Cultural Probes

Both the cultural probes described by Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti and the technology probes described by Hutchinson et al, explain how design and research is a multi-directional process.  The researchers want to learn something about the people, but they also hope to “provoke” them through the introduction of carefully cultivated materials and technology.  Yet again, I can’t help but think what if…

What if classroom experience was more like this? Instead of the classroom being a place where standards were imposed or deadlines met, it could be a place where educators as researchers and artists “doing research through design.”  Ideally, teachers would have the means, materials, and time to create their own probes, but it might also be worth exploring how other researchers, designers, and artists could create probes for classroom learning too.  

A cultural or technology probe approach in the classroom takes the focus away from achieving prescribed skills, because they are open-ended and flexible in over-all goals.  The focus is not to design something for a group of people to use and see what happens.  The primary goal of a probe is to learn about the people they are designing for, and see what happens, what design possibilities may come from this understanding.  I like that the postcards, maps, camera, and all the materials in the cultural probe described by Gavers et al all had a goal of getting at what they wanted to know, but at the same time giving the elderly residents the opportuinity to take ownership and express themselves.  I like this idea of users as co-creators described by Hutchinson et al.   Instead it seems like things are designed for us and we have no choice but to use them (whether in the classroom or our homes).  When people are engaged in the design process, maybe that also means they have more of a chance of being  supplied with things they need and want.  If this were true for children and teachers, well, right now I can only think "what if..."  

Boundaries of Cultural probes?

Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti’s methodology left me with lots of questions. They are collecting data through probes, making your own conclusions based on the data, and creating new ‘solutions’ that they think they would like. E.g. The group in Oslo is affluent and educated so they get a ‘community-wide conversation about social issues’. This to me seemed more traditional and positivist (identify problem, create solution), despite the fact that their analysis and data collection was fluid and playful.

I also wondered whether the data might become richer and more comprehensive if there was more immersion with the researcher. This reminded me of Ackerman’s truism that the “cognitive dance” requires both “dwelling in” and “stepping back” - how would more engagement with participants as they complete probes have altered the results?

The definition and use of the cultural probe seemed very different in Gaver, Pennington and Walker’s study, where they argue that probes shouldn’t be used “as specific questions and produce comprehensible results”. So my question to the class would be, how would we define a probe and how directive should it be? At what point does it become so prescriptive that it stops being a probe?