A Dive into a Specific Instance of Cultural Probe Use.

Reading: Cultural Probes by Gaver, B., Dunne, T., and Pacenti, E.

I’m going to assume that you, the reader, know the very basics of what I mean when I say “Cultural Probe.” If this isn’t the case, feel free to take a look at an earlier post of mine: What are Cultural Probes? The Basics.

A note on the context of this article (which I will refer to). In the late 1990s, a design team was assigned to, over several years, look at possible novel interaction techniques to increase the presence of elderly in three communities. Bijlmer, in Amsterdam, Netherlands; a community in Oslo, Norway; and Peccioli, a commune in Italy. The project was very open-ended, which gave the team a lot of room to do whatever they see fit.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive in. First of all, let’s contextualize the design team. Starting this project, they had no data on these communities except what’s in the public domain. It was understood that these communities were diverse from the start, so there was likely not an objectively correct approach to take for any or all the communities. Given how large and diverse these communities were, the team decided on using Cultural Probes to get a better grasp on what they were really working with. The particularities of what each community lacked, to put it generally.

Given how universally general each of these proposed solutions/additions had to be to be productive to an entire community, the team obviously couldn’t take a path of design that many would consider ‘traditional,’ as this isn’t a traditional task. The team decided to take an aesthetic artist-designer approach, looking for “… cultural implications of our designs, and ways to open up new spaces for design.” Using logic-driven scientific approaches to new design will only allow one to stray but so far away from the previously set path of knowledge, whereas empirical data from informal analyses, or even stray observations found by chance, can spark new creative jumping-off points.

So they had a direction, and a method – now they needed implementation [of the probes]. Before anything was made or implemented, several challenges had to be addressed. Firstly, as we all know, next to nobody likes answering phone calls from local government officials, even though in the officials’ minds, all they are doing is trying to help the people they are calling. (If we give them the benefit of the doubt, that is. Maybe this is a poor example) This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is likely going to be an immediate distance between the team and the community caused by the notion of having professionals flown in to help said community.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone in a community like this. These communities are inherently full of people who are at once wizened by age and likely free of the labors of work, but also still full of many people who are disabled in some way(s). Society often stereotypes the elderly as a group who are needy and fragile. Whether either or both of these are worth considering as a general fact is irrelevant when you consider that if your group is actively stereotyping a community with which you want to help, you likely aren’t going to be very productive. Taking this aura of looking-down-upon away frees up a lot of design space. It is possible to go too far the other way, however. As a team with a goal, if the interaction between you and the community is too casual, you may end up with a year of wasted time from irrelevant responses. Taking this into account, the team wanted to create probes that were interesting, open-ended, and personable while not being either too condescending or too formal.

“We wanted to lead a discussion with the groups towards unexpected ideas, but we didn’t want to dominate it.”

So let’s look at what they ended up doing. (Spoiler: It was indeed successful and productive) In making the probes, the team tried to be revealing to the groups as they asked them to be revealing to the team. There is a common theme of mutual respect that can be applied to any co-design project. The final probes contained maps, postcards, cameras,and requests for small photo albums.

Maps were bundled with small inquiries. Some of these were very straightforward (A map of the world paired with “Where have you traveled in your life?) while others were more poetic. (a map of the community, with “If Piccioli was New York” alongside of stickers of the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, or a scene of people injecting drugs) The point of these maps were to be fun, individualized, and engaging. The postcards were similar, as they all had small prompts. A reason these are attractive to the team is they have casual connotations. Unlike having a formal questionnaire dropped at your door, you can personalize your answer and mail it to the exact person on the team who will read it. The disposable cameras also had requests for each picture slot, like “Your home” or “The most attractive place around,” except that near half the slots were titled “Take a picture of anything you would like to show us.” The photo album simply requested “6-10 photos to tell us your story.”

While the Oslo group returned most all of the materials, the Bijlmer group returned a bit more than half, as they seemed less convinced about the project as a whole, and the Piccioli group returned less than half, despite being enthusiastic about the probes when the team was there in person. But all of this was still great for the team. For example – “The group in Oslo is affluent, well educated, and enthusiastic: We are proposing that they lead a community-wide conversation about social issues, publishing questions from the library that are sent for public response to… public spaces.” This is clearly something that the team would not have concluded if it were not for this open ended style of information-collection.

Although the probes were successful in their goal of familiarizing the team to the community and vice-versa, they did not directly lead to any of the following designs. Instead, they inspired the team in ways that could not have been anticipated, and it must be stated that this was the goal of the probes the entire time.

Cultural Probes are clearly useful when implemented elegantly, but it must not be understated how much thought must go into analyzing what particular challenges a set of probes must face for a given project for a given community.

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