Fermenting food in Scotland’s schools: A design-led dissertation project — Part 3: Methodology

Emilie Schaefer
11 min readSep 10, 2021


1. Vision and objectives of methodology

This work is first a design-led project. Its methodology is therefore deeply based on design methodologies and the research methodology is part of them. The changing and complex nature of wicked problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973) such as health and food issues in Scotland demands to address them with a highly agile and holistic approach. Therefore, this work’s outcome is to be considered as a non-final version, one iteration among many past and future iterations. It is also part of a “larger network of initiatives” (Design Council, 2021), where the interconnections between different interventions enable long-term change.

Figure 3.1: The design methodology, in the light of the Systemic Design Framework

Corresponding to these objectives, the British Design Council’s Systemic Design Framework was used throughout the entire project. Created to make design processes more sustainable and systemic, this framework guides towards people and planet-centered, inclusive, and regenerative approaches while promoting collaborative, testing, and “zooming in and out” practices (Design Council, 2021, p43). It is based on the Double Diamond model which guides the design process through divergent and convergent thinking (Ball, 2019). In opposition to the traditional linear Double Diamond, the Systemic Design Framework allows constant iteration, while working through its four steps: exploring the problem, reframing the brief, ideating and creating, and catalysing (see figure 3.1).

2. Design and research process

2.1. Explore #1: qualitative and quantitative secondary research

The first diamond of the Systemic Design Framework can be seen as exploratory research. Indeed, it seeks “orientation in a new field in order to give the field of study a thematic structure and to generate hypotheses” (Flick, 2009, p166) and allows great freedom to reorient and narrow the research down, depending on its ongoing findings (Saunders et al, 2012).

This exploration starts by determining the root causes of the issue and the theories and actions that already try to address them, to gather knowledge from varied perspectives, map the connections and flows of power, relationships, and purposes within the system, and identifying potential opportunities and works that have previously “been forgotten, overlooked or underused” (Design Council, 2021, p51). The first exploration round was conducted through the secondary research synthesised in Part 2, with an inductive reasoning process, which generates theory “out of specific instances of observation and experience” (Johnson and Duberley, 2000 p16).

2.2. Reframe #1: redefining the research question

The collected findings led to new topics which needed to be mapped too, in order to identify specific opportunities. Once they were investigated and their possibilities were explored, a more specific research question emerged, which led to reframing the design brief, introducing new actors and dynamics into the system’s mapping, with new perspectives, hypotheses, opportunities, and challenges. One major opportunity that emerged from this process was the potential of fermentation workshops in schools to introduce healthier and more sustainable food behaviours across Scotland. However, this hypothesis needed to be tested to support it further.

2.3. Explore #2: qualitative primary research

This is why an exploration of the reframed problem was necessary. Although the inductive reasoning process enables a broad understanding of the studied subject, the “inductive verification of a theory is inevitably based upon a finite number of observations” (Johnson and Duberley, 2000, p28). Therefore, in order to challenge and explore the emergent hypothesis, this second exploration round was conducted with an inductive but mostly deductive approach. It took the shape of a series of problem-centred expert interviews. This qualitative interview method merges the problem-centred interview (PCI) method with the expert interview method. The PCI method presents itself as an “egalitarian dialogue between the interviewer and interviewee in which the research question or the ‘problem’ is refined jointly” (Döringer, 2021, p268), allowing an iterative process that combines inductive reasoning as the interview starts with a narrative beginning, with deductive reasoning through a series of precise questions. Expert interviews are semi-structured interviews with experts, individuals who carry certain expertise, which can be defined as a “technical process-oriented and interpretive knowledge referring to their specific professional sphere of activity” (Bogner and Menz, 2002, p. 46). The flexibility of such interviews was chosen to create a safe space for an honest exchange for the participants and to avoid directing them towards a limited choice of answers, which could be biased by the interviewer’s assumptions. Still, the interviews’ structure was designed in a way that guided the conversation towards the specific hypothesis to test, while allowing the interviewees to introduce new sub-hypothesis.

