Research Methods
November 6, 2019

REFLECTING ON:  Using human-centered research methods to gain a complete understanding of our user group.

As I mentioned in my previous post, my research group and I are exploring the food habits of local college students living off-campus in hopes to develop a solution to the following question:

How might we educate and empower college students living off-campus to incorporate healthier food choices into their diverse lifestyles?

After conducting interviews with three participants and initiating a conversation with our target audience about relationships with food, we are moving into the next research phase to boil down to the primary obstacles. For this phase, we have curated a set of four participatory research methods which facilitate further engagement with the target users with a more targeted investigation. The four research methods — card sorting, diary studies, personal inventories, and grocery store shadowing — allow us to gain deeper understandings of our participants attitudes towards health and convenience.

The first method was card sorting which allowed us to understand the way participants categorize certain types of food in relation to one another. Each participant received the same set of cards and were asked to categorize four times: healthy vs. unhealthy, convenient vs. inconvenient, “I like this” vs. “I don’t like this”, and “I eat this” vs. “I don’t eat this”. Next, we asked participants to record diary studies of all food consumed over the course of five days so that we can understand what our users are actually eating and compare to the answers we received in the interviews. To accompany the food diaries, we gave each participant a shot list of kitchen tools and food items in their homes to photograph, categorized by frequency of use, so that we can obtain personal inventories and gain insight into the food environments that participants live in and create for themselves. Finally, we decided to shadow each person on a grocery shopping trip to understand how the way food items are organized and presented to customers may affect the way our target users make food choices.

As we engage with our participants in new ways, my research team has regrouped and shared insights that we’ve gained through our own experiences, hearing about one another’s experiences, and synthesizing all of the new qualitative data. From these experiences, we’ve deduced three overall themes which affect the way college students make food choices. Convenience informs a lot of unhealthy, and sometimes expensive, to-go meals. Since we can’t remove tasks from student's lives, we can find opportunity to intervene in this quick, last minute decision-making. Food choices also tend to be socially-motivated. Students often eat out because of social outings or because they are influenced by their friends’ dining decisions. Perceptions of health are also heavily influenced by family eating patterns. Last but not least, an obstacle for students is awareness of what “healthy food” means, and a consciousness of how much healthy vs. unhealthy food they are actually eating and even how much money they are actually spending on convenient food.

This post exists within a series of reflections on topics and coursework from my Human-Centered Design class, taught by Marty Maxwell Lane at the University of Arkansas.