Cultural probes (or design probes) is a technique used to inspire ideas in a design process. It serves as a means of gathering inspirational data about people’s lives, values and thoughts.
The probes are small packages that can include any sort of artifact (like a map, postcard, camera or diary) along with evocative tasks, which are given to participants to allow them to record specific events, feelings or interactions.
Why is it used?
In order to gain the most intimate insights, researchers need to be as unobtrusive as possible. Cultural probes allow insights to be generated without the researcher even being present. Simple scripts and instructions, often complimented by prompts such as text messaging, can structure the information that is gathered in order to deliver effective and consistent results. The intimacy of the insights generated also serves to build empathy with the participants. The probes often provide a highly impressionistic account of people’s beliefs and desires, whilst producing a richly evocative set of research materials. They are thus hugely effective in overcoming cultural boundaries, and bringing a diverse range of people and perspectives into design processes.
When is it helpful?
Great technique for remote research and experience insights.
How is it applied?
The possibilities for innovation in the design of cultural probes are almost endless. They may be something as simple as a diary that the participant is asked to complete over the course of a set period. This might be complemented with a disposable camera, or a set of instructions designed to elicit the kind of behavioural reflection the researchers are looking for. Video can also be incorporated within the probe, with the participants following a simple script in order to self-document insights that are unreachable using traditional techniques. Once the probe is sent out, it can still be “”directed”” by researchers remotely.
Regular instructions can be sent by email or text message for example, meaning that the material gathered by the probe can be tailored around the evolving aims of the project. Researchers can thus follow
up on particularly rich insights without having to compromise the intimacy the probes achieve. The success of a probe is thus dependant not just its original design, but on continually monitoring the insights it delivers in order to ensure it can adapt around new discoveries and changing priorities.
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