Interviewees were recruited depending on their expertise’s relevance to the tested hypothesis. They were contacted by email or were directly introduced by other contacted persons. The interviewees can be categorised in five groups depending on their domain of expertise and on the interviews’ covered topics: health, food policy, education, cooking, and business strategy. The “health” group was composed of a Scotland-based nutritionist and a Scottish holistic health coach, the “food policy” group consisted of a food justice project officer and a policy and project officer at the national charity Nourish Scotland, and the “education” group included a food advisor at the English school and education catering service Chartwells and a teaching intern in a Montessori school in France. The “cooking” group was composed of a Scottish veg advocate and organiser of webinars for parents to learn to cook healthy food with children, and of a sustainable food coordinator at Arran Eco Savvy. To finish, the “business strategy” group was made of the business development director at Tefal’s cookware unit in France and of the personal chair of Food Marketing and Society at the Business School of University of Edinburgh, and member of the Food Researchers in Edinburgh (FRIED).

Within one topic group, the interviews’ questions were often similar, to make the comparison of the collected qualitative data possible. Still, as the participants all had different experiences and knowledge to share, and as the questions were usually open-ended to allow great freedom to share personal insights, the conversation often led to more specific questions. Therefore, every interview was unique and offered diversified findings. The first part of the interviews focused on the precise domain of expertise of the interviewees and on their personal experience in this domain. The second part started by exposing the project’s intention to the participant and continued by asking a series of pre-written questions which applied the research question to the interviewees’ domain of expertise. The intention of this straightforward and transparent strategy was to enable the interviewee to give specific feedback and advice on the subject of fermentation workshops in schools (which are exposed in Part 4).

2.4. Reframe #2: evaluation of findings

After this second exploration of the problem, a second reframing of the research question was needed in order to lead to a more specific design brief. This reframing was based on an analysis of the interviews’ findings. To lead this analysis, the interviewees’ insights were first collected in the form of virtual cards (see appendix A) which were then organised using a card-sorting method. To categorise insights into themes, a deductive thematic coding method helped to identify the problem’s relevant themes and to assign them to the insights. Boyatzis describes a theme as “a pattern in the information that at minimum describes and organises the possible observations and at maximum interprets aspects of the phenomenon” (Boyatzis, 1998, p. 161). Sorting the insights into such themes allowed to juxtapose similar and contradictory collected qualitative data. The findings of this activity, summed up in appendix B, confirmed and developed the tested hypothesis, by further mapping the problem and identifying opportunities. This reframing allowed to create a final system map of the food and health education systems in Scotland, and informed the persona-building method that was used to define the system’s main stakeholders’ frustrations and expectations.

2.5. Create: iterative ideation

Continuing to follow the Systemic Design Framework (figure 3.1), the design process entered a phase of ideation addressing the reframed design brief. This phase was highly iterative, as the “explore” and the “create” phases overlapped, and the ideation thus continued to be informed by the ongoing interviews’ findings. As the Design Council suggests it, this phase created “a portfolio of interventions”, generating “ideas on different layers of the problem”, from different strategic perspectives, and was made of “specific products, service and places”, “policies”, and “narratives or cultural mindsets” (Design Council, 2021, p51). Indeed, the design intervention that resulted from this phase is a coherent and interconnected system composed of a service, a website, a workshop program, and a narrative (exposed in Part 5). To deliver a clear understanding of the whole process that this intervention goes through, a service blueprint was designed, as it is “an effective tool for modeling the service system describing the activities and time for the service system” (Geum and Park, 2011).

By adopting a circular mindset throughout this phase, it was assured that this intervention is easily implementable to the present context and is sustainable on long-term from a material and organisational point of view. Indeed, it fills in the gaps of the existing systems and therefore connects to the current interventions, taking profit from the existing innovation adoption channels.

2.6. Catalyse: planning the next steps of the journey

Because things constantly change in dynamic systems, arising new challenges and opportunities at all times, this work’s outcome is not meant to be finite (Design Council, 2021, p49). Therefore, a major step of this project was to assure its open-endedness, providing it with the necessary autonomy to adapt to future changes in the system. It was also made sure that future similar work could benefit from the knowledge that was collected throughout this project. This involved giving guidance on measuring the potential impact of the intervention on the addressed problem, but also the side-effects on any other contexts that might also be transformed by the intervention. In this way, the benefits and limitations of the intervention could be acknowledged, in order to finally plan the next iterations of the journey (Part 6). The importance of the “catalyse” phase is to consider the project from a big picture perspective, to understand how it can forge “connections, ideas and initiatives into a stronger network”, becoming part of a bigger system of change (Design Council, 2021, p53).

3. Challenges of methodology

3.1. Challenges of design methodology

One of the main design challenges that this work needed to overcome was to find a methodology that offered a balanced and flexible mindset to switch between the micro and macro levels of the project, by focusing on its specific people and places and on its wider system at the same time. The Systemic Design Framework was precious guidance in this exercise, as this methodology is, by essence, based on holistic and systemic approaches.

