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Canteen Service       @Unitn

University project

Team: Muhan Liu(HCI student)

         Elisabetta Pisetti(HCI student)
         Karolina Kowalczyk(Cognitive                 science student)
         Preethi Ramanathan(HCI student)
         Jens Huth(CS student)

Duration: 3 months

My role: UX researcher



Keyword: Qualitative research:                           Ethnography; Competitive                    analysis; User interview;                    Focus group;                                      Participatory workshop;

Why canteen service?


As an international student coming from a different culture and background.

The first day I went to the Uni canteen, I was there for about half an hour wondering if I'm gonna order or just leave.  

While I step in, I was amazed by the food.

However, this excitement didn't last long until I feel overwhelmed didn't know what to do next.

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We started our research with virtual ethnography. It is an technique consists of observing online materials, such as browsing blogs, websites, online communities etc.
It helped us to understand how the canteen service is structured and what do people think about it.


In our case, we looked into our University's canteen webpage and facebook page, found there are 6 canteens spread in 4 towns, we obtain many knowledges that we didn't know before such as the payment system, the rules about dining. After virtual ethnography, we dedicated ourselves to real ethnography.

While for the real ethnography, our group divided into several branches, each of us went "in the field" to observe different canteens, how the canteens work, how people interact with the service and with the staff.

We noticed some problems which we then analyzed better in the following phases. This first phase was very useful as a starting point, to know what to work on in the following months.

We concluded some comments and problems, shows as follows:

  • Differences between Italian and English versions

  • Opera Unitn website not so update

  • Problems to undestand differences between menus type

  • Ingredients and allergens only in Italian

  • No labels near dishes

  • Difficult to understand the line

  • Some canteens have a wrong address.

  • The majority of the canteen staff don't speak english

  • Dishes don't correspond to menuPrices and menus are not visible

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Photos on-site

In-depth interview
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As we collected enough ethnography data, we should have a rough understanding on the background knowledge of the canteen system.

In-depth interview is an one on one interview, which is a useful technique to collect deep views of user data It always conducted by a facilitator following a question guideline in a relaxing environment, voice record should be taken along the interview, transcripts will be needed after interviewing.

In our case,
We needed to figure out the specific problems that users were facing, we highlighted and concluded some common problems according to the ethnography we'd done.  

Based on that, we drafted a question guideline towards those potential problems. We started to invite different types of users to our in-depth interviews. In the end, we conducted 6 individual interviews with more or less 30~50 mins each with audio recordings, 3 international students, 2 italian students, and 1 italian admin staff, we gained different point of views, which enriched our data collection. We transcribed the audio recordings after the interviews. As reading them, we found some common problems and highlights, so as to prepare for the next step: focus group.

We concluded some comments and problems, shows as follows:

  • Top up totem, no one knows in the beginning.

  • Long queue -not enough time to eat.

  • Bring own food-->dine outside.

  • Not knowing the regulation of the canteen.

  • Food has finished in late hours.

  • Not knowing the canteen website.

  • Not knowing the ingredients when taking the food.

  • Difficult to know the typologies of the food and the price.

  • Difficult to understand the line, which is for the 1st course,which is for 2nd course---Rovereto

  • Menu is useless.

  • Traffic level.

  • Price list;

  • Don’t know how much to pay until paying at the counter.

  • Not knowing if one can take fruits and yogurt.

  • Not knowing how to order pizza.

  • Language problem.----all the signs are in Italian.


A focus group is a kind of group discussion instead of a group interview. It's always conducted by a facilitator with open-end questions. Combined work with observers who take responsibilities at writing notes and taking pictures but not participating in the interview.

Each focus group aim to achieve 60 mins with audio and partially video recordings. Normally prepared about 15 questions for each interview. Focus groups have long been used in marketing, urban planning, and other social sciences. They were first employed in the early 1940s in an effort to move away from interviewer-dominated research methods.

Preparation: Before the interview, we had a rehearsal interview in the class in case to screw the real one, it’s hard to conduct a good group interview. The facilitator has to memorize all the questions in mind and choose to ask the question at the right time, maybe right after someone’s opinion or after someone’s joke. The facilitator has to control the vibe of the interview, try to make a relaxing but serious discussion. 

There’s a saying, the facilitator is like the role of the driver on the bus, deciding the direction. Participants are like the role of passengers on the bus.

In our case: We adapted the focus group approach to narrow down to our problem statement and also to attain saturation which indeed proved to be achievable. We started to contact people 2 weeks before decided to conduct the focus group, we invited at least 20 people, we tried to invite people from different countries, different faculties and different gender, finally we had a group of five members all from various backgrounds and ethnicity. We chose the participants with the main motivation of obtaining strong diverse viewpoints among participants.

I was the facilitator, helped by my colleagues to take notes and pictures. As planned, the discussion went on more of a sensible way with immense interaction and knowledge in play, it was composed with laughter and serious talk in 50 mins, we transcripted the audio after. This helped us to gather more precise point of views from the users and also to develop on our design of the solutions eventually.


Photos on-site


Goal: The main goal of this workshop was to testify the basic ideas to the participants that the problems of the canteen, why it's needed to be improved. We've designed the workshop easily to participant so that people who has no idea on the deep problems of the canteen can also say something.

Execution: We had tried to invite people 2 weeks before we decided to conduct the workshop, we invited around 50 people, in the end, only 8 showed up which was not the worst situation for us. 

We had 2 facilitators and 3 observers. Our schedule for the workshop is as follows:

1、two ice breaking activities    2、two activities related to our project--canteen

1st Ice-breaking activity is to throw a ball and speak their names and majors.
2nd ice-breaking activity, we let participants divided into groups, and assign them a word every 10 seconds, one in the group draw the picture of the word, other members in the group guess the word, to compete within groups.

1st activity about canteen, we ask participants remain in the same group, we ask the to write down the problems about canteen, and present to other groups. After it, we asked them to think about possible solutions for the problems they came up with.

2nd activity, we utilized Lego to encourage them to be creative creating their ideal canteen. 

In conclusion, we accomplished a successful workshop with everyone’s efforts, we collected more data, and proved our solution ideas for our project-canteen.

Future guidelines
  • Design space.

  • Notice the website---big post at the entrance of the canteen.

  • An introduction video playing on the screen at the entrance.

  • Make labels in Italian and English for the food and note  I course and II course.

  • Make green/red labels for the queue on the floor.

  • Charge online for student card on unitn app.

  • Modify the website(How each canteen works, add English information)

  • Add some vegan options, gluten free.

  • One is enoughTry to reduce plastic (example knife doesn't need special “box”)


I was impressed with a sentence that the professor said, project must be done in groups, working alone is much easier than working with the group, you have to fight, argue. But meanwhile you are also learning a lot, communication is one of the most important things not only inside school, but also valued outside in the society. Learning how to cooperate with others can also make you know yourself better, your weakness, your strength. Learning from others, one can not be perfect, but with others’ help, I believe we would achieve a perfect project in the end.