Understanding HCI

Cultural Probes

What is a Cultural Probe?

The cultural probe used by Gaver et al (1999) includes maps, postcards, a disposable camera, a photo album and a media diary. All the probes have associated questions relevant to its particular medium. The maps are used to explore environment, comfort levels & preconceptions. The postcards, camera and album are used to gain feedback on the participants’ lives and cultural and technological environment. The media diary is used to explore the participants’ use of technology. In some cases the users are asked direct questions. In others they are allowed to create their own interpretation. This open-ended facility allows participants to direct the probe in a meaningful way for them

The result is a wealth of inspirational data with which to generate a framework for design. Although the probes themselves are not directly involved in the design, certain photos or written responses seem to almost encapsulate the participants’ environment. The rate and completeness of return of the probes gives further insight into the participants themselves. Some groups may be quite diligent and return almost all the materials. Other groups may return less than half, despite initial enthusiasm. As the distinct characters of the groups emerge, the designs can become more tailored to them.

Why Use it?

Cultural probes are used by designers to help them to understand the users’ environment, desires, comfort levels and enthusiasm. It is not an evaluatory technique, in that it is not used to evaluate a finished design, but it is used to understand the context and environment a design will be part of. Cultural probes are generally objects that the users are familiar with already in a social setting and so bypass any connotations of work, formality and officialdom. The probe’s purpose is to generate inspirational data from which a design can be produced to satisfy the participants’ needs, desires and abilities in the realms of technology and culture and in their social setting.

  1. Social: Collecting data about use and users in real world setting; understanding cultural setting
  2. Design: Inspiring users & designers to think of new kinds of technology to support needs
  3. Opening up dialogue with users

Task List

Gather an array of cultural probes such as

  1. maps – where do you meet others
  2. camera - disposable for small children / video
  3. photo album – creating stories from photos
  4. diary - notes
  5. pens
  6. post-it notes
  7. stickers

Limitations Of method

This form of context evaluation suffers from the lack of control the designers have over the response. It is possible that very few or none of the probes may have been returned, leaving the designer with a costly outlay on probes and insignificant or no results. Whether cultural probes work depends on the relationship created at the initial meeting between the design team and the participants. The designers will also only see what they are ‘allowed’ to. They have no way of verifying responses for validity.


A local Youth Club has been given a donation to facilitate the technology use of the children who attend it.

  1. In small groups of 2 or 3, design a cutural probe pack for 20 children at 10 euro or less per head which will give an insight into the type of technology the children are willing to engage with.
  2. How will you present the packs?
  3. How will you ensure the packs are returned?