Gleaners Community Food Bank of Detroit | Contextual Inquiry

Gleaners Photo.jpg

Methods Used:

Ethnographic Interviews, Contextual Inquiry, Affinity Diagramming

My Role

Project Manager, UX Researcher

My Responsibilities

Interview Protocol Development, Study Moderation, Note-taking, Data Analysis, Final Presentation and Report Writing


As part of SI 501: Contextual Inquiry & Consulting, our team conducted a contextual inquiry for Gleaners Community Food Bank, a large food bank in Southeast Michigan. We completed one-on-one interviews, crafted an affinity wall, and used data analysis to provide recommendations to Gleaners based on the following objectives:

  • Understand why users do not make use of Gleaners' online ordering system
  • Discover methods Gleaners might employ in order to increase user retention of the system

Gleaners asked us to dive deep into their organization in order to discover at which point does the online inventory system become one that discourages transition from the traditional, over the phone ordering method to one that is human to computer. 

Background Information

Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeast Michigan is a regional food bank organization that provides food to people suffering from food insecurity across the Metro Detroit region. Headquartered in Detroit, Michigan, Gleaners itself distributes approximately 40 million pounds of food per year and coordinates with over 500 partner organizations, such as pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters across five counties in southeast Michigan. Gleaners offers multiple food ordering options to its agency and community partners: online, telephonic, and in-person. However, before our SI 501 group began collaboration with Gleaners only about one third of Gleaners’ partners employ the online option.


  1. Immersive Observation

    • Our group met with and discussed the online inventory system from the customers' and from Gleaners' perspectives. Once we had an understanding of their needs from a high level we were able to pinpoint the scope of our project. With our responsibilities clearly understood we were then able to begin setting up individual engagements with both clients of Gleaners and members of the food bank's staff.
  2. Interview and Usability Participants

    • With help from our client we were able to connect with the intended users of the food bank's online inventory system. This included quite a range of individuals ranging from: proprietors of various client organizations, members of the Gleaners IT team, and members of the Gleaners call center team.
  3. Interviews

    • Our team sat down with our participants at meeting spaces in various locations relevant to that particular user's use of Gleaners' online inventory system, and conducted an in depth interview that covered topics ranging from the user's general thoughts about using the online order system to actually having each user complete their most often executed task for us to view. These interviews were conducted in a sixty to ninety minute time frame with one interviewer and one note taker (each group member completed both roles by the end of the course)
  4. Interpretation/Analysis

    • After each of our interviews, our group listened to the interview, highlighting notable comments and findings. Following our listening sessions always concluded with group members taking time to discuss their fresh and unadulterated feelings and opinions regarding the interview participant and their relationship to our project as a whole.

    • From these interpretation sessions blossomed a larger and more engrossing project: our affinity diagram of our findings after meeting with user of Gleaners' system. In the process, 350 or more key comments and quotes from interviews were written down on sticky notes of varying color and arranged hierarchically based on several themes that we identified. At the end, these ideas were all placed neatly within clusters that represented minute details on up to high level themes.

  5. Findings

    • Analysis of our collection of findings led to a range of findings, both positive and those the team though Gleaners should address. 
    • Positive

      • It was clear that Gleaners' customers felt that the service Gleaners provides was top notch and that there was a real sense of appreciation from users of the online inventory system despite some flaws that they had observed.
      • The Gleaners IT support staff had done absolutely everything in their power to make effective an inflexible third party software system that was originally purposed for facility management
      • Some users of Gleaners had developed methods of using the online inventory system that showed a real ingenuity and also pointed our team in the direction of potential alterations to the way users interact with a potential future system.
    • Issues

      • Internal Communications is efficient but can be better in solving agencies’ problems

        • Some problems agencies have struggled with for a long time could be quickly solved by a more robust support program

      • Primarius: An Unavoidable and Significant Constraint to Interface Improvement

        • Use of Primarius restricts any control or flexibility with the inventory management user interface

      • Agencies Desire and Would Benefit from More Robust Training Options

        • Agencies are not taught how to use Gleaners' online inventory system, with some reporting that they are told by Gleaners not to use the online inventory system.

      • Different Agencies and Departments, Differing Technology Proficiencies

        • The wide variety of technological skill levels with respect to the agencies that use the online inventory system make a "one size fits all" solution to training agencies on use of the system all but impossible.

  6. Recommendations

    • We brainstormed potential solutions that Gleaners could implement in order to have a more robust user base for their online order system. Our process left us with the following as our main recommendations to our client. 
    • Internal Communication Between Departments Regarding Primarius Functionality

      • Internal communication among different departments could be improved to work together for users’ issues and share existing but siloed expertise regarding the current system.

    • Increase Agency Onboarding and Training in Primarius

      • Develop and provide training both in the form of traditional and online educational courses that will provide the knowledge and experience agencies need in order to use the online order system at a proficient level.

    • Increased and Ongoing Communication with Agencies

      • In addition to improving and expanding the onboarding process for new agencies, an experience-sharing system would address the issue that the existing agencies do not fully use online functions. 

  7. Looking Back

    • What I learned:

      • Employees at any level can provide significant and important details pertaining to the researcher's high level understanding of how a system works. Reaching out to the stakeholders who are invested in the change (for good) of the system in question can yield unexpected and game changing results.

    • What would I do differently?

      • In the future, I would like the opportunity to get to know the organization that I am working for in more detail. Were we granted access to a member of the IT staff earlier on in the process, we could have determined that the contextual inquiry we performed should have been more focused on communication as opposed to graphical and gestalt principles with the UI layout.