Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why We Need Design Research

I love listening to public radio because more often than not a story will come up relating to anthropology or design or both.

Today's story by PRI, discussed the impact of traditional cook stoves on climate change. A new study has found black carbon as the second leading cause of climate change. Black carbon is produced by diesel engines, power plants and the burning of wood. Traditional cook stoves in developing nations (India, Asia and Africa) burn wood for fuel and release black carbon into the atmosphere.

Scientists would like to replace traditional cook stoves with stoves that either eliminate or reduce black carbon emissions. The problem is trying to convince rural villagers to change their traditional methods and use the new stoves. As mentioned in the segment, people are very particular about the way food is cooked. Food in many cultures is what brings community and family together. Cooking traditions are passed down from generation to generation and women will spend hours by the stove cooking meals for their families. When scientists, non-profit organizations and designers try to impose new methods and tools onto people, the attempts are often futile and have failed in the past. Villagers like the way the traditional cook stoves makes the food taste and they vastly prefer their traditional methods over the new ones. They are more concerned about making food that their family will eat, than the effects that their stove emissions have on the planet.

This is the point where design research is helpful and I think, necessary. An outsider cannot simply come up with a solution to the problem without first researching the user who will actually be implementing the solution. To impose a new tool on a group of people who's food culture is so intertwined with the object (the chulha) that makes it is a dead-end strategy. I do not know what a lower-emission cook stove that would be readily accepted looks like, but it is clear to me that that working with and for the people who will eventually use the stove should be the first step, not the last.

The chulha (traditional Indian cook stove) 'makes the food taste the way it is supposed to'.

An alternative to a traditional cook stove, the solar cooker uses sunlight as the fuel source to cut down on harmful emissions as well as conserving fuel.

Listen to the story:

Friday, July 30, 2010

Coffee Relics

I found this ceramic drip coffee cone on top of the microwave at my house. It was being used to hold a paper clip, a small ceramic blue bird, a rubber band, a dead battery and a whole load of dust. The cone probably belong(ed) to my step-mother. I relic of a past relative or perhaps just a thrift store find. But whoever it belonged to it was clearly not being used for the purpose in which it was conceived. So, I took the (presumably) forgotten drip coffee cone, cleaned it out and restored it to its proper place in the material world. I used it today for my morning coffee, and it did a stellar job. It will now make a fine addition to my growing collection of coffee making artifacts.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The new segment: 'What the hell?'

At the beginning of the summer, I saw a billboard ad for a local grocery store by the freeway. It had two ears of grilled corn. The caption over the image proclaimed:

Make Vegetables Less Vegetabley!

Make vegetables less vegetabley? What the hell does that mean? Isn't that point of vegetables? That they taste like vegetables? Has our food culture gone so far astray that we can't appreciate fresh food when we have it? I happen to love the taste of fresh vegetables, and I think its unfortunate that they grocery stores rather than promoting their fresh food as is, has to demean it in order to sell it.

Another bizarre sign I saw was outside a local brewery. Their sign said,

Schmiddt's Now Offers Organic Water

What the hell is organic water? It seems to me that water is one of the most pure things out there. Is organic water simply the absence of added minerals, sugars, electrolytes and flavors? It's too bad that there is now so much other crap in our water that's not simply hydrogen and oxygen that we have to advertise water as 'organic'.

What the hell?!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The coffee obsession begins...

I have recently become intrigued with the culture of coffee; how it's made and how people choose to share it and enjoy it. I discovered this fascination when in India I encountered a new type of coffee making device:

The powdered coffee is packed into the top portion and then filled with hot water and left to sit as the water slowly filters through the grounds into the bottom canister. Until making coffee in this new way it had (naively) not occurred to me that different cultures would make coffee in different ways with different tools. I had discovered a new obsession: coffee cultures (both preparation and enjoyment of) from around the world.

My new interest picks up at home with my quest to collect various coffee making implements and using them to brew the best home-made coffee.

My first purchase was a five-dollar Melitta 'Ready Set Joe' Cone for a single cup of coffee.

You can see the coffee drip down through the little window.

I was pleased that I could now brew just one cup of coffee for myself rather than making at least four with the electric drip pot that my family owns.

After doing some research on how to brew the perfect press pot, I learned that the blade grinder I had been using for my beans comes highly unrecommended. The best thing to use, I learned, is either a manual grinder or an electric grinder. Seeing as how fancy electric grinders cost about $80 at a minimum, I opted for the cheaper manual grinder. And so, yesterday, I purchased my new coffee making tool.

