Text by Sara Aye / Greater Good Studio
Introduction: A Brief Exercise in Empathy
What food did you hate as a kid, that you now love as a grown-up?
Mine was guacamole. I used to hate guacamole! My mom would make it fresh and serve it at parties, and I just thought it looked so gross.
Now, of course, guac is one of my favorite foods. I regret the years I spent missing out on all that awesome homemade goodness. Why didn't I just try it? It's so delicious! My point is that it's hard to remember what it's like to be a kid. Sure, we remember some of the major moments, but it's particularly hard to recall how we behaved in daily life. In the case study below, our main users were kids, and since we couldn't literally become kids again, we had to find other ways to understand them. As you read about the project, try to remember what it was like to not like [insert food you used to hate here].
Designing Everything but the Food
At Greater Good Studio, we use design methods to solve social problems. We work with foundations, nonprofits, government agencies and social businesses, often saying that our mission is to work with people on a mission. We take an asset-based approach to research and design, because in the social sector, unmet needs are almost too easy to find. Rather, we look for assets—the people, resources, behaviors, relationships and systems—that are already working well. Our designs leverage those assets to create more and better life.
We were recently awarded a grant to teach a class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where my co-founder George is a professor). The project was to design an elementary school cafeteria, with a team of grad and undergrad students. I know what you're thinking: it's an architecture project, right? Well, we approached the challenge as designing the interactions between kids and food. While a cafeteria is literally a room with four walls, it's also a dance between lots of people and lots of things, most importantly, kids and food. To create a great cafeteria experience, kids and food have to interact in a way that is positive, healthy and fun.
Another way to frame it is that rather than designing the space, we are designing the behaviors within that space. If we can find ways to support new behaviors, and facilitate great interactions, we can create a user-centered experience without moving any walls...which we weren't allowed to do anyway.
Lesson 1: Don't know the answer until you know the question.
We started by framing our project around health. How can we design a cafeteria that encourages healthy eating? We were inspired by Dr. Brian Wansink, a behavioral economist from Cornell, who showed that simple cafeteria changes like placing the milk before the soda could have enormous impact on diners' choices. However, the healthfulness of school lunch is a subjective, politicized issue. And healthy food is no silver bullet: When Chicago Public Schools changed its menu to add healthy options, kids opted out! (And lunch ladies protested).
Most importantly, we are designers. We're not nutritionists, chefs, food scientists, farmers or supply chain managers. What can we bring to the table? We thought about our responsibilities as designers: to be action-oriented, to understand people on an individual level, and to think first about desirability, rather than feasibility or viability or "how this will do in opinion polls." Our expertise is in human experience, and so that's where our research began.
Observing lunchtime that first afternoon at Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), the charter school where our project was based, we noticed one really glaring pattern: every adult in the room was trying to get kids to eat. They were playing eating games, "selling" the merits of various dishes, and straight-up pleading with kids to take one more bite. Our first reaction was, "They are working really hard at this!" And our second reaction was, "It's not even working." Kids were throwing out lots and lots of perfectly delicious food at every meal. We realized that rather than encouraging kids to eat healthier, the ideal cafeteria is one that simply encourages kids to eat—though, as any parent knows, that is no small feat.
The lesson here is to not assume the answer until you know the right question. There's a common criticism of design in the social sector—it's called "missionary design." Missionaries go to foreign cultures already knowing the "answers" to people's troubles. Rather than being missionaries, let's remember that the answers are in that place. So don't assume you know what to fix, until you know what is broken.
Lesson 2: Understand an experience from multiple angles.
Our design research was both broad and deep. We observed the meals at AGC to catalogue design levers within the space. We interviewed AGC stakeholders and shadowed the chef and kitchen manager for full shifts at a time. We interviewed kids and parents about their favorite family meal experiences, and put GoPro headcams on kids in order to see their lunchtime experiences from their point of view. Our student team of researchers worked as Lunch Room Attendants (LRAs), and we all took time-lapse video of the entire room. In short, we covered everything.
