Designing Cultural Probes

How to get unique insights and exceptional engagement from research participants

Catherine Legros
4 min readApr 28, 2018


In the context of a university Design Research and Methods class we learned co-creation and several research methodologies. The class revolved around environmental health and measuring the impacts of an environment’s influence on people’s behaviours. With a multi-disciplinary team (Industrial designers Cora Hall, Benjamin Mills, Gian Fernandes and Communication designer Marcos Lopes), I designed cultural probe kits to learn more about food habits and philosophies of 20–30 year old Vancouverites.

What are cultural probes?
Cultural probes are a qualitative research tool, where open ended activities are given to a group of participants to learn more about their daily lives and environment. They start conversations amongst designers and bring novel insights.

More specifically we wanted to answer the following questions:
What sources of influence are present in participants’ day-to-day lives?
What are participants’ food aspirations and how do they compare to their food realities?
What emotional reactions do certain foods illicit in participants?

I was in charge of the visual identity and the UX of the kits, which included thinking of the users, their context, the clarity of the instructions and the general delight. All of which with the goal to engage and motivate participation.

Step 1 — Conceptualizing and finding the right activities

Step 2 — Design and Instructions

I created the initial mockup of the activities and instructions. Instructions detail, yellow activities are to-go and white are at home — connecting back to the labels. Creating a probe kit that would resonate with out audience (design students) — included tote bags, Moleskine notebooks, and cardboard aesthetic. Creating a well designed probe kit, which involved surprised activities, to keep the motivation up. Making the activities as accessible and contextual as possible. On the left: all of the ‘to go’ activities were in yellow and were packaged together for easy transportation. On the right:

Overview of the kits

Step 3 — Execution

It was then time to make 5 of those kits (as we had 5 research participants). This is where the industrial design team members came in handy. Picking materials, printing labels, and packaging in a cohesive and thoughtful way.

Step 4 — Results and Insights

Our participants used all the tools given and participated in a remarkable way. Most cameras had only a few photos left (of the 27 available) and all the placemats (7) were used.

We spent several hours gathering and organizing the data, finding patterns and interesting insights — finding connections between deeply personal interaction with each kit.

Some of our main insights:
— Food is a place for playfulness and humour.
— There are deep habits when it comes to eating outside of the home: often eating the same meals at the same place.
— Participants found it difficult to express judgements or assumptions on other people’s food habits.

Photos from the participant’s disposable camera. Participants were invited to photograph what they ate when they were out and in what environment.

Conclusion: An Inspiring Experience

Experimenting with cultural probes redefined what research is and can be. It created an interesting relationship between designers and participants: They felt like they were given a gift (hence the importance of a well designed probe kit) and gave back by participating in the activities in a generous and personal way. The types of insights we got were varied and opened various discussions.

Thanks for reading!