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Needfinding, Design Thinking, and Alternative Meat: A Conversation With Anne Fletcher

Illustration by Alyssa Plese

Anne Fletcher has devoted the better part of her career trying to understand what people want. After graduating from Stanford University’s Product Design Program in 2007, Fletcher spent several years in product design before returning to Stanford as an educator in the same field in addition to pursuing many of her own ventures as a design researcher and product designer. 

In her upcoming Product Design and Needfinding Challenge Lab, Anne Fletcher intends to work with students to uncover the social, cultural, and technological nuances that may help designers build better meat alternatives. Fletcher and her students will be examining the complex reasons why people may or may not choose to eat alternative meats, offering an exciting opportunity to explore the nuances of one of food tech’s most promising arenas. 

Breaking Down the Buzzwords

“Needfinding” and “Design thinking” are terms that have reached near-ubiquity in the design sphere since their conception at Stanford in the late seventies, yet their exact definitions are often nebulous at best. To get a more refined idea of what these terms mean and also a better sense of how they apply to the curriculum in Fletcher’s upcoming challenge lab, I decided to let Fletcher put it into her own words. 

I was initially a bit daunted at the prospect of interviewing with someone who’s spent the past 20 years perfecting their own role as an interviewer, but Fletcher’s warm grin upon our introduction quickly put my worries to rest (perhaps an indication of her considerable experience in the inquisitor’s chair). Here is an edited transcription of some of the questions that came up during my conversation with Anne Fletcher.

I would love to learn a bit more about your background. Where are you coming from in the design research world?

I taught at Stanford for 10 years before coming here, and I’ve always really liked teaching because I find that students are brilliant lie detectors. When I started teaching, I was also working in the corporate world as a consultant. I did chemistry and biology undergraduate at a women’s college in Washington with enough classes, but not the right classes for a minor in fine art. Then I did the Stanford product design graduate program, which doesn’t really exist anymore. I started teaching, actually, before I graduated from that program, both in the machine shop as a TA, because that paid my tuition, and then as a section leader in the need-finding class. That was a great gig. 

You use that word “need finding.” Could you tell me a bit more about that? I know it’s in the course description for the challenge lab, but what are some of the main tools involved?

So need-finding has a lot of other names.

Sort of like design thinking?

Well, design thinking tends to be an umbrella term for all the tools used to design everything from brainstorming, to prototyping, to empathy, work, etc. But the finding is the process of research at the beginning. So it can be called empathy, it can be called design research, it can also be called Human Factors research.

The particular lineage that I’m part of started in 1968, with a professor named Bob Kim, who was an engineering professor but was buddies with professors in the art department. At the time, the design process roughly followed the sequence of: the engineer makes a thing, then the designer skims the thing and makes it look cool. But the whole concept of form and function working together was kind of a new concept at the time. That group of professors started this whole product design program around this idea that the human needs and the products that designers make are interrelated, and that if you watch people, you’ll see what they need. 

Needfinding back in the day essentially boiled down to “watch people do whatever activity, and wait for an idea about the activity to come to you,” that the need and the solution will present themselves to you simultaneously as a complete package in your mind. So it was a very unscientific process. Basically, “go watch, and wait for it to hit you on the head”, and that’s roughly how it was practiced for a really long time. 

I think there’s a big gap in that process–what should the need finder actually do? So we broke it down into many more concrete steps. How do you actually observe people? What is the process for observing besides to just go sit somewhere? What do you write down? The main focus is always on interviewing, and how to interview. How to ask the right kinds of questions, how to help your subject, feel comfortable, how to build rapport, and then how to get honest answers. 

“People lie to you all the time. Even for questions as simple as “how do you cross the street?” People respond “Look both ways?” That’s the culturally appropriate answer, but is it actually reflective of what that particular person does”

If you ask somebody “what do you eat?” They’ll say “Oh, I try to eat a lot of vegetables. And I usually have a salad for lunch. And something kind of healthy for dinner.” Maybe this is the case on your very best day. But you also know that in between there are also a lot of chips, a lot of bars, a lot of skipping breakfast and getting a smoothie instead. Getting people to actually tell you the truth is really hard. 

As you’re doing interviews, there’s this funny space between listening attentively and respectfully, then pushing a little further in ways that are actually quite rude. For example, I was interviewing a guy in Boulder, Colorado for a company that does sports food–people in Boulder tend to be very sporty. We started the interview outside because we wanted to go for a walk, and he told us all about his healthy lifestyle, all the healthy food he eats, and all the exercise he likes to do. Then we go back to his house, and because it’s part of the interview, we ask to see his kitchen and where he prepares his food.  