Presenting my new Hario Coffee Mill with ceramic burrs:

It works like a pepper grinder. The beans go in the top portion where there are slots that allow the beans to fall into the burrs where they are pressed rather than chopped (like with a blade grinder) and the freshly ground coffee falls into the plastic canister at the bottom. Numbers mark off the number of cups worth of grounds.

Turning the nut adjusts the space between the burrs, creating a more coarse (counter clockwise) or more fine ground.

The only directions for my new grinder are in Japanese. Thankfully the guy that sold it to me showed me how to use it.

It's a little tedious to use. I have to grip tightly with one hand and crank with the other trying to keep it still has it jerks around. Admittedly, I don't know quite enough about coffee yet to really tell a difference in the grind as far as how it really affects my coffee. But I do like that I now have to work for my coffee. It makes me appreciate it that much more once I finally can enjoy the hot, fresh brew.

For now, I am content using my 'Ready Set Joe' cone, but until my next paycheck, my dreams continue to be filled with Bialetti Moka stovetop percolators and Bodum French Presses.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A family suffers from over-consumption....

After spending four months in India, living with and visiting families who had almost nothing but what was necessary, I returned home for the summer to live in my parents house. The following post is what greeted me upon my arrival. Perhaps I hadn't noticed it before I left, or perhaps the problem (and that's exactly what it is) is simply magnified in contrast to the stark homes that we visited in India.

It is evident to me now that my family has two major problems: one, they continue to buy more and more things with little thought to what use it will serve, so as a result, it ends up on shelves, tables, counter tops, the floor or in boxes. Problem number two is that they do not dispose (or donate) things that are no longer needed. For whatever reason, they cling to these objects as if to give them up would mean giving up part of themselves. I find it fascinating that an object that is rarely ever seen or used can be of any importance. Why do we continue to keep these things that serve no apparent use to our daily lives? If we (my family) counted the things that we use every day, week or at least every month, it would not come close to the amount of stuff that is in this house currently. At some point the accumulation of things reaches an overload that makes living in your own home uncomfortable.

Obviously, someone in my household believes that these objects hold some importance, otherwise they wouldn't hold onto them, right? At least that is my hope, but then again I don't know what goes on in the psyche of my family members.

And now, a brief tour of my home:

The Basement.

Welcome to the chaotic maze of my family's past.

This corner used to be designated the 'sewing and craft area'. Various craft accoutrements and scrap cloth are shoved inside of plastic organizer drawers. At some point, these things got lost amongst a wall of other things that needed to be stored. Comforters, a pair of rain boots, a humidifier, and who knows what's hidden inside of those plastic bins.Whatever is in there was placed long ago only to be forgotten.

I believe this is the remnants of my dad's 'tool area'. Hidden in the corner are various home improvement items such as cans of latex and spray paint. Spare furniture parts and lawn ornaments are shoved into this corner as well.

Holiday decorations that really get placed upstairs during the holiday season. The reason most likely being that no one is willing to brave the depths of the basement to find them.

The laundry room (and the reason why I do my own laundry). Our laundry room looks like the clothing department at Wal-Mart threw up on itself. Baskets full of clothes are everywhere. I don't think I could even venture a guess at which ones are clean and which are dirty. Whenever I open the washing machine or the dryer there is a load of forgotten clothes. Long ago I started doing my own laundry at home for the simple purpose of being able to keep track of my own belongings. Once an item of clothing ends up in the basement there's no knowing when it will return.

The Porch.

We have a lovely front porch that I have always longed to use for it's intended porch purposes. In the 10 or so years that we have been living here, I have never done that.

The porch serves as additional storage space for the things that won't fit into the basement (or perhaps these things just need more light?). The porch is home to an antique coke machine (we used to actually use this. As far as I know, it is still capable of functioning, we just lack the proper fitting bottles to put in it. There are trunks full of various items (and actually one of those is mine. Opening it up was like opening a time-capsule. More on that later....), excess quilts, an old (and stinky) sleeping bag, spare air conditioners, a cat play pen and another dining room table ( I wasn't aware one family needed so many tables).

Just what we need! Yet another air conditioner! And tacky lawn ornaments! There is also a book shelf of books that were bought at thrift stores and then promptly placed on the shelf never to be read or looked at again.

The Computer Room (?).

I must include a question mark on this one because this room's original purpose was a dining room, but we hijacked it into a tv room. Oh yeah, and a storage closet.

This is the corner where most of the family photos have ended up. There is also a china cabinet in the back corner (evidence of the old dining room).

The computer sits in a large, wall sized cabinet.

The Living Room.