Another strength of the Systemic Design Framework was that it invited to dedicate time to focus on the background of the problem to totally understand its context and to challenge the brief before trying to address it. Nonetheless, a consequence of this, considering the limited time frame imposed by the dissertation format, is that it leaves less time for the “catalyse” phase, which is meant to further challenge the outcome. Therefore, this work may present a strong mapping of the problem but does not provide highly accurate prototypes of the outcome that could have been carefully tested and iterated as much as it needed. This is why further work would need to be done on this last phase to push this project’s outcome beyond a speculative proposal, towards a realistic service that can really be implemented in the present context, and which known effects are all positive.

3.2. Challenges of research methodology

Concerning the research methodology, challenges could first be faced regarding the selection of participants. First, the interviewees were almost all based in Scotland, and their knowledge of the problem was mainly focused on the Scottish context, which enabled accurate insights. But as they were chosen for their expertise, regardless of their gender, age, ethnic group, or socioeconomic position, it resulted that the panel of interviewees was not very diverse. Indeed, only 2 of the 13 interviewees could be identified as men, and all were White, according to the national list of ethic groups (UK Government, 2011). As this work aims to address food-related and health-related social issues like the Gender Care Gap or non-inclusive health care programs and nutrition recommendations (Part 2), the lack of diversity in the interviewees’ panel can allow biases to interfere in the interviews’ findings, and therefore represent a major limitation to the outcome of this work. For example, collecting findings from women about food-related activities can be very insightful, these tasks being predominantly conducted by women. But because an important aim of this project is to promote a more balanced distribution of domestic work among genders, insights coming from men would indeed help to better understand the diversity of relationships between genders and food.

Secondly, the design of the interviews effectively followed the structure of the problem-centred expert interview method but was limited to one understanding of what an expert is. Indeed, a participant was mainly considered as an expert in a certain field of study because their profession consisted in having a strong knowledge about this field, not necessarily because their profession was a part of this field, as it could be the case for an end-user. For example, instead of interviewing a school catering manager, an academic expert in sustainable school catering and public procurement processes was interviewed. In this way, instead of collecting insider or immersed insights, it was sometimes only global overviews that were being collected. Although this can allow a systemic understanding of the field, this understanding can lack depth and pragmatism. This should be complemented with more user interviews, with Scottish schools workers, parents, children, and food supply chains actors, in diverse socioeconomic areas. The main reason why this work did not benefit from these user interviews, is that it was conducted during the schools’ Summer break, and therefore, the schools’ staff and the related services were not receptive when contacted. Another reason for their silence might also be the additional workload that the Covid19 pandemic inflicted on these actors.

If this project was to be pursued, a more collaborative approach to qualitative research would be meaningful to explore. Papanek, who described the designer’s role as the cement between the multidisciplinary members of a design team, suggests that “the people for whom the design team works must have representation on the team itself” (Papanek, 1971, p296). A participatory workshop with the different actors of the system would have indeed offered meaningful insights by directly confronting and completing different perspectives. Because this could not be achieved during the work’s limited time frame, a collaborative problem-framing and ideation workshop was still designed, and would have gathered experts and users to map the problem’s system and generate ideas. The program would be balanced between whole group conversations and breakout rooms, dividing the group into “expertise teams”, that would focus on one specific aspect of the system in order to then present their work to the other teams (appendix C). Ideally, a co-design cooking workshop could also be organised with the different users and experts participating in the design of recipes and activities of fermentation workshops in schools. By co-design, we refer here to the participation of people from various domains and levels of expertise in a creative process (Sanders & Stappers, 2008). Co-design would help this project to become more adaptable over time and therefore more resilient, also self-sustained through a community identity, as the actual co-authors of the project would be the actors of the studied system.

To conclude, this project’s methodology benefited from various tools that helped to map the problem and ideating ways to address it. The Systemic Design Framework provided the project with a highly iterative design process and a systemic approach. The problem-centred expert interview method led the research methodology through organised qualitative data collection and a deductive thematic coding method facilitated a strong analysis of collected insights. Finally, further iterations would need more collaborative tools and more diverse participants, in order to assure that the project’s outcome is not designed for the users, but with the users.

Read next part here: Part 4: Findings

The entire bibliography is in the last story (Part 6: Conclusion)