Smith Dining: An Intervention

In IDP 316 - Portfolio by Alex Widstrand


For this second installment of the Deep Dive projects, we as Team CAT – Céline, Alex, and Tiejin – initially looked at the institutional decision-making centers, such as the Financial Aid Office, the Alumnae Relations Office and the Student Government Association, as potential “sites of power.” During our first field trip, we tried to visit these places, but the offices either turned us away or weren’t as fruitful as we had hoped. Feeling discouraged, we went back to the drawing board and took a radical shift in our approach: what if we looked at “power” in the literal sense? From there, we focused our energies on the school’s kitchens, which provides students with the energy to power their bodies and minds. Knowing that Dining Services had hired a new director at the beginning of the year, this new site satisfied another condition, “space for change,” as well. Lastly, being users in the dining halls ourselves, we know the resistance, “place of resistance,” that students have toward the dining halls and, by association, toward the dining staff and administrators as well. Kitchens: an idea that initially sounded like a silly idea during ideation, eventually proved to be the perfect site for power, change, and resistance.


Our first group meeting involved thinking of places of power, change, and resistance to focus on for this project.


To get started, we needed an overview of the problems being faced across all of the dining halls. A little nervous to go straight to the top, we held our breath and took the plunge. We wrote an email to the new Dining Services director, Andy Cox, to schedule an interview with him. Luckily, he replied to us quickly and we were able to ask him about his background, goals, and any expectations or worries about his new position. We learned of his goals to improve communications between all parties and improve the data accuracy of the card swiping system. Moreover, he really appreciates the sustainability of diversity of food served at Smith and wants to increase these efforts . We could feel Andy’s passion and dedication toward the service and believed that improvement of current system will be more helpful than creating a new one to him. On the other hand, we were also told that Smith had invited consultants to redesign the current application.

To better empathize with our users (dining service staff and students), we chose to focalize our research at one site, the Chase-Duckett dining hall, and paid several visits there. During our field trips, we put on hairnets just as the dining service staff do and walked around the kitchen to observe and experience the kitchens, a place normally seen as “off limits” to students.

View of kitchen workspace in Chase-Duckett.

View of kitchen workspace in Chase-Duckett.

Thanks to Chef Joe, who kindly led us around and explained the kitchen’s daily routines, we learned the difficulties that the staff face to satisfy student population and realized the importance of building direct personal relationships between the two parties. After interviewing Chef Tony, who has been working at Smith for 21 years and witnessed its changes and developments, we felt his attachment to Smith, and learned how many of the other staff feel the same, having worked here for an average of 19 years. They really want to serve students well. To try to capture their perspective, we even strapped a GoPro to Chef Tony’s head. Watching the video that we captured, we were able to understand the tasks that he was completing as seen through his own eyes.


Chase-Duckett, main dining area and food buffet line.

As for empathizing with students, we set up GoPros around different parts of the dining hall to record their dining behaviors and sat in for a whole dinner session observing and taking notes. We learned that students’ behaviors come from their asymmetric information about dining services. Therefore, our design needed to correct their misunderstanding and ignorance of the system and needed to develop empathy by rebuilding relationships between the students and the dining staff that have been lost through the current system.


In our initial round of defining, we named our users as the following:

  • Students
  • Dining staff
  • Administration
  • Dining hall food
  • Trustees (extreme user)

Later in the process, we decided to focus more centrally on the students as the principal users, while giving the kitchen staff an outlet for their voices to be heard as well; and, finally, selected Andy Cox, Smith’s new Head of Dining Services, as the extreme user of focus because of his decision-making capabilities. We observed, interviewed, and gathered the perspectives of each of these users throughout our project.

We started our Deep Dive by going straight to the top, interviewing Andy before completing any formal observations. Since we’re all on the meal plan, we had three-plus years of informal observations to inform the questions that we asked in this initial interview. We then proceeded to speak with some of the staff at the Chase-Duckett dining hall, to gather their perspectives as well. Through these conversations, we were able to gather a series of needs that we were otherwise blind to as mere student users:

  • Data accuracy (especially to know how much food to order and prepare for the future)
  • Traditions
  • More dining staff/increased help in the kitchens
  • More flexibility and capacity to accommodate more students (and their changing needs)  in fewer dining halls
  • Sustainability
  • Communication (between all users)
  • More understanding on the part of the students

Through our conversations with these users, we were able to draw a series of crucial insights that would inform the rest of the process to come:

  • Members of the dining staff want to be proud of the work, both food and the institution
  • Members of the dining staff want to care about the students on a personal level, love serving them, and like to feel appreciated for their hard work
  • Members of the dining staff are looking forward to the changes that are being enacted
  • Students care about what’s going on with Dining Services
  • Students care mostly about the big picture and instant communication

Knowing that we had many users, all with differing needs, we created POV statements that would speak to them individually rather than trying to create statements that would be all-encompassing.

