Design Methods #36 – Cultural Probes

Cultural probes are the name designers give to exercises, activities and provocations given to participants in a study to provide inspiration and understanding about their lives, thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and the cultural and social context that informs them. In market research, such activities might be associated with longitudinal studies and with pre-work (homework) and follow-up work done in connection with more formal interviews and participant discussions. 

The purpose of such ‘probes’ is to inspire people to think more weepingly about the context and circumstances of particular behaviours, activities and interactions. Typically, such probes are designed in sets of materials and activities, rather than as one-off items, as part of a process of discovery and inspiration for the design team. Probes might include postcards, maps, journals (diaries), cameras, voice recorders and other pieces of verbal and visual stimulus that can stimulate personal responses to a question or provocation. Cultural probes are used in an open and exploratory way, used to stimulate imagination rather than focus on a specific answer or direction.

The probes can be used to ask questions about a range of topics. For example, in one study of retirement living, participants were asked to use a map to mark areas where they met other people, where they relaxed, where they were alone or in company, where they dreamt and where they could not go. Cameras can be used to take pictures against pre-assigned tasks and self-selected items, and to create a visual story. Diaries or journals can be used to record activities and interactions.

As such, cultural probes are not formal methods and are not formally analysed, but rather are used to explore a topic and themes that emerge in relation to a particular group of people or cultural context. They are casual and informal, providing an engaging and rich research tool and a thoughtful and provocative set of cultural inspirations for designers and researchers. They are a rich resource to truly understand the cultural context behind any topic.


Universal Methods of Design by Martin & Hanington

“Cultural Probes” by Gaver, Dunne & Pacenti in Interactions, Jan-Feb 1999, 21-29

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