Cultural probes in Experience Design

Authors: Elizabeth Raby, Caroline Claisse and Kevin Walker //

Cultural probe ready to be sent to participant

Cultural probe ready to be sent to participant.

Cultural probes, a design research method developed by Bill Gaver, Anthony Dunne and Elena Pacenti (see reference below), are bespoke objects designed by researchers for gathering data from unfamiliar participants or groups, in order to inform a design process. The use of such probes in our design research allows us to collect inspiration snippets of a person’s life to influence new thoughts and ways of working, and to help put concepts into perspective. This method allows participants to have greater input into the design process.

In our projects, cultural probes help us to collect information, which people may not readily give in face-to-face interviews. They are left or sent to participants and are completed in the privacy of participants own homes and over a longer period of time. If designed well, they help individuals feel more secure and familiar with the questions we ask.

In our most recent project, we have had a great response to the cultural probes we’ve used. We have been looking the initial diagnosis of a specific illness and its effect on the body and emotions. We believe in personalising the probes, for example using of a familiar style or colour. This small factor, we believe, is greatly important, helping participants to feel more excited about the arrival of something that is essentially a very in-depth questionnaire. Presented as a gift the individual feels the items’ value in the process, thus giving them a greater affinity with the project. We think this process could be successfully implemented with a larger group if care is taken in the design process.

The initial probe succeeded in allowing us to learn more about how the illness has affected the participant both physically and emotionally, easing questions and creating a rapport with individuals even before meeting them to further discuss the information, helping to minimise ambiguity. We found that some participants were happy to express sensitive information on paper, but that they found it difficult to discuss this with us in person; the probes therefore helped us to gain richer data and greater understanding. We also found that giving a treat, e.g. a chocolate bar along with tasks, was a way of thanking them, but also encouraging them to take their time. The paper format also gives flexibility to contribute more on some questions and avoid others that they may not wish to discuss.

Blank sheets from the second probe sent.

Blank sheets from the second probe sent.

Probes also allow us to keep a physical connection with the participant when we have not been able to visit. They allowed us to form and maintain a friendship, and to update participants on our own process and progress. The physical form of the probes has become a documentation of our process, and they also reflect the participant’s personality and flair for life, giving the project a greater personal meaning for us as designers and researchers. This method, along with working with participants face-to-face, using sensory probes and interviews with both patients and healthcare professionals, has become the backbone of our developing methodology.

Resources that we have found useful on this topic:


One comment

  1. Pingback: MIDAS | Lizzie Raby

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