Experience Probes: adaptive spaces for faster social change.

Krister Gustafsson
Aug 9, 2018 · 13 min read

I recently finished researching, creating and validating on client projects with a team, a new design manual that described in detail a more effective and efficient process for designing responsive smart cities. It’s a project management guide that aims to help consultants save money and time tackling these complex projects and stakeholders, step by step, end to end.

A number of exciting strategies came out of the iterative process of creating the design manual, particularly Experience Probes, which are spaces that adapt to people in real time and enable anyone to drive social change faster with less costs and red tape. They are also a new way of doing both design and research of environmental experiences with all their touchpoints:

  • digital applications,
  • physical products,
  • spatial designs,
  • the services and Wayfinding that bind these touchpoints into personalised customer journeys, and
  • the efficient back and front end operations that support these personalised interactions.

I realised I had been creating Experience Probes since developing educational exhibitions at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, and finally proved them in the Magic Garden R&D Incubator. The Magic Garden envisioned the future preschool as a space that dramatically increased children’s creative and learning potential. Working within the smart cities industry helped me reflect a little more on why Experience Probes as a design method work so well and how the design method could be applied to other industries.

I condensed what I learned into a 10 minute talk. The following are the slides, with some additional insights.

On the day of the talk however, I lost my voice, so I pivoted and redesigned my slides to appear like a silent movie, with the subtitles being read out loud by another presenter.

The purpose of this blog post is to also to check with you as the reader, which bits resonate with you most, to help me structure my first book about new methods for designing the future of learning environments.

  • My query is whether I should slightly broaden the book’s scope a bit to share how the new Design Thinking methods I have developed over the last 20 years could be used to drive positive behavioural change in industries other than education.
  • Perhaps you also want to know how spaces and their cross-channel experiences can drive behavioural change to hit strategic milestones.
  • Or perhaps you might just generally want to know how to design for all touchpoints (digital, services, physical and spatial) all at once and in detail, to help your departments who design for these touchpoints and their emerging technologies separately, find a process to work together, and in a way that is unique to your organisation’s talents.

Your comments and questions are very timely and welcome.

So let’s start the show!


Behavioural change is one core purpose of Design and Architecture.

All strategic milestones of an organisation or project can be traced to a set of behaviours. Modifying those behaviours, gets individuals, community and the organisation closer to achieving the ideal outcome. I say “strategic milestone” because it’s impossible to achieve an ideal outcome. People, the environment and technologies are dynamic, so you’re always making improvements to get closer to achieving the ideal results.

Fixed structures have always struggled to keep up with the times — to adapt to future changes in behaviour that dictate what style is in fashion.

My concern was that while aesthetics is important for many reasons, it cost a lot to achieve and I wondered if the aesthetics pleased adults more than it helped children and their parents learn about the topic of “Healthy Eating and Healthy Exercise”? How would the space look like if every cubic unit of construction material and digital pixel could adapt to increase children’s learning potential of the topic?

While we began experimenting much later at the Museum, with spaces that robotically changed shape and digital projections to adapt content in the environments, we were a long way off from realising it. So here are a few ways we found to make fixed constructions resilient or adaptive to changes in behaviour and technology:

