Food for thought: how do teenagers make food choices when they’re away from their parents? Does family or income have anything to do with what teenagers eat? What about body image, or gender? Our team (Lindsay Josal, Crystal Watson, and Laura Galos) started with these questions at the outset of our design project for the Design Research and Synthesis class at AC4D. We’ve just wrapped up two weeks of design research, and have documented our journey and the people we met, here.
Using our noodles: What we did
We began with a shared interest in nutrition as a broad topic for exploration. Given a prompt to focus on teenagers and obesity, our group decided to broaden the focus to “teenage eating habits and food choices,” and try to understand influencing factors such as family, culture, gender, body image, and income levels. Over the course of our research, some of those influences clearly applied, some were less important, and unanticipated influences appeared.
Spilling the beans: Talking to teenagers
Our research method was to use contextual inquiry to understand and empathize with the teenagers. Contextual inquiry was important because it meant that we went to the environments where teenagers were naturally making their food choices and observed them as they navigated the process of selection, ordering, paying, and eating. For us, this shed some light on contradictions between the things teenagers said and the things they did. (For example, asserting an interest in eating healthy foods but actually eating chips and soda.)
Before going to each context (Barton Creek Mall, UT dining halls, Torchy’s and Bennu), we had developed a research plan (posted earlier, here). The plan changed a little as we refined our strategy regarding who to approach and where, given the complexities—such the issue of consent—of interviewing teenagers. In the field, we took audio recordings, photographs, notes, and developed a word cloud to allow them to explore their feelings about eating. With these artifacts, we hoped to capture as much information as possible so we’d have a rich pool of data on which to base our synthesis.
In a nutshell: What we found
We heard from six teenagers ranging in age from 14 to 20 (ok, 20 isn’t technically “teenage” but we felt the participant gave us compelling information and was close in age to our target). Along the way, we found a few things that improved our research process, and also learned about teenage culture, especially around food. For us, a few key learnings were:
1. Offering incentive for teenagers’ time made them more open to letting us watch and interview them.
2. That we needed to be more formal about scheduling time with people younger than 17, since arrangements needed to be made with parents.
3. That we could use environments to screen for appropriate candidates (eg, going to UT to find people over 17).
While we haven’t yet begun synthesis of all the information we got from the teenagers, we have found emerging themes connected to food. Several teenagers brought up strong family dynamics around cooking or not knowing how to cook, and who does the cooking in the family. We noticed that dramatic geographical relocations can be very disruptive to food habits and decisions. As previously mentioned, we also saw divisions between what teenagers said they ate and what they actually ate. On the whole, we’re excited to see problems and themes as they materialize from our transcriptions and photos, and look forward to our next phase.