Workshop: The Human Element – Cultural Probes

Workshop: The Human Element – Cultural Probes


During the last workshop, we explored six
different interviews. We hope that each team experiments with a few of these interviewing techniques. This week we are introducing another tool that teams might want to experiment with: cultural probes. This design tool is used to understand people, help design better experiences for products or services and
can be used to uncover hopes and dreams which should be useful for a future-focused project like Canada Beyond 150. As with any other technique, it won’t be a
fit for all groups or questions. If in doubt, discuss it with your enabler. Cultural probes are useful when you’re trying to gather data about how people
live their lives – their behaviors and the reasons for those behaviors. They are
also useful for uncovering values and beliefs. A cultural probe is usually a
package with things like a camera a diary or journal, a map,
stickers or cutouts – all designed to help the participants express themselves in
ways that differ from traditional interviews. During the project, we encourage
each team to experiment with both interviews and cultural probes.
While interviews are more direct and perhaps simpler to prepare and execute,
cultural probes offer the opportunity to explore an issue through abstraction.
While other participants are completing the cultural probes, the time spent
interacting with the toolkit promotes self-reflection, and the toolkit itself
should facilitate new ways of expression like symbolism and imagery better suited to
accommodate for ambivalence or uncertainty. When a participant receives their cultural probe – whether in the mail or
email – they read the instructions and start interacting with the toolkit at
their own pace – perhaps over a few days or weeks. Participants might keep a daily
journal or take pictures of specific moments in their lives or their
environment. Once the instructions have been followed, and the cultural probe has been completed or filled out participants might be asked to reflect
or explain certain elements of their completed toolkit. Here are three examples of how you could use cultural probes in the context of the Canada
Beyond 150 training project. First, you could reach out to one or several
stakeholders in August or September in order to discover their values, hopes,
dreams, and fears. This information might then help you narrow your project. Second, you could design a cultural probe
to dig deeper on a statement or insight that surfaced during an interview –
maybe in September. This might help your team
create personas with more depth. Third, you could use cultural probes to gather
visions of the future from stakeholders to help you create your future
experience that you will be presenting at the November “Futures Fair” event. So let’s explore a little more in detail what those options might look like in a practical sense. First, let’s start with option one and two: that is either starting your stakeholder engagement right away with a cultural probe or running a cultural probe after an interview to dig deeper into something specific. So in these two options you would design
and run the cultural probe quite similarly. Step one: you need to write your research question and share it in the
instructions to help your stakeholder understand what you’re trying to achieve
or understand. Step two: you need to choose one or several stakeholders. Step one and two will offer the context for
step three: designing the cultural probe. Here you will need to imagine a toolkit and series of activities that would help
people express and discover how they feel and think about your research question.
This is a training program so no one is expecting you all to be gurus
in designing cultural probes. You’ll just have to take a swing at it –
maybe create a prototype and test it on yourselves, your family or friends. Step four is easier: once you’ve designed the cultural probe, you’ll need to create the toolkits
and write the instructions and package the cultural probe to be either handed
over to your stakeholders or mailed out. Step five: send out the cultural probe. Maybe with an email or a phone call to let them
know what’s coming their way. Step six: after giving participants enough
time to fill out the cultural probe you’ll get them back and you’ll need to
analyze the results. Just like analyzing interview transcripts,
coding could be a useful approach. This example is for the third option
from slide five: using cultural probes to gather visions of the future to help you
create your “Futures Fair” experience that you will be presenting at the November
“Futures Fair” event. Here’s what that might look like: Step one: using a cultural
probe you would ask your stakeholder to explore their ideas about the future of
a particular issue. Step two: you would gather the results from your cultural
probe and use these ideas along with the foresight work you’ve been doing to
create an experience. These experiences, or cultural probes as they’re called would bring your stakeholders’ ideas to life. Images, video, audio interactions –
maybe some of you will be getting into costumes – you wouldn’t be the first. Step three: you’d present your experience to your
peers, “Futures Fair” guests, and ideally the stakeholders who provided the
original ideas about the future. Step four: record how people react to the
experience. Code the data and analyze for insight – and voila! Two variations on cultural probes
for you to experiment with.

Dereck Turner

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