  • One workaround is to design something physical to be timeless, which requires a lot of analysis how to achieve that. We ended up using spheres as a timeless and universal form that was also modular enough that it could be used to represent any educational theme from planets in space travel, to round fruit and veggies in a veggie patch.
  • Another way of designing educational spaces to be adaptive is creating “unfinished exhibitions” that remain permanently unfinished, inviting visitor participation (also known as user-generated experiences). These spaces can either build a collection of data contributed by its visitors, or they can be adaptive, just enough to trigger social exchanges between people who care about a topic.
  • An amazingly effective option that is not adaptive but gets the visitors thinking, is using Children’s Philosophy in interactives. Children’s Philosophy leverages children’s natural sense of curiosity to get them learning to ask good questions, to reason on their own and collectively. The Bupa Magic Garden’s Time Machine (shown as the big yellow sphere) was the first interactive to try it successfully, measurably increasing toddler’s and preschooler’s focus. (I used to get excited about how they were spending 3 minutes unguided by adults in the time Machine. It indicated their focus. That’s in comparison to their attention span of 11–40 seconds on average on other interactives around the Museum. That’s still minuscule in comparison to what I achieve these days with Experience Probes that get 4 year olds focusing 2 hours straight. At the time though, Bremen University, University of NSW and the Powerhouse Museum regarded the Bupa Magic Garden as a “world first, an innovation and a milestone reached” and it may well have pioneered the industry of educational interactive playgrounds. See more photos of the Bupa Magic Garden.
Photos courtesy of Tot Hot or Not
2 different examples of downtown city rehabs: before the rehab and a thriving hub afterwards.

Downtown city revitalization (also known as Main Street revitalization) is a big movement in America, involving the bootstrapping of bringing a derelict main street to life again. This brilliantly written annual report shares the workings and stories of their highly organised movement. These directors are so well trained that they hardly needed the design manual I was writing. One thing they did struggle with though was acquiring the right data to tell the right story to VC’s to help them buy the buildings that stood empty and run down for decades. Therefore, to even get the rehab project off the ground could take many years of surveying by hand and pitching it to both businesses and VC’s to believe in the idea. In one case, an abandoned warehouse took 10 years to buy, and a further 2 years to be open to the public. That’s a long time to keep the locals suffering I thought.

The directors’ method of revitalisation was consistent and clever. Once the directors found the right data and story, they would invite businesses who cared about locals, from other towns they were doing well in, to move in to the rundown building. But it gets better! In turn, they renovated the building. These businesses also formed a themed ecosystem. In the example of the warehouse, the businesses were all focused on furniture, such that one business was a furniture manufacturer, another a furniture antique dealer and another being a furniture designer etc. By being focused on locals (adaptive to their behaviour) and operating in an ecosystem, they were more resilient to future changes in behaviour and technology. The businesses would drive in tourists and locals, increasing the variety of food, dance, music, products etc and increase the demand for personalised experiences. The businesses were also more likely to produce more visitor and customer data to mitigate their risk and stay adaptive. And the directors needed that data to get more funding from VC’s to develop even more projects along the main street. However, often younger directors tragically failed to report the good numbers to investors and grant funding bodies, which prevented them getting further funding. Those directors who did understand the value of the data reaped an average ROI of 1:3 and even 1:13 in Washington DC. This was measured in how much grant and VC funding was given vs tax dollars collected from local businesses.

That’s bootstrapping and hacking social change without digital transformation! It’s also really interesting how the behaviour of the directors is remarkably similar to how owners of smart city projects think and work. From Mayors to property developers and facilities managers, they often want their environments to be resilient to changes in behaviour and disruptive technologies by adapting instead of trying to look into a crystal ball.

Step 1: This sketch shows how the shop owner can’t change the fixed concrete structure but can use digital projections to adapt the space.

Perhaps in this case they have re-imagined the future of retail, enabling shoppers to select items they want delivered to their home address or experiences they want now, by touching parts of the projection.

Step 2 follows:

Step 3: The sketch shows the business has added sensors to help them collect a wider range of non-personal data to provide them analytics about user needs and operations.

Two of the best things project owners of smart cities can do to ensure they maintain the resilience of their environmental experiences (against future changes in behaviour and technology) is to use open standards and ask as wide a range of questions as possible during research. I believe that’s done by inviting a diverse range of specialists to form multidisciplinary teams able to ask a wider range of questions.

Step 4: This is where the space evolves to become a probe for designers and ethnographers to conduct their field research.

I compared a wide range of probes since the Situationalist movement and think this is the simplest and most elegant way to facilitate the probe in an adaptive space.

