Miso Kim, a Ph.D. candidate in Carnegie Mellon's School of Design, has been doing a lot of grocery shopping lately — enough for five families. She's also been following people home for dinner. And she's not even hungry.
It's all part of Kim's research for the Family Meal Planner, software technology aimed at helping busy dual-income families. Kim has joined Professor John Zimmerman's research team, focusing on what's called interaction design.
"Instead of designing the shape of the product, we design the behavior of the product," explained Zimmerman, an associate professor in the School of Design and the Human-Computer Interaction Institute. "We design what products do more than how they look."
Zimmerman strives to design technology that strikes the delicate balance between assisting people and providing them with a sense of control over their lives. He says he wants his creations to "help people become the person they desire."
In the case of the Family Meal Planner, Zimmerman's team focuses on the stress busy families experience around meals.
"Busy parents lose sight of their long-term goals of teaching children to be healthy and adventuresome eaters in order to deal with the immediacy of just getting food on the table," explained Zimmerman. "Parents want to avoid conflicts at dinner time, one of the few times of day they see their children. There's an opportunity for new technology to improve the process of meal planning."
Zimmerman's team sees an opportunity to improve the lives of families by moving them away from deciding what to eat at 5 p.m.
"There's a delicate social issue, though," pointed out Zimmerman. "Many of the moms we work with see the care and feeding of their family as central to their sense of 'Mom-ness.' In situating technology in the home, we're looking to address this social need while allowing for greater participation from the rest of the family."
Zimmerman adds, "This can lower the stress around the immediate needs of getting food on the table and allow longer term goals such as nutrition to begin to impact the choices that are made."
He works with students, training them to use their design skills as a research approach.
"We're creating researchers that can go out into the world and address these sticky social issues, that can do interdisciplinary work. We're trying to create those people as much as we're trying to create the knowledge," he added.