Cultural Probes

Edna Hirsbrunner
NYC Design
Published in
5 min readMay 10, 2018
© Edna Hirsbrunner

If I’d give you a disposable camera and let you document your surroundings, your life and your habits, what would probably come out?

What if I’d give a group of 60 to 80 years-old a disposable camera and had them document their surroundings, their lives and their habits, what would come of it? Perhaps not the same as in your case.
For some groups and in some situations it is clear and predictable what the results will be and in some not a bit. This usually depends on the target audience.

To design something for a specific user group you have to do a research. One can make traditional surveys, questionnaires or use one of the various observation techniques. But if the user group is not that familiar to the designer, all these methods most likely only scratch the surface. To solve this, the designer must find inspiration from the group. To do so he can use so called cultural probes.

Cultural probes use various tools, objects and tasks to cause the customer to look and think in a different and new way about his environment. The disposable camera mentioned at the beginning is a probe for example. Others are a diary, a map or postcards.
The designer can give a group of elderly people a camera and several postcards for example. They should document their live for a given amount of time; photograph what they find important and write down what moves them. The responses and results from this research initiate a dialogue between the designer and the group. The designer gives the group ideally as little instructions in previous as possible, to get as authentic answers as possible. With little intervention the researchers gain an intimate insight into the participant’s environment and behavior, which can help identify the problems, tasks and opportunities. It can inspire the designer with new ideas and novel solutions.

As an example where cultural probes where used, I can name “The Presence Project” by the European Union’s 13 initiative. During two years eight partners from four different countries were exploring technologies to increase the presence of the elderly in their local communities. In the first year, they focused on research and development and the second year on prototyping. They investigated the topic with three different communities in different countries. Their task was to better understand the groups characteristics. As you might already have guessed, they didn’t use traditional methods like questionnaires, they used cultural probes.

This method was so useful and perfectly suitable because they didn’t want to gain an objective view through the probes, instead a more generalized impression of their needs and desires, their beliefs, their aesthetic preferences and cultural concerns. Another reason I read from the text is, that the age difference, between the designers and the elderly community, is relatively large, what leads to the problems I describe at the beginning of this discussion.
The designer themselves describe the problem as follows: “Foremost was the kind of distance of officialdom that comes with being flown in as well-funded experts. Trying to reduce this sort of distance underlay a great deal of the tone and aesthetics of the probe materials.” Furthermore they tried to overcome the distance of geography, culture and language. To do so they mainly relied on visual probes and instead of writing the institution name “The Presence Project” in the addresses they used their personal names.
As you can see it is very important to adapt your research on the examined. The easiest way indeed is to give the non-designers a diary, where they can document whatever is questioned. This diary can be a traditional version that is written, but can also be auditory. But in nearly all examples I found, the designers are using some kind of visual recording. At “The Presence Project” they gave their communities a package which included an assortment of maps, postcards, booklets and a disposable camera. Each item had its own briefing. Some had more instructions and more precise ones, and some less.

Cultural Probe Package from “The Presence Project”

They gave them for example about 8 to 10 postcards with images on the front and questions on the back like: “What do you like about your city?” or “Tell us about your favorite device.”
They wanted to ask as open questions as possible to give the elders as much room to answers as possible. Their ideas behind this question format with the cards where following, that they are less formal than conventional questionnaires and they could gain the information from the communities more on a casual way.

A significant point to have an eye on, when doing cultural probes, are the aesthetics. The designers from “The Presence Project” state that aesthetic and conceptual pleasure is a right rather than a luxury. They say: “We worked to make the probe materials delightful, but not childish or condescending. … But although the materials were aesthetically crafted, they were not too professionally finished. This gave them a personal and informal feeling, allowing them to escape the genres of official forms or of commercial marketing.”

Personally I can agree with their conclusion. For me, especially the part, where they say that the probes have to be professional but not too much to not place a formal impression, is interesting. As an example I can name that I’d trust or tell my thoughts rather a nice looking person sitting in a living room than a doctor in a sterile office. Possibly it is not exactly the same but in my opinion it is linked.

To come back to “The Presence Project”, I’ll summarize shortly what they did with the information they gathered and what they designed with them. The designers say, that the cultural probes did not alone lead to their designs but they familiarized the designers with the places. And what the project group learned from the probes is only half of the story, they say. The other side is what the elderly learned from the probes.
It is important for the community, is to stay in touch with friends and family. To do so, the technology provided by the designers supports them. Another thing is, that many elders are experts on the history of their communities. For the community in Oslo, for example, they built a system that sends questions from the library to displays on the bus, in cafés and other public spaces that can be answered by the public.

As a summary I can say after my feelings, that the method of cultural probes is not (yet) so widespread. But they could be used for various design tasks and problems. The analysis of the audience is as important as with other research variants, but the insight gained is certainly different and more unpredictable; which I personally find very exciting.

Informations are maninly gained from the text “Design: Cultural Probes by Gaver, B. Dunne, T. & Pacenti, E (1999).