Cultural Probes

What is it?

A cultural probe is a documentation device, such as a workbook, worksheet, disposable camera, or tape recorder, that is given to a participant with instructions on how to complete it. For example, the participant may be instructed to answer the questions or do the activities on one workbook page each day at lunchtime, or to take photos of various situations or circumstances. The participant completes the artifact on his or her own and returns it to the designer, who analyzes and interprets the results.

Designers of cultural probes often craft a narrative to further integrate the probe into the life of the end user. For example, instead of just asking users to tape-record things they want or desire, a designer may embed the recorder in a pillow, call it a "dream catcher," and ask users to record their dreams each morning when they wake up.

How do I do it?

Identify the type of people who will use your probe; they should match the target audience of your product, system, or service. Then list the types of data you want to gather from the audience. For example, you may want to know the audience members' daily activities, their long-term aspirations and dreams, or their feelings about certain people, situations, or products. In listing your desired data types, Make your list as specific as possible; "aspirations related to long-term financial behaviors, such as saving, investing, and purchasing" is more actionable than the vague "financial aspirations."

Then think about the best situational context in which a participant should describe the data you want. So, for data related to finances, think about a participant's typical physical location when they consider personal finances. And what time of day would it be? What would they have with them? Who would be around them? These associated qualities begin to describe an opportunity for a probing interaction.

Next, sketch the probe as you think about specific activities or questions related to the situation. If you're interested in aspirations related to credit card debt and financial planning, you might sketch a worksheet for users to fill out each time they pay a bill. Or you could create a series of short questions, placed on users' credit cards, for users to answer each time they charge something. The probe-development process is typically iterative. Your probe must include instructions. Although you'll discuss instructions with your participants, they are likely to forget how to use the probe, so it should stand on its own.

When the probe is ready, test it with someone you know without interpretation or evaluation. Present the probe as you intend to with actual participant, and be sure to write instructions. When your testee completes the probe, ask the person to highlight confusing tasks and suggest further improvement before the probe goes to real users.

Refine the probe, recruit users, distribute the materials, and remind your users to complete them. As part of the research plan, you might call or text users each evening or at another planned interval. If your probe use extends beyond a week, schedule an in-person meeting or review with the users at a mid point.

Finally, collect the probes and interpret the results. Pay special attention to things that surprise you, anomalies within a given user's data, words participants use to describe things, and situations, images, or emotions that stand out. Extract insights from the data and include these insights in your war-room or insight wall.

When should I use it?

Use the cultural probes method to explore emotions, aspirations, desires, and other fuzzy human qualities. Because the probes are completed without your physical presence, you'll receive provocative and evocative data that will probably inform the more qualitative aspects of your design solutions.

What is the output, and how can I use it?

Depending on the type of probe, the output may take the form of written comments, spoken words, pictures, or drawings. Cultural probes produce unedited "raw" and often rich data, and because it is literally created by the users, it tends to act as a strong voice during further design and development efforts.

Where can I learn more?

Read "Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty," an article by Bill Gaver. It's available online.

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Methods for Synthesizing Data and Developing Ideas

Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving