DESIGN RESEARCH: INDOOR GARDENING
My primary expertise and the core of my work is design research. For the past 15 years I have been cultivating skills in several research methodologies, especially ethnography and qualitative approaches. My projects have been diverse across content and design. I’ve worked on service, digital, product, environmental, and branding design projects. The content areas have varied from food to education, transportation, retail spaces, wearables, public libraries, and plants. One of my most inspiring projects was about indoor gardening and I’m sharing it as an example a design research approach.
I collaborated with a large organics company to explore possibilities for indoor gardening products, and to better understand people’s relationships to their plants. I led the design research, synthesis, design visioning and creation of strategic directions. The products we designed and some details from our research are confidential, but I’ll share what I can.
To kick-off the project, the clients and I conducted participatory observations by exploring different modes of growing plants in our own homes. This included trying different vessels and grow lights to build empathy and understand first hand how they affected our daily routines. During this time, we also did a deep exploration of current plant, gardening, and indoor gardening trends. We looked at market competition and at trend forecasting data to consider how markets might be changing. This exploratory research gave us insights into what we wanted to explore and which cities to visit, and which people would be ideal to interview.
Next, we did in-home interviews in three cities: Chicago, New York, and Portland with a range of people from those who could not keep plants alive to people who had hundreds of thriving plants in their homes. We explored extreme behaviors which could inspire design ideas, and we talked to people who were more mainstream and would likely be a target consumer for the physical and digital products we were developing. In addition to behaviors, we also considered a variety of space sizes from large homes to tiny apartments with various light exposure. Our interviews started with an understanding of the participants’ relationship to plants, their care routines, a tour of their home to learn more about their plant collection and knowledge, and then we shared a variety of product concepts to get feedback.
While we visited these three cities, we also explored plant and indoor gardening trends to get inspiration. For example, we visited the Low Line in New York City (their lab is now closed, but the project is a proposal to grow a huge garden in an abandoned subway track). They had elaborate and cutting edge irrigation and lighting systems which were very inspiring for our project. In Chicago we visited a plant based art exhibition that had a radical philosophy about indoor gardening and an innovative grow light system.
After the research we synthesized all of the ideas and our insights became provocations for design. One of the most powerful insights we had was that the people who were incredibly good at caring for their plants didn’t necessarily have more knowledge about them, rather we observed a very unique relationship. People who were successful at growing indoor plants paid close attention to them, they used their senses by watching how their color and form changed over time, and touching their soil to test for moisture. If the plants showed any distress they would take special care to nurture them. We had an early hypothesis that the major differences in plant success was knowledge, but we also found a powerful intuitive relationship. This insight was critical in guiding design ideas because we realized in addition to building knowledge, we needed to design for empathy and understanding of the plant’s condition. How might we enhance this intuitive relationship? How might we encourage more people to use their senses to better understand a plant’s condition?