By The New College Dining Hall Team
This academic year, our team has been trying to answer this question: how might the New College Dining Hall be redesigned to offer an innovative and multi-use community eating and social space for students and staff? We conducted long-form ethnographic interviews with staff and students, as well as with New College Dining Hall users and students who eat primarily at other dining halls.
We recorded these interviews and transcribed them in preparation for coding and analysis. The documents were coded using an open descriptive and analytical coding process to identify preliminary patterns in the data. Each of the interviews was coded by two different people in order for all of our team members to become intimately familiar with the data.
To prevent us from jumping to conclusions, we made use of an integrative thinking tool known as the Ladder of Inference, which describes the thinking process one goes through when progressing from a fact to a decision. The thinking stages may be viewed as rungs on a ladder. Beginning with reality (and facts in a data pool at the bottom), we are guided on our way up by selecting data, interpreting it, and finally coming to our conclusions. Using the Ladder of Inference lets us follow fundamental truths to an interviewee’s logical conclusions. This method helps to limit the likelihood that our own beliefs and experiences will narrow our field of judgment. Following this step-by-step reasoning can lead to better results grounded entirely in reality, thereby avoiding unnecessary mistakes and conflict.
During the data analysis training weekend, we went on to identify emerging themes using an affinity diagram. We wrote codes and quotations on sticky notes, clustered common ideas together, and identified the themes that connected and delineated the clusters. We then generated insights, not to provide our own solutions, but to identify the underlying feelings and needs behind the feedback and suggestions we received. This allowed us to explore them further and ensure they are kept in mind when the time comes to work on and finalize a renovation design for the New College Dining Hall. We found this process helpful, as it allowed us to analyze the data while disconnecting from our preconceived notions of students’ needs and possible solutions.
Over the course of our data analysis, several interesting themes emerged. For example, it was evident the staff saw their role as being that of the caregiver to the students. As well, staff were making certain assumptions about the food students wanted, which were not always accurate. These assumptions ran in both directions, with students often believing staff would be displeased by or were not interested in feedback.
In the end, we found that the vast majority of suggestions for improvements students provided were rooted in three key needs: for a comfortable and homey environment, a strong sense of community, and opportunities to change the communication between staff and students. Using this, we organized our report around three key themes that should be considered with the redesign: comfort, community, and communication.