  • Smith dining is a seasoned staff member’s barrier to work that they’re proud of.
  • Smith dining is a seasoned staff/institution/trustee’s point of contentions between current needs and maintaining traditions.
  • Current Smith dining is a student’s frequented but uninformed daily interaction.


In the ideation phase, we tried to come up with both individualized (to each set of users) and holistic (for all of our users) solutions to address the needs presented above.


After selecting the kitchens as our place of focus, we developed our POVs for our main users and began to furiously ideate.

Ultimately, we decided to move forward with an app interface that would apply to both approaches. In creating the app, we wanted to create an interface that would first and foremost boost communication between the users and gather useful data for Dining Services. Through these two key factors, Dining Services would be able to move forward with their goals of increased sustainability. A lot of our ideas during this phase focused on empathy-building between the students and the staff, so we felt it was crucial to incorporate that into the app if we could. In our interviews, we learned not only how important it is to bring back the human element of Dining Services, but also how lacking it currently is. We wanted to be sure to incorporate empathy into our design, allowing students to feel comfortable approaching and building relationships with the dining staff and vice versa. With the average member of Dining Services having worked at Smith for 19 years, it was made clear to us the that personal interactions with students is a crucial part of why staff stick around for as long as they have.


Moving forward from ideation, we began prototyping. Because the concept of building an app can mean so many things, we tried to create it to answer a series of questions that would respond to the POVs, needs, and users that we had previously outlined. For the prototype, we focused primarily on fleshing out the student interface because it would be our app’s most prominent user-group, but we identified the staff and administrators (extreme users because they have the decision making power) as important users as well. Each response to a question created an additional dimension of what the interface has to offer. We first created the prototypes on large planks of whiteboard to allow for easy erasing, editing, and moving of features without any major investment of time. For our second prototype, we moved the final versions of our whiteboard sketches onto index cards that could be placed onto a dummy iPhone 5 (lifesized) to simulate the true experience.

1. Who are the users?

Individualized interfaces for each of the users (students, staff, administration) to be chosen upon first opening of the app.


The welcome screen of our app.

2. What are the features?

The features were tailored to each of our users.

Features for Students: Menu viewing, feedback (comments, suggestions, photos to be uploaded and viewed on the menu page), customized user interface based on dining preference (favorite ingredients, location preference, dietary restrictions), optional nutrition facts, friend-finding services.

CAT_whiteboard_2 CAT_whiteboard_345

Features for Staff: Menu editing, upload photos, About Me section to build empathy with students, potential to write and link to blog posts through the desktop interface.


Features for Administrators: Upload nutrition facts, links to Dining Services blog (to boost communication), push notifications about specialized meals, ability to send our surveys, lots of data collection.


3. How do users communicate?

Banners and push notifications for special announcements, comments and feedback from students.

4. What data does it collect?

Banners and push notifications of special announcements, comments and feedback from students.


Our last step in the Design Thinking process was to have our users test the app. Because students were our most prolific users, we focused our energies mostly on getting their feedback; however, we did meet and test our app on Andy Cox as well.

Here’s some of the feedback that we got from students:

  • Liked the feature to invite friends
  • Minimalism
  • Option to see/add a picture – really helpful because sometime we don’t know what something is or how it will be prepared at Smith
  • “Read More” options about staff and admins
  • Enlarge “dates” option
  • Awesome that you can see admin and staff profiles
  • Do the dining hall ratings really matter to students? Make ratings optional or once a day
  • Inviting friends shouldn’t be limited to only within the app, but through text too
  • Option to meet new friends at a designated table and plan these meetups through the app
  • Create a walk-through of instructions the first time that you use the app
  • List the ingredients for each dish

Video Process

When our team began thinking how to convey our project through this video, we knew that we needed to get our audience to empathize along with us.  Interviewing some of the dining staff and getting to hear Andy’s side of things really convinced us that one of the biggest problems was the students’ unawareness about the limitations faced.  We set out to capture a perspective that both understood the students’ frustration, but also tried to explain the challenges faced by the dining staff.


Location of the GoPro used to capture imagery of the buffet line.

After collecting the footage in the dining halls with the gracious participation of the Chase-Duckett staff, we began to gather other bits and pieces: sound clips of students’ complaints, a snapshot from one of our interviews with Andy, and an animation to illustrate the main goals for Smith Dining in the near future.  We filmed ourselves “using” our app prototype to highlight the features we developed in response to the problems we uncovered in our work.  As all the pieces fell together, we felt we had put together not just a video, but a cohesive story describing our problem and our solution.


The design thinking process is a vigorous one, and the goals set forth for this project were lofty – especially given that there were only three weeks from the start to its effective finish. However, the results were extremely rewarding and our client, Smith dining service administration appreciated and even implemented some of our ideas in their own beta test app. With our varied fields of expertise and a drive to stick to the timeline that we set on the very first day.  We worked effectively and efficiently together to select our place of focus and work through the design thinking process, with the end result being far superior compared to if we had each been working alone for thrice as long.  We all look forward to what the third Deep Dive has to bring!