The majority of our living room is taken up by a sectional sofa. The rest is filled with books, laundry, blankets, movies, CDs, board games, the TV, and an exercise ball that is never used. I don't spend much time here.

The Kitchen.

Our kitchen either suffers from a lack of adequate counter space or an excess of appliances. My guess is that the latter is probably the bigger problem.

We have three different hatches to hold food, pots, pans and cookbooks and somehow that still isn't enough space. In this photo, you can see that we were lucky enough to have almost half the table cleared off so that we could have a place to eat.

Appliances pictured: toaster, iced tea maker (did you know they even made an appliance for that?) and a coffee maker. The various food items are on the counter probably because there isn't a place for them in any of our many cabinets. You can imagine that this makes food preparation difficult, since our table is often so full of stuff that we can't use that space either.

The Brother's Room.

Let's just say that I feel bad for his future dorm mate this fall.

I'm not sure where all of these things are expected to go once he moves out in about a seven weeks. Rather than doing something about it, it will probably just be transplanted to another area of the house.

The TV Room.

This used to be the place where my brothers and I hung out. Now I rarely see anybody spending time in here. Probably because the mounds of objects block the view of the TV. Oh and the piles of stuff on the lounge chairs don't help either.

So, the question remains: Why so much stuff? And do they (meaning my family) even really know what's in the depths of the house?

I have now made it my personal mission to keep only those things that are of use and necessity to me. I do not want to be a collector of useless objects, a hoarder of personal memorabilia as a shrine to myself. I will be recording the objects that I use each day in a new blog:

After one month, anything that I have not used I will dispose of.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A mini course on heart rate monitors for senior citizens

I was working out at my local YMCA the the other day when I overheard an interesting conversation between one of the personal trainers and an older woman (I would say mid-60s). The woman had just purchased a heart rate monitor and the trainer was instructor her on how to operate it. I haven't heard anything so complicated since my high school physics class!

"Now, if you press this top button twice you will get the time function. Pressing this button once gives you the calendar. If you press this bottom button twice you will be able to scroll through the options. Oh, wait, actually you can scroll with both buttons. If you press this button a light comes on if you need to see in the dark." She then proceeded to either write instructions down for the woman or else draw a diagram (I think either is plausible).

Small buttons, even smaller informational text and multiple (perhaps too many?) functions make heart rate monitors difficult for senior citizens to use.

I felt bad for this woman who would probably give her new gadget a blank stare once the trainer left her alone with the device. But why should she? Why does something as simple as a heart rate monitor need to be so complicated to use? I have always had this problem with digital watches. Only four buttons, and with so many more than four functions I could never remember how to set the time, change the date or set an alarm. I knew that you would have to hold down some buttons or press other ones several times. I found myself just pressing random buttons in the hope that I would get the desired result. Now, If I, a relatively tech-savvy youth has so much trouble with a digital watch, how can this grandmother be expected to handle her new heart rate monitor?

With buttons too small and sometimes hard to press for those with arthritic fingers and not to mention illegibly small text with vague directions for the functions that each button is expected to perform it's no wonder this woman needed a mini course to use the damn thing.

So, I ask, why? Why is there not an easier and more simple heart rate monitor/digital watch for people to use? One that performs only as many functions as there are buttons to press. For that matter, can anyone tell me why a calendar function on a heart rate monitor is even necessary? If not to make it even more complicated to use? Perhaps someday a digital watch or heart rate monitor will be produced that is actually worth using.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Entrepreneurship in India

India was a plethora of small businesses. It certainly doesn't appear to take much to start a business. All you need is a product that people want to buy. Everything ranging from chai, food, paan, haircuts or soda. One really only needs a gas stove (if they are cooking something) and possibly a cart or stand. Although this isn't a necessity either. While walking through Ahmedabad on a Saturday night we found ourselves walking through a spontaneous restaurant. Groups of people sat on blankets laying in the street and they surrounded large thali plates. Men ran through the crowd with bowls and pots refilling food on the plates as they saw fit. It appears as though the only real necessity is being willing to sell a product that people are willing to buy.

A haircutting 'saloon' consists of a storage closet sized garage. Just large enough for about 3 clients.

Our favorite breakfast spot in Hampi. The kitchen is in the corner where there is a two burner gas stove. Customers sit along the wall on a single bench or crowd around the tiny table in the center.

Second favorite breakfast spot in Hampi. This small business consists of a tent, a single table for cooking the idli, sambar, poori and instant coffee.

This street side cafe turned into an almost full-scale restaurant. Food is prepared on gas stoves on this cart and then brought to customers who sit at picnic tables behind the cart.