opportunities to learn. I may not always succeed in the way I plan, but that doesn’t mean the experience is a failure. I’ve started asking more questions of myself like: How do I make myself heard in this situation? What do I need to ask for to make this work?

Hearing “focus on what you can control” has given me permission to let go of perfection, to have an opinion, to be wrong, to speak up for what I need. By naming the things I cannot control, I’m able to look for opportunities in them, and find confidence in myself.

Week 1/32

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing” is a famous translation from Socrates, made famous-er by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I won’t give AC4D quite the status of Socrates, but I will admit that I am in a distinctly new place. My current job involves imagining and implementing very real places/experiences and I have a pretty good idea of how I feel about it. This week has not redirected my “how”, but it has greatly impacted my “who”. I have little doubt that the “how” will be on the carving board soon.

Socrates was trying to say something about quantity of data in versus data out. I realized this week that I was designing A LOT and doing little to connect with others- including my coworkers. The process of getting into class work has had an immediate impact on the kind of person I hope to be at 32/32. People are really great if you take the time to pause and listen. Pk

Whole body.

My introduction to AC4D came 3 years ago when I met David Gottlieb. Dave was a student then and we were both new to Austin. Adventures abound in the live music capital but there was something electric in the conversations shared between his cohort. I was drawn to them and spent hours entrenched in discussions around community, entrepreneurship and politics. I have a fashion and sales background and it didn’t enter into my mind that AC4D could be a part of my journey. Our conversations existed in outer orbit, far from my center, and I felt lucky to enjoy them for a short time.

Two and a half years forward, I am still struggling to understand my place in work. I work for a brilliant start-up in Oakland, CA, attempting to unravel the perfume industry. I believe in our mission, methods and people but navigating the organization of our office and others before it is exhausting. I come in inspired and leave frustrated, feeling that I have so much to contribute and learn but that the communication channels are broken- each crack invisible to the naked eye. I can spend hours illustrating, drafting paper patterns and constructing apparel in solitude. I want to be able to feel that same flow at work, or as close as possible. I apply to AC4d, full of wonderment but also doubt- not in the school but in shifting my path again. I want to be grounded in one direction and ask myself over and over if this is the one.

A few months later, all paths converge in one place on the first day at AC4D. I am surrounded by an inquisitive, intuitive and kind cohort- all of us connected by a single thread. The teachers are here to open us up, share process, to shed light on questions previously unanswerable. I was privy to conversations around experience design and design research with the 2013 cohort but I never really understood that we are not expected to have the answers. It begins with talking to people- listening. Through empathy, patterns will reveal themselves and provide a map for work.

Emotions spill over as I realize how lucky I am to be here and also that this will be one of the most challenging undertakings in my life. Every step in the process will be exposed- posted online and critiqued by my peers. My mother is a Montessori teacher and empowers me to explore my environment, to experiment with the unknown and to reflect on my experiences- openly. I approach AC4D with that openness and willingness to unearth my previously built constructs in hopes of breaking them down and building a stronger foundation.

We dove in whole body last week in Design Research & Synthesis as we selected topics for research and began inviting strangers to share their intimate experiences with sexual education. Each conversation exposes the fragile state of our social construct and spurs further conversation. In Design Theory readings, we discuss consumerism and design and it forces me to review my position on product design and consumption. Closing the week is Studio where I feel most relaxed. Visualizing soft ideas is something I’m naturally good at. The challenge comes with the formation of a new idea or personal position then illustrating those points clearly.

And so the journey begins.



Week 1: Time & Heart

I’ve had the aspiration to go back to school to further my design education for a while, and now that it’s actually happening, I’m so glad I took the leap. I leaped right out of my comfort zone.

I was at a greater point of anxiety before school actually started – anxiety of the unknown. I found myself unique in my cohort having never known anyone who went through the program or sat in on a presentation.

Once orientation week began, even though we were presented with the overview of just how much work was yet to come, I felt my anxiety start to diminish. While there’s a lot of work, at least I know now.

Some lessons and techniques we won’t encounter until later this year, but already in two weeks I have participated in theory class, discussing various perspectives on design in our society, began learning about Contextual Inquiry and how to best gather stories from people in our community and built a research plan that we are currently executing. All of this leading us to participating in the empathetic user experience approach to design.