The data is already being collected live, so now you’re just adding the researchers to understand the shopper’s and operational barriers and motivators that need adjusting. By making the adjustments, there should be an exponential growth-curve of impact and/or ROI (based on my experiences in running the Experience Probe in the Magic Garden R&D Incubator I founded).

In step 5, what began as a prototype becomes the solution.

A Lean UX process lets you start a project by testing a prototype to begin learning about your customers. You’re not focusing on a solution. You’re just learning. Using Lean Startup principles, you may even start earning money.

Using Experience Probes however, you are not just learning (and possibly earning money), but also proving impact in the form of desirable changes in behavior.

Using Experience Probes, you’re also doing it in cycles of these 5 steps of refinement. Each step involves:

  1. Building or improving a prototype.
  2. Measuring its performance with live data collected from tests — how well it serves the users and its operational efficiency.
  3. Learning by reflecting on the patterns observed and prioritising opportunities for refinement.

The Magic Garden R&D Incubator

I used the process of the Experience Probe to transition preschools into their future state of being, starting with a very small prototype that grew to transform whole rooms and spaces outdoors of preschools. The project we founded to do that was the Magic Garden R&D Incubator. Although the Experience Probe is not mentioned in the UX design case study, it (and the slide show of the final design) will give a lot more context to the project’s evolution.

We proposed the behavioural outcome to be “increasing children’s creative and learning potential” together with a UX team and parents, preschool educators and directors.

Following, are the same 5 steps applied to helping preschools envision their future and transition into their future state.

Step 1 shows a sketch of a digital projection that adapts to how children role play with their trucks and cars. As they draw the map of their neighbourhood, images of what they ask for (eg, houses, street lights, ice cream shops, airports), are added in to help bring their concepts to life.

In step 2 I built a portable version of the sketched concept. When the first preschool director experienced it, she found it “soulful and unlike other technologies”, and helped us charge for just interviewing parents. But the parents and children were confused by the abstraction of what they had first seen in the sketch. We learned that we needed to provide the full immersive experience to get useful feedback.

Step 3: The “videos” is a reference to our team adding sensors to collect data.

It was interesting to see in our Children’s Philosophy sessions, how children were routinely triggered to start role playing the story they saw in a scene as soon as they added 3 characters to it. In this scene a girl initiated a role play by calling out to me and her friend:

You’re going to be the tree, you’re going to be the owl in the tree, I’m going to be the bunny and you’ll hunt me.

From the Experience Probe we learned that creating 3 characters in a scene were psychological triggers necessary to get children role playing.

We knew that preliterate children are philosophical through the arts. We also knew that role playing is one of the most effective and easiest ways to do Design Thinking which involves creativity and learning. So now the Experience Probe had given us a psychological trigger we could use more often to increase the number of role plays children would have. We had also learned previously that like building LEGO, creating the scenes enabled children to inhabit the worlds they first imagined, which increased the duration of their focus and depth of engagement.

Step 4: The contextual enquiries we ran using the Experience Probe showed us that parents missed being immersed in their children’s imaginative stories more than just seeing them. Facilitating parents to be part of their child’s role play provided a wide range of benefits to both educators and families. Their input also varied because each family and their child were unique. It showed promise as flexible and culturally sensitive format to help raise children (limited to 5 and 15 minute sessions) through all their stages of development from 3 years and up. It also showed promise in helping build a stronger rapport between educators and parents.

Step 5: The prototype becomes the solution.

A four year old boy is delighted to discover that he has control of the picnic blanket, that it’s only an A4 piece of paper with a sketch he can manipulate.

Children called in using an IoT device and AI, images from Google to create their wall scenes.

Digitally projected costumes and a cubby house to help children build empathy with a caterpillar and have the space to ponder what could a home be? Does it have to be a house with a roof, or could it be a place where you eat your living room out?


Krister Gustafsson

Written by

Envisioning the future kindergarten (Magic Garden) and forecasting the future of creativity in early childhood education. Educator, UX & Industrial designer.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade