Week 3: Cultural Probes

by wangtianchen

Have you ever heard Cultural Probe?

You might very easy to guess the meaning of the literally word. To be honest, it was the first time I heard this word in my class this Monday. I thought it is like investigation before going to design.

But do you know what exactly Cultural Probe is in teams of design? What designers do? Why they do?

According to the reading article ‘Cultural Probes’ by Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti, who were developed Cultural Probes in 1999. I was surprised that how they think about doing research through design. It was surreal design! They were approached “unscientific” way by being irrational, aesthetic control, elicit inspirational responses from people and not just comprehensive information about people.

From what I understand about Cultural Probes, it means a creative technique research tool used to inspire ideas in a design process. There are small packages include sort of artifact such as a map, postcard, camera or diary with some question or activity, and given to users to record aspects of their lives. After one period, some small packages will return to designers. Finally, designers refer to these visual data and going to deep design.

The propose of Cultural Probes is to elicit inspirational responses from users, in order to get to know their culture, thinking and values better. This led to designer’s imaginations for their projects.

Here have a short video which I found from Youtube. A quick introduction to the use of cultural probes.









It is creative and interesting research way, isn’t it!


However, what are Cultural Probes’s strengths and weaknesses?

Is it a useful tool for designers?

This is really important for designer. Your Cultural Probes is successful or Failure, it is depends on how your ideas attract users to integrate into your projects and how different between traditional research and Cultural Probes.

Cultural Probes has a potential benefits for designers and also it can helps to overcome cultural, ethnographical and intimate boundaries in an unobtrusive way.

Conversely, I might believe people or scientists question the data, it is hard to get scientifically information from data due to is so subjective. Furthermore, there is a risk of few returns. So important is design! How designers to motivate users doing it, as well as to get them to send the probes back. How users are supposed to reflect upon and be inspired by the probes.

I have an evident to make you understand why some problems have. Take an example from ‘Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty’ article by William W. Gaver, Andrew Boucher, Sarah Pennington and Brendan Walker. You can find more details from this link below:



In my opinion, I have considered that Cultural Probes is useful for designers or not it depends on many aspects of designers, passion, users and etc. There were a lot of good examples that make good Cultural Probes. I strongly suggested the approach was valuable in inspiring design ideas for technologies that could enrich people’s lives in new and pleasurable ways.

As a designer, what do you think Cultural Probes?





Dirk, V, E.  (Sep, 2014). Cultural Probes – Qualitative Contextual Design Research. Retrieved October 10, 2014 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJqpUG4pJIE

William, W. et al.  (Sep, 2014). Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty. Retrieved October 10, 2014 from https://www.gold.ac.uk/media/30gaver-etal.probes+uncertainty.interactions04.pdf