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Authours: Adam Starkman & Jennifer Chow
Edited by Christine Keene
When designing research for groups that are not well known to the designer, it is often difficult to gain a true understanding of the group’s culture, behaviours and attitudes, and even more difficult to dig deeper to uncover preferences, concerns and desires.
If the group is unfamiliar to the designer, the designer is likely unfamiliar to the group. Traditional surveys, questionnaires and various observational techniques are likely to produce responses that are guarded and merely scratch the surface. In order to generate genuinely new ideas that will benefit the group, the designer must find inspiration from within the group.
Cultural probes use a collection of tools, artifacts and tasks intended to provoke the user to look and think about their environment in new ways. Responses from these probes initiate a dialogue between the designer and group. With minimal intrusion, researchers can glean insights into participants’ environments that can help to identify problem statements, uncover new opportunities, and inspire the designer with new ideas and novel solutions.
Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne, and Elena Pacenti first introduced cultural probes when they worked on the Presence Project in the European Union (Gaver, Dunne & Pacenti, 1999). The project was open-ended and was intended to explore ways to increase the involvement of the elderly in three communities: Majorstua, Oslo; Bijlmer, near Amsterdam; and Peccioli, near Pisa (Gaver et al, 1999). The researchers focused on designing the probes to be aesthetically inviting and informal to facilitate the research rather than to control the process (Gaver et al, 1999). In fact, they were designed to be “delightful, but not childish or condescending” to encourage a playful, casual attitude from participants (Gaver et al, 1999, p. 25).
This method is applied during the Learn Phase. Cultural probes can be an effective research method when it is unlikely that one would be able to gain deep insight through other methods.
Encouraging discussion about novel possibilities and stimulating the imagination of the designer. Cultural probes are kits made up of a variety of items and tasks intended to provide a unique glimpse into the lives of the participants.
1) Kit Design – Researchers must identify the goals of the cultural probes, as well as the activities and materials that will support these goals. A key consideration when designing a cultural probe is to balance the need to provide instructions with the risk of being too specific and limiting the insights that may come from the probes (Gaffney, 2006).
2) Demographics – Participants should be carefully selected based on research goals.
3) Delivery – Kits are delivered to participants—ideally in person, so that there is an opportunity to explain each item and the overall intention of the research. Participants are asked to follow the instructions and send the information back to the researcher. Participants are usually given a lengthy period of time to complete the kits but are often asked to send individual tasks back to the researcher as they are completed.
4) Materials – While there is no required set of components in a cultural probe, designers should carefully select the items, as well as the overall design of the kit, in order to elicit the desired response. Kits should be playful yet professional. Many kits include items such as disposable cameras, maps, stickers, postcards and notebooks.
Example: Cultural Probe for Bullying
Kits for children included a variety of materials for expression. Children were free to select a specific medium or several mediums to express the state of bullying in their classroom.
5) Activities – Include instructions with the kit to guide participants on completing the tasks. For example: Take a picture of the heart of your house. Or, Show us the first five places that you would take a friend from out of town by placing a sticker at each location on the map
6) Follow-up – Once the kits are completed, the researcher meets with the participants again—either individually or as a group—to share the inspiration that the user’s artifacts sparked and to engage in deeper conversation where appropriate.
7) Analysis – A debrief can be conducted with participants to interpret the probes, as well as to identify similarities and patterns. Researchers will then interpret the findings and may contact participants to clarify and validate them.
Cultural Probes have been used when trying to design in “sensitive settings” such as mental health institutions where traditional observation methods could be detrimental to the residents. These probes however were designed to gather information that might not otherwise have been available from the participants rather than inspire the designers. An example of this is seen in the image “Cultural Probe for Bullying”.
While the cultural probes described above are generally used in a loosely defined design space there are there are examples of cultural probes being used to test users responses to specific experiences. These types of probes may even generate quantitative results when used in this way.
Gaffney, G. (2006). Cultural Probes. Information & Design. Retrieved from http://infodesign.com.au/usabilityresources/culturalprobes/
Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti E. (1999). Cultural Probes. Interactions, 6 (1), 21-29.
Gaver, W. W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., & Walker, B. (2004). Cultural probes and the value of uncertainty. Interactions, 11 (5), 53-56. Retrieved from http://cms.gold.ac.uk/media/30gaver-etal.probes+uncertainty.interactions04.pdf
Hemmings, T., Clarke, K., Rouncefield, M., Crabtree, A., & Rodden, T. (2002). Proceedings from Participatory Design Conference: Probing the probes 42-50. Malmo, Sweden.
Mattelmäki, T. (2005). Applying probes–from inspirational notes to collaborative insights. CoDesign, 1 (2), 83-102.
Mattelmäki, T. (2006). Design probes. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from https://www.taik.fi/kirjakauppa/images/6bbfa3805609ef167fbff8d7a18 6c86e.pdf