So…what exactly is going on here…?

Part of our experience as design students has been figuring out how in the world to even explain what it is that we are going to school for.  “I’m going back to school to study design!” we’ve all said to a friend or family member. “Oh, how cool…like interior, or fashion design”? For a while, I personally tried responses like “No, more like design strategy”, or “No, I’ll be learning to use design to solve problems”. But, those responses typically fell flat. You, too, may also be pretty confused by reading that.

To be honest, after many failed attempts at explaining what I would be doing, I just started to quietly glance down at my generic amazon jeans and worn-in tennis shoes. I would look around my apartment filled with mismatched Ikea and West Elm furniture, and would sigh a bit while responding “Yup. Exactly. Fashion design.”

It’s becoming clear that this isn’t just a problem we face as students, but a challenge we are going to face repeatedly as professional designers as well. We will need to be able to describe what we are working on but also how we are approaching that work and why we are approaching it in that way.

Since the middle of August we have been learning standard design research methodology, and then putting into practice with a client in the Austin community. We’ve also been learning how to communicate our work and its value. Explaining that methodology and its value has been a challenge for us as a team, and it’s something Dan, Leah, and I are focusing on as we move forward in this program.


The standard methodology is usually explained like this:

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You conduct research, and then you make sense of the research. In this part of the research phase, you first make a plan for how to do the research, and then report back some stories to your client about the people you have spoken to.

In the second phase, you make sense of the data, of the people you have spoken with. This includes printing out every single word that was uttered in a conversation, and then pinning them on the walls in your work space. Looking at all of those conversations together helps you find patterns, or themes. After some themes emerge, you would jump into service slices. A service slice is a way of intensely dissecting a conversation to understand more about what is being communicated. Then, and only then, can you move ahead into the process to the elusive, but ever valuable insights. An insight is an instinct about why you think those themes are emerging.

In practice, of course, some of this work may not be so linear and former steps aren’t left behind when advancing to the next. Stories from the field, for example, will be woven in with most of the work, even as one moves ahead to themes or insights. This is because service design, at it’s core, is about people. It’s about telling their unique stories. It’s not an archetype of the general  public it’s about the uniqueness of each individual. To build a case and make a convincing argument for a design idea, designers have to share the stories of the people they interviewed, and take others along the ride with them so that the eventual solutions make sense. We aren’t building graphs built on numbers to explain what’s happening in the world – we are deeply exploring and trying to understand just a few people and use their unique experiences, behaviors, and emotions to spark ideas for new things that don’t yet exist.

Applying this knowledge.

For our project with HOPE Farmers Market, and for our 4th assignment we have focused on service slices. At first, a service slice really only makes sense to the person doing the work. Here’s an example:

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While it is certainly complex in this initial format, creating services slices really proved to be a revealing process. That diagram was created from just a 30 minute conversation. Once you dive into these service slices, you begin to realize just how much is happening during a conversation.

This jumbled mess can’t really be presented to a client, or anyone outside the project team, but sometimes a distilled version of what you’ve captured can aid in storytelling or in conveying a concept.

For the Farmers Market, we mapped several of our conversations with vendors, and what stood out to us is that nearly every single vendor we spoke with was on a similar journey. They were all creating a product for the first time, learning to sell it for the first time, figuring out licensing for the first time, engaging in marketing for the first time, and the farmers market was present at nearly the exact same spot in their journey.

Take for instance Janet. Janet makes juice, and before selling her juice at the farmers market she was simply making it for friends at a potluck. Her friends encouraged her to start selling it because it was so good, but she “Wasn’t so sure about all of that.” Janet had never started a business or sold a product, and she was going to have to learn all of those skills for the first time. She eventually did decide to join a monthly pop-up market, and quickly applied to the farmers market to start selling weekly. She says she chose HOPE Farmers Market because she knew it was an easier market to get into than others, and it was cheaper as well.  Over the last few years, HOPE has allowed her to come a long way. It’s provided her with an infrastructure, a steady side-income, a place to interact with customers and solicit their feedback, and it has also allowed her to learn from her fellow vendors. Today, she is in conversation with brick-and-mortar grocery stores and is excited about the potential of growing her business even more. 

Here is how we mapped out her journey with her product and her business:

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We went through the same process for another vendor, Jessie, who had a surprisingly similar story.

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Lastly, we spoke with someone named Walter who had been at HOPE for nearly 8 years. He’s built his Kombucha business and he’s grown well beyond the market into restaurants and stores. But, when we drew out his business growth based on the conversations we had with him, what we found is that he, too, came to HOPE Farmers Market around the same time in his business journey. Walter has been at it longer, and has demonstrated what is possible for a vendor after participating at HOPE.

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We approached this “Service Slice” assignment as an academic exercise, with no end goals of what to get out of it. What we found, was that mapping out the conversations, particularly with the vendors we spoke to, pulled out more patterns than we had recognized by just reading or listening to the conversations.

Our next step will be to take everything we’ve learned thus far, and move to the next step of the process–insights. We’ll arrive there by thinking about the patterns that have emerged in our research, and using our intuition to to assert why that might be happening.

If we are being honest with you though, we might have started to move just a bit ahead. Our intuition is kicking in whether we like it or not. HOPE Farmers Market seems to fall at the same place along each of these business owners’ journeys. It creates a framework for them. It creates collaboration through unintentional collision. Could it be? Might it be? Is HOPE an informal incubator space without even knowing it?