Thirsty Crop Project

A case study on how crop production and consumer consumption affects California’s water footprint.


How might we create awareness around water footprint on crop production?


About The Project

The Thirsty Crop Project bridges the awareness gap between consumers and farmers on crop production.  Our aim for this study is to educate consumers on how much water is produced to grow the food they eat and encourage farmer’s to take action towards a more water sustainable farming practice. We hope to enable both user groups to make conscious, sustainable decisions for the environment. 

The scope of the project focuses on designing a solution for a complex system through the use of information models and design research.



DATE Spring 2018, 3 Weeks
TEAM Tiger Zhao, Jamie Catt
TOOLS Sketch, Keynote
FIELD System Design, UI / UX Design


Topic Exploration

We started the project by looking at the broader aspect of water as our main topic of exploration. We quickly made a mind map to brainstorm and flush out possible ideas that we could look into.


The Water System

We created an ecosystem model and a concept model to map out the relationships of our system. The models helped us discover possible areas of dysfunction. From there, we became interested on how drought affected the agriculture sector. As a resident of California where water shortage is a huge concern, we believed it was a problem that was needed to be addressed with a design solution


Ecosystem Map


Concept Map

Concept Model.png

Key Relationships

After we created the ecosystem map and the concept map, we arrived at a conclusion that on a:

  • Larger Scale: To explore the relationship between environment, agriculture and market.

  • Smaller Scale: To focus on the key relationship between farmers and consumers in the market, where both groups contribute to the water footprint that may either positively or negatively impact the environment.


The Connection Circle helped us map out and understand these key relationships; while the Stock-Flow Diagram gave us an insight on how the consumer's demand for certain crop production can indirectly affect the water footprint. 


Research Findings

I went to the local farmer's market in Embarcadero and conducted a few Intercept Interviews. My conversations with these individuals were enlightening, and it ultimately became the pillar of our research and design work. 

  I have to wait for 7 years before water gets to me from The Sierras. That's how long it takes.

I have to wait for 7 years before water gets to me from The Sierras. That's how long it takes.

  I can only produce so much of my crops. It's very dependent on weather because I don't use an irrigation system.

I can only produce so much of my crops. It's very dependent on weather because I don't use an irrigation system.

  People buy what they need, but I think if they were aware of the value of water in crop production, they would take things into consideration.

People buy what they need, but I think if they were aware of the value of water in crop production, they would take things into consideration.


Insight 01

Farmers are aware of their water usage on crops.

Water is an important variable for crop production as this determines how well crops are going to be when harvested. As such, farmers see it as gold and take as much as they can despite the limited amount of resources available.

  • “Farmers are aware of how much water their crops need because they either pay the government for it or pump it from the ground.”

  • “Farmers take what they can get.”

Insight 02

Consumers are not aware of the water usage on crops.

Water footprint is an intangible variable in the process of crop production and there’s no transparency on how much water it takes to produce the crops that are being sold in the market. 

  • “People have no concept of where water goes.”

  • “People have no concept of the process of crop production.”

  • “It’s difficult to change consumer habits because they don’t see the process of producing these crops and the amount of resources and water it takes to do it.”


Secondary Research

Agriculture is one of the leading sectors that use the highest percentage of water, amounting to 80% of the overall water usage across different sectors. Within this sector, crop production is one of the main culprits that affects such a large amount of water is being used.


If there's no water, there's no food.


The System

What's Good

  • Availability of technology used in farms that address water usage in crop production.

  • Accessibility of water resource for farmers are the things that work well in the system.

What's Bad

  • Over-pumping and over-extraction of natural resources.

  • Limited laws that regulates the amount of water wells a farmer can maintain.

  • Imbalanced water trading.

  • Energy, time and cost to produce crops.

Existing Solutions

  • Practicing sustainable farming like grain rotation.

  • Using drought tolerant crops.

  • Implementing groundwater regulation, which controls the total amount used in the irrigation process.

  • Practicing dry farming.

The People

Farmers Concerns In The Economy & Ecosystem

  • Water was very expensive to pump, and too costly to let run off their fields.

  • Land was becoming a new limited resource which resulted in increasing land values.

  • Lack of water had negative effects on habitat, fish and waterfowl (particularly because farmers had less access to water to create habitat) and that springs in the county were drying up.

Pain Points of Farmers In Farming Lands

  • Some farmers experience waiting for years before water can reach their lands.

  • Others depend on rain to water their lands, which is largely affected during dry seasons. All this impacts the cost and the value they bring to the crops they harvest.



who are empowered to make changes?



implement and regulate rules on water conservation and sustainability



produces the crops sold in the market and determines the kind of sustainable practice they can implement in their farms



purchase and demand the need for certain types of produce that are sold in the market


Problem Statement

How might we create a tool that can educate people on the amount of water used to grow a crop? 

How might we create awareness on the water footprint that certain crops produce?

How might we engage consumers to participate in conserving water through what they eat?

How might we elevate the importance of using water in sustainable means through crop production?

Proposed Solution

For Farmers

Concept: Create regulations and labels to determine if a farmer's crops are water sustainable when sold in the market. 

Goal: Encourage farmers to practice water-sustainable farming.


For Consumers

Concept: Website and Ad Poster to educate consumers on water usage in crop production.

Goal: Provide awareness to consumers by giving them the power to make the choice when choosing water-sustainable food.


Our Case Study Aims To:


Bridge the gap between farmers and consumers by providing transparency of water usage in crop production. 

Encourage individuals to reduce their water footprint through the food they eat on a daily basis.


Concept Sketches


Journey Map

We created a journey map of the consumer's experience when they purchase produce in the market or grocery and how our solution can provide an impact on the consumer's awareness.  




Produce LabelS

The metric we came up with determines the classification of the crops.  It depends on the amount of water it uses when produced. To create a standard for our concept, we decided to measure the water usage of a crop, for every season of harvest, in inches of water.


AD PosterS

My partner, Tiger Zhao, was in charge of designing the posters. We both envisioned these posters to act as call-outs for awareness on water intensive crops. We settled on the catch-phrase: “Crops get thirsty too.” to indicate that crop production is one of the largest contributor of high water usage in the Agriculture Industry. 


Website Wireframe


Online Poster



 I was in charge for developing the design of the website. My idea was to create a landing page where the overview of the project can be found. Since the education and the actions that can be taken for each user group were different, I wanted to create a separate page for both where they can learn more about how they can contribute either as a Farmer or a Consumer, depending on who is interacting with the website. 


Here are a few key screens from the website I designed:





This project gave me the opportunity to work on a real-world problem which is something I’m strongly passionate about. It allowed me to see things from a broader perspective by understanding the whole system first before focusing on a particular area within that system. 

One of the key learning that I also gained from this project was the importance of discovering the pain points of users when conducting a primary research. The interviews were the main highlight for me because it allowed me to see things from the farmer’s and consumer’s point-of-view, which became a valuable lesson for me to design solutions to address their pain points, rather than designing solutions that addresses our own assumptions or conclusions of the system’s problems.