Is There HOPE for HOPE Farmer’s Market?

Learning design methodology is a lot about trusting the process. When gathering data, it is not clear what will come of it. When patterns emerge, it is not clear if they matter.

Our project with HOPE Farmers Market was the first design project that Leah, Dan, and I have embarked on, and it has been a learning experience for all of us. This week, we were really excited to get to the why.

Throughout our first quarter at AC4D we developed a research plan and began interviewing with as many folks involved with the market we could speak with, eventually reaching 17. Our goal by having these conversations with people from the market helped us to see patterns.
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Surrounded by intense amounts of utterances at the studio we whittled down our data into more refined themes. We then moved to the service slicing portion of our research to further dissect conversations we had to make sense of the data line by line.
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Our insights:

Design insights are breakthroughs that reveal behavior patterns and drive bold decisions. Insights tell us not just what people do and when, but why.

We started with what we know:

The Vendor Experience
For vendors, the fee to get into HOPE market is low, and with this low barrier to entry attracts vendors with little experience. Vendors are paying HOPE to provide access to customers , currently the market is unable to provide an adequate amount of customers that come to the market.

A story we found compelling was from a longstanding vendor; Janet. Janet has a strong customer base and makes some fantastic juice. However, Janet’s story goes far beyond her product. Coming from the caribbean Janet is a single mother who started her business not just out of passion, but out of need. She was approaching a divorce and knew additional income was needed to support her child. Janet works full time in the mental health field but pours passion into her juice recipe, which she inherited from her grandmother. She saw her juice as an extension of her heritage, that she brings to market and benefits from. However, with the uncertainty of traffic that HOPE receives she realizes she could make more elsewhere.

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The Customer Experience
Customers of HOPE FM expect to see an abundance of fruit and vegetables, it being a farmers market and all. However, that’s not exactly what’s present in the market today. We heard from a variety of customers who were confused by the experience. We had loyal customers seeking their favorite item, which wasn’t there on any given Sunday. We spoke with someone who used to attend Mueller market but moved into the neighborhood and found the market to be sad. Something that isn’t being fulfilled. The market lacks actual produce, there is plenty of expensive snacks and an array of friendly faces, however this doesn’t entirely satiate the expectation of fruits and vegetables people have been bred to expect at a market.

People want to be a part of something that is thriving, not something that asks them to suspend their expectations about their imagined experience. In a society where “the customer is always right”, HOPE does not prioritize them.

These vendor and customer insights brought us to our problem statement; By calling this a farmers market, there is an inherent value promise being made and broken to the customers and the vendors.

We’ve synthesized several appropriate options for the market’s potential future. We realize that if the market is going the direction that is has been, there is no hope for its future. It is suffering and dying. It would be a viable option to simply let it run it’s full course and die. We are, however, aware that as design thinkers, generating alternative options is essential to our ability to provide value to their situation. So we have been working to take a step back and assess the larger picture that HOPE operates within.

We’ve been working closely with market leadership and have cultivated some real relationships. However, as our research and narrative around this project continues we can’t help but address the massive shift that’s happening in the area surrounding the market at Plaza Saltillo. Austin is weird, there’s no doubt about it. However it seems to be getting harder and harder to find weird along 6th street amongst the changing East Austin scene.

HOPE farmer’s market was housed in an abandoned artist’s warehouse not far from its current location, ten years ago. East Austin was a drastically different place then, with a high crime rate, and not nearly as many shiny condos in view. The condo’s that surround Plaza Saltillo house thousands of new-to-Austin residents and an entirely different lifestyle than the homes that surround it.

The entire neighborhood is growing and changing at a pace unmatched by any other city in the nation right now. The challenges this small market faces are in part, societal. If the market wants to be successful going forward you need to understand who the people are who are the new majority of residents in the neighborhood.

The competitive environment in which the market lives enables an exciting new space for the market to operate in. The concrete proof of growth in the area is changing the narrative of old Austin. We want to find out how the business’ of old have integrated into the community and find out what is working for them.

Here is what we want to know and who we would want to talk to in going forward with rebirthing HOPE in its new contextualized environment:

What do other old businesses do in this area? They didn’t all die, how have they survived?
Who lives in this neighborhood now? What do they want? What are the needs of the community that need to be met now?
It’s a controversial but time for change for the neighborhood’s economy and culture. We want to better understand what this means for businesses in East Austin in general.
What are some ways that budding entrepreneurs are being supported in Austin? What are the gaps in the current offerings?