Cultural Probes

Your constantly-updated definition of Cultural Probes and collection of videos and articles

What are Cultural Probes?

Cultural probes are an approach to qualitative user research where face-to-face research is impractical or inappropriate. They consist of prompts, questions and instructions along with artifacts for recording thoughts and feelings. The artifacts may be as simple as a diary or as elaborate as a single-use camera.

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In many cases, depending on the intended audience, it may be appropriate to ask participants to provide their own recordings using smartphones or to record observations using apps. Similarly, prompts and probes – including video and audio media – could be provided in digital form via phone apps or websites.

Cultural probe kit showing notebook, pencil, camera and other items

Cultural probes often take the form of small kits of artifacts supplied to participants.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Cultural Probes in Use

Cultural probes can be seen as extensions of more traditional diary studies, but they tend to be more multimedia in nature and lend themselves to the “gamification” of the research process. Since they are primarily used where face-to-face research is difficult or impossible, a gamified approach can replace some of the engagement that is inevitably missing with remote, unsupervised research.

In a frequently-cited case study by William Gavers and colleagues (see Learn More About Cultural Probes), the probe kits included

  • Postcards

  • Maps

  • A disposable camera

  • A photo album and media diary

Their purpose was to elicit thoughts and feelings on a range of topics associated with increasing the presence of the elderly in their local communities. This may sound a slightly unusual approach given the challenges of technology often associated with older users, but this is exactly what happened in many parts of the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Social networking and messaging groups encouraged interactions that were not only unlikely pre-pandemic but actually impossible during pandemic lockdowns and quarantines. The Gavers study pre-dates the pandemic, but the challenges were similar, in terms of using technology to improve involvement within communities. The researchers described their approach as “pursuing experimental design in a responsive way”, and their aim was to explore the local cultures without constraining the research and subsequent discussions by placing too much emphasis on preconceived issues. Participants were given wide-ranging prompts and probes about their attitudes to their own lives, technology and the local community. Because of the inspirational (as opposed to informational) approach of the probes, a rich assortment of data was supplied to researchers over time. Much of it was sent through the post, although for more technology-oriented audiences electronic means would be equally suitable.

Close up of cultural probe kit showing camera and roll of film

While disposable cameras may be appropriate for less technically-comfortable participants, in other cases it might be appropriate to ask participants to use their smartphones.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

How Many Participants?

As with many qualitative methods, cultural probes tend to be fairly open-ended and often address fairly general research questions. The number of participants and the size of the probe kits will be highly dependent on the scope of the project itself. However, if we use other qualitative methods as a guide, the minimum number of participants is likely to be between 8 and 12. The maximum is harder to predict but would typically be in the region of 20 to 30. Because of the inevitably slow return of field data, it may be prudent to over-recruit. When researchers feel that they are no longer learning anything new, they could thank participants and tell them the study is finished. Having to recruit further participants mid-study would not be ideal, with the resulting delays to data collection being just one factor. (Environmental, social and political factors could come into play over extended periods.) Naturally, these estimates relate to a single participant group. If research is to be conducted across different participant types, then the figures need to be multiplied accordingly.

Learn More About Cultural Probes

General description and how-to guide.

Detailed article and case study.

Research on the gamification of digital cultural probes for children.

Cultural probes in the context of qualitative user research.

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Literature on Cultural Probes

Here’s the entire UX literature on Cultural Probes by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Cultural Probes

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