Our research team experienced the realities of prepping, cooking, serving and cleaning up after 150 kids. We heard about wonderful moments from home, like cooking with Dad and eating family-style at Grandma's. We gained serious empathy for our smallest users—the head cam footage showed us that when you're a kid, the world is not designed for you. Sight lines were narrow and kids often took trays without even knowing what was on them. And we also gained empathy for the LRAs, who beam with pride when kids eat their food, but also hurry them along because they know the lunchtime clock is ticking.
The lesson here is that when your project is set in a particular context, try to see that context from many different points of view. Interactions are three-dimensional, and no single research method told the whole story. We saw moments on the headcams that were reinforced by a stakeholder; we heard things from parents that were explained by the time-lapse. So to get the complete picture in your design research, see the same thing multiple ways.
Lesson 3: Put your project in its larger context.
Once our team of students got to work on synthesis, we all became quickly overwhelmed by the massive amount of qualitative data before us. We used a framework called the 5E's (credit: Conifer Research) to organize our observations and isolate patterns. The 5E's says that any compelling experience has 5 stages: Entice, Enter, Engage, Exit and Extend.
We defined Engage as anytime kids are at the cafeteria tables, Enter and Exit as any other moments contained within the cafeteria (such as lining up or throwing out garbage), and Entice and Extend as any moments that happen outside of the cafeteria, but affect it (such as looking at today's menu on a fridge, or talking about lunch after school).
The lesson here is to put your project into its larger context. In this case, it's a cafeteria, but it's also a food relationship. It doesn't start when the kids arrive, and it doesn't end when they leave. Everything is always a part of something bigger, and by stepping back by one power of ten, it gives you fresh perspective on your work.
Lesson 4: Talk about the solution.
One of the things our research confirmed was just how much food was being thrown away. However, a clumsy way to frame this challenge would be, "Kids throw out lots of food, so how might we decrease food waste?" In fact, AGC was already targeting food waste. As an environmentally conscious community, they had scales under their compost cans, and would celebrate each week if the weight of their food waste went down. However, we felt that by talking about food waste, we were at risk of sending the community in the wrong direction.
"Decreasing food waste" is a classic example of what we call "talking about the problem." I don't know if you've ever been to sexual harassment training, where they talk about sexual harassment, show examples of sexual harassment, and then the problem of sexual harassment gets worse rather than better? "Talking about the problem" plagues the social sector, and not only is it depressing, it's not particularly effective. Anyone who works in social change is probably nodding their head.
We are big believers in appreciative inquiry—the theory that people and groups move in the direction of what they talk about. And so we built our design opportunities around assets we wanted to leverage, and variables we wanted to increase. Here are three
1. Kids spent mere seconds choosing their food. This is because LRAs hurried them along—they know that lunch is only 20 minutes, and that time in line takes away from time that could be spent eating. However, our sneaking suspicion was that if we allowed kids time to choose foods they liked, they would be more likely to eat them. Our first opportunity: How might we increase time for choice?
2. Kids tended to eat only their favorite foods—the one or two items that they knew they liked—and avoid the unfamiliar. This makes sense if you think about it—that foreign object could kill me!—but it leads to anything new being ignored, played with and ultimately tossed. Our second opportunity: How might we increase trial of new food?
3. Lunchtime is a break—their first real break in the day—and it was hard to focus on food when there were stories to tell and games to play. We also noticed that the tray was overwhelming, with all four food items presented all at once. Our third opportunity: How might we increase the focus on food?
These opportunities generated hundreds of ideas around food presentation, organization and delivery process, in brainstorming sessions with students, parents and teachers at AGC. I'll share one of them in the next part of this series.
The lesson here is to talk about the solution—even if you don't know what it is yet! Frame your design opportunity in terms of what you want to amplify, rather than what you want to fix, and you'll find that your community starts catalyzing around that ideal end state.
About Sara Aye
Sara Cantor Aye is co-founder of Greater Good Studio, a Chicago design firm focused on social impact. At Greater Good, Sara works as an advocate for the user across every step of the design process. Sara teaches design to business students at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, and teaches research to design students at the Institute of Design at IIT and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a board member of EPIC, a team-anchored coach at Design for America, and a recent graduate of The Starter League. Sara believes that empathy is what makes us uniquely human, and that by making research tangible, visual and memorable, we can generate the empathy needed to design truly human-centered change.