Just realised I never actually posted about the results from my cultural probes. In April I deployed eight little kits to four couples. Each kit had a camera and a postcard to document their dining experience every day for 2 weeks. I got the kits back last month, after a fashion, and spend a good week or two working through the data. I paired each photo to its postcard to keep the image and the “background info” together – but it’s true what they say about a picture speaking 1000 words… or whatever that saying is.
To be honest, I had some pre-conceived notions about what might come back, but the results were even more blatant than I had expected. There was a massive, clear difference between how couples dine when they are together, and how they dine when one person is away. I began dealing with them by just shuffling through and seeing if there were any major aspects which jumped out at me.
ENVIRONMENT leapt out at me immediately – as I flicked through them, there were some obvious groupings of the sort of places people were eating. I got out some big sheets of paper and divided them up into whether the meal was being eaten at a dining table, or somewhere else (98% of the time this was the sofa, but answers also included ‘in bed’ and ‘in the garden’). What I found was, when people eat with their partners, the vast majority of the time it’s at a table, breakfast bar, or some sort of proper “dining” place. When people are on their own, they tend to eat on the sofa or in a more casual way.
This lead me on to group by ACTIVITY. When you dine with someone else, you concentrate on eating a meal with them. You talk, you engage, or just simply enjoy their company. People eating on their own didn’t tend to do this so much, they tended to opt to also partake in some form of activity whilst eating, to entertain them. Most of the time this was watching TV, but people also noted working on a laptop or computer, reading a book/magazine and, incredibly, talking on the phone.
Finally, I decided to look at FOOD. Flicking through the photos, some of them were lavish meals, whereas some looked pretty tragic. What I found was that generally, when people eat together they eat “proper food”. By this I mean they enjoyed home-cooked meals, often more than one course, or with sides/extras such as bread etc. Couples dining together also ate in restaurants sometimes. People dining alone, however, put much less effort into their meals. Only two evenings did a ‘single person’ enjoy more than one course (both times they had a dessert). Their meals were often simplistic and were often ready-meals or convenience food. On about a third of evenings dining alone, individuals opted for food such as toast, cereal or “quick and easy” snacks such as beans on toast, omelettes, sandwiches, etc. in the place of their evening meals.
This spawned a whole new area of interest for me. It kind of… gave me a problem, I suppose. Coming from a design background, I like to solve problems, so this really interests me as people definitely do not eat as well when they are alone. I didn’t realise how much the social aspect of eating drives someone to… well, do it. Eating became very much a “task of survival”, rather than something that was being enjoyed. Are people actually suffering nutritionally by dining alone?
Other observations which came from the postcards:
Whilst eating alone:
- People put little effort into the “set up” of their meal. They tend not to set a table. They often will only use the bare necessities of crockery needed for their meal. Sometimes they won’t even “plate up” if they don’t have to – some people noted eating things from their tubs or wrappers to save on washing up. This shows me that even the activities around having a meal are considered social and worth sharing – ie. setting the table, washing up, etc.
- People tend to only have one course when eating alone.
- Sometimes people feel they eat “because they have to”, not because they enjoy it.
- Individuals like to have something to engage with whilst eating. Ie. if they don’t have someone to talk to, they prefer to watch TV or similar.
- Men are more likely to have an alcoholic drink with their meal then women.
Whilst eating together:
- Both people play a part in preparing the meal. For example, often if one person is cooking, the other will set the table or pour drinks.
- Interestingly, people are more likely to have an alcoholic drink whilst dining with a partner.
- Meals often consist of more than one course, or have “extras” such as bread, olives, dips, etc.
- The meals are usually consumed in a proper “dining” environment – ie. setting the table with cutlery, glasses, salt and pepper etc.
- Manners come into play a lot. For example, if having starters, one person will always wait for their partner before continuing.
- Eating is seen almost as an ‘activity’, evenings are often planned around it.
- In several instances, one person held off eating for up to an hour or more, to wait for the other person to join them.
- The most talked about thing at the dinner table is how each person’s day has gone, and how they are feeling.