Cultural probe

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Cultural probes (or design probes) is a technique used to inspire ideas in a design process. It serves as a means of gathering inspirational data about people's lives, values and thoughts. The probes are small packages that can include any sort of artifact (like a map, postcard, camera or diary) along with evocative tasks, which are given to participants to allow them to record specific events, feelings or interactions. The aim is to elicit inspirational responses from people, in order to understand their culture, thoughts and values better, and thus stimulate designer's imaginations.[1]


Cultural Probes was developed by Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti in 1999. They were inspired by the art movement Situationist International. This technique does not follow the scientific approach. It follows the artistic approach, which is characterized by being irrational, uncontrolled, getting inspiration, and cannot be analysed systematically.[1]


Cultural probes can be used for idea generation, inspiration, values and dreams in a design process. The technique is about opening up the design space, instead of narrowing it. Cultural probes aim to seek out subjective thoughts, values and dreams and surprise and uncertainty is a key value. The probes provoke inspirational responses by using a creative approach in questions instead of analytical and descriptive question usually asked in User Experience Research.[2]

Since the initial publication in 1999 of cultural probes in interactions, the use of probes has been interpreted broadly and used in a wide variety of projects within user experience. Some cases are grounded very much in the original cultural probes work, while, in other cases, ‘probes’ has become an umbrella term covering everything from Diary Studies to longitudinal user studies to field trips.[3]


  • It is hard to get scientifically valid information from data that is so subjective.
  • The data generated it not suitable for deep analysis and requirements list.
  • Participants are supposed to reflect upon and be inspired by the probes, but it can be hard to motivate participants doing it, as well as to get them to send the probes back.
  • There is a risk of few returns.
  • The wide variety of applications of and scientific approach to the probes has been criticised by Gaver and his colleagues as a misunderstood desire to rationalize and analyze the probes.[2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gaver, W, Dunne, A., & Pacenti, E,. Design: Cultural probes, Interactions, Vol 6, Issue 1, Jan/Feb 1999
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gaver, W. W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., and Walker, B. 2004. Cultural probes and the value of uncertainty. interactions 11, 5 (Sep. 2004)
  3. Boehner, K., Vertesi, J., Sengers, P., and Dourish, P. 2007. How HCI interprets the probes. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. CHI ‘07.

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