Learning about Pittsburgh food problem through Design

05–410: User Center Research & Evaluation

Before beginning the journey that was learning about and meeting many wonderful people involved in Pittsburgh’s Food organizations, I must share why and how. I am a student in Information Systems(IS) with a double in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). This HCI major covers a lot of different topic about the relationship we have with technology and how we use it. One of the core classes that everybody in the major has to take is User Center Research & Evaluation, otherwise known as UCRE. This is a notorious course here in Carnegie Mellon, since it takes on the task of teaching student the most important methods for research when it comes to designing a solution, and evaluating it. In the class, we learn many tools and methods, that in theory can be applied to any problem. To put us to the task our Professor Jenna Date, offered the class to pick from 7 issues that the city of Pittsburgh is facing. From these, we were grouped and tasked to try and learn and tackle an issue.


We were placed into teams, and I have to say I couldn’t have been happier. Our team consisted of 4 people including myself. It was an overwhelming team for myself due to the majority of the team was or had a lot of design experience. Something that I had little experience in. The first task was to choose the domain we were going to try to tackle. Out of all the issues. We decided that food was the most severe since a lot of Pittsburgh suffers from food insecurity and desserts.

My awesome teammates

Our Mission

Our Mission Statement

Since the food issue in Pittsburgh is very large, one of the things we needed to do was create a mission statement. Food awareness, insecurity, and the dessert sin Pittsburgh are all large and have many problems within each. For this reason, our team decided to not focus on creating a solution that could help mitigate these issues, but instead how to help existing organizations do their job better. For this reason, we created out a mission statement to be: Empowering a stronger food network to ensure full and healthy communities in Pittsburgh.

The Task & Research

Our task as a team was to essentially find out everything we could about the food problem here in Pittsburgh, and learn about everyone who can be involved. In order, to not get side tracked we always had out mission stamen to keep in scope when learning new things. All the research that we did was with the goal of helping existing organizations. Before we got started doing any on sight research we began by performing good old Google search.

What we found out was how bad the food problem in Pittsburgh was, which thankfully there was a lot of literature on. From government sights to all the work that existing organizations had. In addition, since there were topics like food desert, we had the research of other cities and how they approached solving it. Food desserts being areas where people do not have access to healthy food due to distance or transportation. Furthermore, we discovered a huge network of organizations in Pittsburgh, which only reinforced our mission statement. Lastly, what we learned was that all we had was on account of others and we needed to learn more from the people who are involved.

Contextual Inquiries

A contextual inquiry is a method of running an interview where instead of just running a question and answer session. You ask while the person in question does their daily routines. This way you can learn about their environment and have more context on what they do. Furthermore, it allows the interview to take note and pictures of the environment where the participant is in. This was going to be critical for us since we wanted to learn about food pantries, kitchens, and other social services.

The community kitchen we visited.

In our case, one of the hardest parts of the interviews was booking them. Since these organizations were extremely busy getting a right time to run them was a struggle, but once there the interviews went by smoothly because of how passionate they were on the topic. Below are pictures of some of the organizations we worked with. (Pittsburgh Community kitchen, Jubilee Kitchen, Community Food Bank) When performing these interview, I learned a lot about why they are useful and about the topic at hand. Being places in the environment of the expert at hand one can get more out of the topic. An example was going to the Foodbank, where we could see how busy they were, and as the director showed us I got a better understanding of the sensitivity of the topic. In addition, something that I think it adds is it gives the participant strength and confidence since the interviews take place in their one territory.

Activity where they drew their relationships.

In addition, something that we wanted to do to gain a deeper understanding of food network in Pittsburgh, was having out participant perform some activities after the interview. This included doing a relationship diagram activity. This activity’s purpose was to allow the participant to draw the individuals and organizations that were close and involved with the participant. The great thing about this activity is that it led us to follow up on other organizations and see where organizations that should be closer, were far in reality.

Affinity Diagram

After running over 7 separate detailed contextual interviews with many organizations, there was a lot of data. Data that took sharpen in vice transcriptions and personal interviewer notes. At this point, we all had some basic understanding of what was going on and what could be done, but it was very hard to put into words. This is where the great affinity diagram comes in. This is a very powerful tool that can be applied to almost any large data set to organized and derive insights from it. The way it works is through a structured system where data is split up, and placed in groups of similar data. This tedious recursive procedure leads to a detailed tree-like graph of all the data where insights can be derived. One of the benefits of doing is that by providing insight you have proof to back each of them up since the insights came from the data.

Bo Working on the Affinity Diagram

As a team, we sat down for at least three hours processing the data and making into our final affinity diagram. This diagram gave us three insights which were very useful. These insights were what we used to narrow down our scope as to how to possibly solve issues, and empower the food network.

Our Affinity Diagram

Journey Maps

Another tool we used to capture the life of the complex systems we were trying to improvise is the Journey Map. This tool allows you to map events within a timeline with the use of emotions. Meaning you can see the highs and lows of someone’s day today. In our case, we used the tool to map the employees and clients of these food organizations. Doing so allows us to see where there are pain points that we can possibly work on or improve. An example of this is for those in need when purchasing food traveling was always a negative experience. Not being able to afford a car, and having bad transportation made the experience bad and not enjoyable.

How might we

After gathering all of our data, and deriving insights from it, the missing piece besides all of our process was coming up with how might we statements. These statements allow us to explore possible scenarios that could solve a current problem or give value to the food network. The way we are able to show these how might we statements is through drawing out scenarios, or user scenarios. These sketches show what could be the future if our solution existed. Below are what we came up with, with beautiful illustrations by our team member Lois Kim.

The outcome

After this process that took over 8 weeks to do, we were able to show our research and finding to people of the community. From social organizations to leaders in the community kitchen in Pittsburgh. This process taught me a lot. From how to perform an interview the right way, to how to synthesize data into meaningful information that can be used later on. Lastly the best part a lot this project was the data and report we created. Reason being that if anyone wanted to solve a problem within this field of food in Pittsburgh. I am confident that if they read out report they would know everything they need to get started saving them weeks of research.

What is there left to do?

Emily Performing a survey

Even though we finished out project there is still a lot of research left to do. When we performed out 8 interviews, it was only with close facilities that we could reach, but there is potential for larger organizations that were farther away. Interviewing them could provide further insights. Lastly, performing a longer more through a survey to the not just student, but a member of the Pittsburgh community can give us a deeper insight as to what the people know and think.

What I did

  1. Perform multiple contextual inquiries, Both as the leading interviewer and the note taker.
  2. Synthesize and organized data from the contextual inquiries.
  3. Organized and interpreted data from surveys that I helped create.
  4. Helped with ideation for possible ‘How might we statements?’

What I learned

  1. How to perform multiple types of studies, and gain insights through different tools.
  2. Gain the confidence when it comes to interviews, and pushing the participant to talk.
  3. How to properly organize a research process book, in an organized and easy to read fashion (If interested in seeing it, reach out to me!!!)