Technology Probes

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

What are Technology Probes?

Although similar in name to cultural probes, technology probes are significantly different. They are mock-ups that simulate the experience that users would have from interacting with the proposed solution. They address the problems of users not understanding new technologies, or novel solutions to existing problems.

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As Alan Dix suggests in the video, anything that helps to show users what a new solution looks like and how it might work is a technology probe. This could be something as simple as a paper prototype. For screen-based technologies such as mobile apps or websites, a crude mock-up might suffice. However, in the realm of physical devices, we are less concerned with appearances as long as the means or concepts of the interactions are similar. So, we often combine existing technologies in an ad-hoc approximation of a proposed solution.

How Do Probes Differ from Prototypes?

Sample printed report to be used as a prototype.

While a simple prototype can act as a technology probe, there are important differences.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

In their 2003 case study of using technology probes with families, Hilary Hutchinson, Ben Bederson and colleagues (see Learn More About Technology Probes) identified four differences between the probes and more fully-featured functional prototypes:

Functionality: While prototypes are often created to assess a wide range of needs, technology probes should be relatively simple. The authors suggest a single purpose and a small number of simple functions.

Usability: The primary purpose of technology probes is to gain understanding of users and how well the proposed solution addresses their needs. Usability is not a primary concern unless it severely impacts the usefulness of the probes. In contrast, prototypes are often seen as an opportunity to refine interaction and user experience. Indeed, it is very likely that successful technology probes are eventually developed into more complete prototypes, but the two artifacts have different purposes.

Logging: Technology probes can collect data about participants’ interactions. In their study, the authors were interested in relationships within the family. The data was also used as a source of new ideas for further development. Prototypes can also collect data, but this isn’t their main purpose and in many cases data collection is limited to usability (effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction).

Flexibility: Researchers should not be prescriptive about the ways in which probes are used. Participants should be encouraged to experiment and explore. In contrast, prototypes are usually very specific in their purpose and usage.

Design Phase: Probes are a research tool for the design phase. While some forms of prototype are used in early design – paper prototypes, for example – most functional prototypes feature in the later stages of design and development.

When to Use Technology Probes

Concept for meeting room/office door electronic message pad.

Technology probe for office/meeting room message pad (Alan Dix)

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0

Technology probes are most effective in novel application areas. Examples would include new technologies, new problem domains or new approaches in existing problem domains. The primary indicator for appropriate use is one where users find it difficult to envisage or understand either the application area itself or the proposed solution.

They can also be used as a research tool where a specific solution has not been proposed. Participants could be asked to interact with a probe in connection with one or more events, and the details of those interactions could inform the design discussion.

To summarize,

  • Use technology probes in novel application areas.

  • Use them early.

  • For “active” probes, make sure they can provide you with useful data.

  • Don’t confuse probes with prototypes – they have different purposes.

Alternatives to Technology Probes

User Research: Simply exploring users’ needs and behaviors – or observing users in situ – may be all that is required. If users suggest that they need a specific solution, find out why that is. If they find it too difficult to articulate a need, further in-depth research may be required. Consider probes if issues remain unresolved.

Prototypes and Wireframes: As discussed earlier, prototypes and technology probes overlap in some areas. In existing application areas, the use of probes may not be particularly beneficial. Create prototypes or wireframes to evaluate more complete designs. Consider paper prototyping for early-design testing.

First-click Testing: This is similar in concept to prototyping but focuses specifically on the question of what users should do given a specific scenario. An image of the device or screen is shown to participants along with a brief scenario. The online testing tool records where users clicked and whether it was within a designated area.

Learn More About Technology Probes

Design Probes (book, PDF).

Applying technology probes with older users (PDF).

Detailed paper on the use of technology probes with families.

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Literature on Technology Probes

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

Learn more about Technology Probes

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Interactions between products/designs/services on one side and humans on the other should be as intuitive as conversations between two humans—and yet many products and services fail to achieve this. So, what do you need to know so as to create an intuitive user experience? Human psychology? Human-centered design? Specialized design processes? The answer is, of course, all of the above, and this course will cover them all.

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