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  • Writer's pictureManasee

Participatory design exercise to investigate food habits of international students

Done as a in-class activity for the UI Design and Evaluation class at Georgia Tech.

This exercise was proposed to investigate how international students adapt their food habits while on campus.

Hypothesis: For international student who have recently migrated here for study, the food availability on campus is one of the biggest problems. Special meal requirements (vegetarian/vegan meals, food allergies etc) keep students from choosing to eat on campus, and force them to carry their own food.

Part 1 (5 mins):

● Hand each participant a brown bag lunch kit, and ask them to assemble ​their ​​lunch from what might be a typical student lunch fare at school.

● Give room to add more items/ingredients through post-its.

● Document their assembly

Part 2 (5 mins):

● Hand each participant post-its and a pen.

● Ask about food habits where they come from.

○ What constitutes a lunch at home?

○ What constitutes a working lunch?

○ Name 1 food from your culture that you’d want at Gatech?

● Document their input


Items needed:

● Placard with brief

● Question prompts

● Illustrations of food items

● 3 pens/sharpies

● 3 sets of post its

● Timer

● Camera to document

Thoughts on the activity

First part of the activity had a twofold purpose: Icebreaker, and getting the participants to visualize what their meals in college are like. I asked them to fill their lunch bag from some categories I had created, and encouraged them to create their own if required.

In Part 2, I asked the participants to write down in their own words answers to the following 3 questions. The table encapsulates their responses.

Design Goal

How might the food available on campus reflect the cultural diversity of the attending students? How can the campus be more inclusive towards the food and dietary needs of international students? What foods from their cultures might make an easier transition to their college/student life?

Design Ideas
  • Campus more or less reflects the world map(cartesian). Eg. If you’re craving a hot bowl of Ramen, you might head to the East side of Campus. If you’re craving hummus and pita bread, you might find it somewhere near the centre. Tech trolley stops are renamed after popular food destinations.

  • Any food joint can have multiple flavour representations of every country. We can try to incorporate flavours in different cuisines in the form of powders, sauces and spices. Eg. Tacos or sandwiches or wraps could be made available in flavours like Paneer Tikka or Spicy Chicken Ramen.

  • The participant pool prefered to have their lunches hot (in terms of temperature) and freshly prepared. Just like water coolers are ubiquitous around the campus, food dispensing station for hot food staples like rice, noodles, curry, soup, bread etc. can be placed in each building. The sides could be available as vending machine options. An app interface could order food in advance exactly how you like it. Customize the ingredients, quantity and have drones deliver lunch packs to you.

Other ideas I considered:

  • Student representatives (food committee) community driven mess. Democratic canteen managed by Georgia tech students.

  • Different communities come forward to set up food stalls for different weeks on a rotational basis. Plans set in advance or the 52 weeks of the year. Everyone gets to sample a new variety of cuisine every week. Also can be a source of income for international students.

Reflection on designing with PD:

I’ve always struggled to come to terms with a designer’s conundrum of ‘designing for others’. We bring to our designs our life experience, ideas, intellect, exposure and values. We only ever know our own lived reality. No matter how diligent the process of inquiry is, we can never really place ourselves in someone else’s shoes. I sometimes wonder if it’s fair to design for anyone but themselves. Are we in a way speaking on behalf of someone else and taking away their agency?

PD is like a salve that calms my apprehensions. The designer remains the moderator to ensure that the design is fulfilling the goal, but at the same time takes in due consideration of the requirements and inputs of all the participants who hopefully are a representative of the sample population being designed for. I couldn’t have been able to imagine the food preferences someone who’s originally from China, but has lived in the USA for the last 6 years. What kind of food habits have changed over these years? My assumption that people hold on to their food preferences no matter how many years they live outside of their country was not applicable to 2 out of 3 participants of the PD activity.

Some of the questions that need further probing are how much is the overlap between their old food habits, and their current lifestyle.


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