We start looking in his cabinets and see a gallon size mayonnaise next to Costco canned chicken, next to a lot of dried packaged Crystal Light. The need finder says, “that food in your cupboard does not make sense with what you were just telling me about your health food diet. Can you help me understand how having this in your cabinet makes sense with what you were just telling me?” Basically, the goal is to call people out, but in a way that’s constructive and doesn’t make them shut down. When we questioned him, he told us, “Oh, well, that’s for my mom’s chicken casserole, which I make when I’m feeling nostalgic. That’s my comfort food. I make a batch of this every week or two to keep in the fridge for comfort food.” 

There are a couple of different takeaways from this.  Part of it is that you can’t trust what anybody says about what they eat, and that people are cheating all the time. The other part is that needs are interrelated. For a food company that was a bit revolutionary. They thought of their customers as being these extremely healthy people, yet a huge portion of their sales was at Walmart. That was confusing to them because they had the perception that Walmart was for “average people” and their customers weren’t “average people.” And as design researchers, we suggested that their customers are actually like everybody else is to a certain degree.  

How do you plan on implementing some of the practices you discussed in the challenge lab? I’m guessing it will be pretty experiential. 

I’m going to focus primarily on teaching tools and guiding students through activities to do their own explorations. I’m not going to assign any kind of curriculum related to, “what’s the right or wrong answer about all meats”, or “what are the ingredients of all meats?” That’s for them to figure out on their own. We’re going to be focusing primarily on exercises that take them through seeing meat consumption through other people’s eyes because our own perceptions of the world are so intimate to us and so much our everyday clothing that we don’t see them.

What are some of the main challenges you expect to arise during that process? How might this affect someone’s decision to eat or not eat meat alternatives?

The big challenge I see stems from two major cultural trends that are happening at the same time, and are deeply in conflict with one another, and tend to be deeply in conflict in the same people. There is the trend towards whole foods (eating the whole vegetables, eating the whole animal). There is also the trend which has designated the meat as the bad part, and the dairy, and everything related to animals. But the question remains, where does processing come in? Alternative meats are by nature heavily processed foods, and eating a vegan diet without any processed proteins is, while not impossible, very difficult.

I think it’s often the same populations of people who are concerned about the environment, who are concerned about health, who are concerned about doing the right thing and they end up on either side of this divide. One side claims “I’m going to eat only unprocessed foods and I’m going to eat the most ethical meat I can find. Dairy and chicken and eggs are excellent sources of protein eaten in small amounts, and I’m going to buy them from very particular sources, which is essentially very elitist. However,  I think both sides of this divide are very elitist–the other perspective, the vegan perspective of “I can eat anything in the world, and I’m choosing not to eat meat” is also exceedingly elitist. Those are the two dominant cultural frames that we bring to this class. They’re absolutely in conflict, and processed food is right at the center of it. 

What what are you most excited about for this class? What do you think students should be most excited about? 

I think I’m most excited about what the students will come up with because Berkeley students are incredibly smart and creative. I think, with a topic as juicy and potentially controversial, there’s gonna be a lot to dig into and a lot of different opinions, and those opinions are going to be emotional and closely held. It’s one thing to talk about food in the abstract, it’s another thing entirely to criticize someone’s food identity. Part of what my job is going to be is not actually to talk about the subject matter of meat very much but to talk about how feelings come up, and how we deal with those as designers. The problem isn’t going to be getting enough information, the problem is going to be processing the information in an effective way. 

I think that for the students, it’s going to be a journey that will be less predictable than your average class, and more personal. There will be a lot of examination of personal beliefs, and a lot of growth in how they relate to the world. That will be useful if you want a career as a designer, and also to help you to be able to see the world more easily from other perspectives. As a designer, you can only go so far designing things for yourself. If you want to be a versatile designer, if you want to be an innovator and an entrepreneur, sooner or later you’re going to have to design for people other than yourself, especially if you want to get outside of our current entrepreneurial climate.

I don’t really have a technical background and don’t know much about the chemical makeup of meat, let alone its alternatives. However, I am really interested in design and would love to learn more about the design research process. Would I do okay if I took this class?

Oh, absolutely, in fact, you might do better at it than the engineering people. This class requires you to use your imagination about other people’s lives and to tell stories about it that convince other people that they should listen to you. So listening to stories and telling stories is fundamental to this class. I hope we get as many liberal arts students as we do engineers

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