I thought that the studio class would take me back to my undergrad days, but I’ve never really sketched in this way or participated in exercises quite like these. I’ve realized that even though I come from a design background, everything we’re learning is new to me and will push me to better refine the kind of designer I want to be.

This push will not come solely from readings and learning hard skills, but from having to open my mind to situations and perspectives I never reflected on. I thought I was an open-minded person, but I realize that you have to work incredibly hard to suspend your own judgment of things to better understand people and their environments. I’m eager to continue to discover the unique behaviors that make up others, as well as, my own behaviors I may have overlooked.

I can already see some of my behaviors changing. I find myself interacting with others differently and eager to hear their story. Situations that tend to make me nervous, like chatting with someone I just met, are becoming more comfortable and exciting. I believe this is due to the immersive nature of the program and it’s just the kind of program I was looking for.

One of the first things Jon said during orientation week was, “You can always make more money – you can’t make more time.” Time is incredibly precious and we should be thoughtful with how we spend each minute. I want to spend my time designing something meaningful. I believe a person has two valuable things to give: their time and heart. I will be giving both to AC4D for the next eight months.

Week 1: Finding Time

Just before I started at Austin Center for Design, I spent a week alone in the mountains of West Texas hiking, drawing, and finding comfort again in uncertainty. It’s empowering and terrifying to know you’re probably the only human for miles. I exchanged quick pleasantries with other lone travelers; there’s a reason one goes out to the edges of the world alone, and it’s not usually to tell your story. For me, it was to focus and reframe the next chapter in my life.

My time so far at AC4D has really been pushing the frame I built myself. I’ve been finding intrigue and comfort in places I wouldn’t have guessed two weeks ago. Contextual Inquiry is really exciting me. I’ve used similar methods of questioning in the past, but never thought about the process further than “listen, be kind.” Working in tech support, I’d often have to figure out what a person without technical vocabulary was seeing and doing without being able to see it myself. I found it easiest to calm the person down quickly by reminding them that I was there to help them, matching their patterns of speech, and asking them questions to lead me through what they were seeing in their own words.

It’s been most challenging for me to find the time and space to process all that I’ve learned. I know that it will continue to be a challenge for me. I need to recognize moments of solitude wherever I find them. Saturday night, after a day of class and three hours of rehashing our research project, I found myself downtown in the middle of the Pride Parade. I made a beeline for P. Terry’s and ordered the most food possible. I carved out a quiet spot among the chaos to enjoy my own celebration, eat terribly delicious food, laugh, and find comfort in a good friend.

Reflection – Week One

I had been thinking about applying to AC4D for a few years. Then, through what felt like fate, my spouse got a job in Austin. Once here, we tried to find a place to live. A few places fell through, and we ended up on the east side, about six blocks away from the school. The universe was truly conspiring. That’s why it surprised me when I felt as much doubt as excitement about applying. I suppose it was the time commitment and the fact that I already had a job as an interaction designer. But after talking with a bunch of alumni and sitting in on a couple classes, I decided to go for it.

After a week at AC4D, any feelings of doubt about whether it was the right thing for me have been completely eliminated. I’m equal parts excited and anxious—excited about the work we’ll be doing and anxious about the intensity of it. Reports of past students not infrequently crying during the program are hopefully helping me prepare for it all. We’re only a week in though, so our goodwill is still very much intact.

One of the mantras at the school is “make something, then talk.” Without making something, there’s no reality to your ideas. Wasting no time, we’ve already created a research plan centered around the method of Contextual Inquiry and began executing it in the field. The pace is immersive, the faculty and alumni are all generous and direct with their critique, and the classes are designed to build on each other.

It’s really easy to get caught up in skill building and trying to figure out how to do things effectively while missing out on opportunities for reflection. However, intentional reflection is built into the program in the form of discussion in our theory class as well as more explicit reflections like this one. I’m hoping that will help push us to clarify for ourselves what it is we stand for and what we want out of our careers.

One final thought, given how small the school is, there are only a handful of faculty. While there’s a consistency to the material being taught, there’s a sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle diversity of opinions and approaches among the faculty. That’s not something I had thought about going in, but even after a week, it’s been a refreshing aspect of the program that’s already challenged me to think more about where I stand among it all than I would have if the messages were more unilateral.