Cultural Probing Yields Subjective Data, and Attempting to Derive Otherwise is Likely a Waste of Time.

Reading: The Value of Uncertainty – Gaver, W, Boucher, A, Pennington, S and Walker, B from Probetools.net

After acquiring a general knowledge of Cultural Probes, one may believe that it is foolish to intentionally receive data that cannot be quantitatively analyzed. Groups may try to send out their own probes, asking pointed, unambiguous questions, so the responses can be directly analyzed without breaking a sweat. And after Gaver’s team’s first study using these probes in the late 90s (see Cultural Probes), several groups did.

These teams are missing the point.

Let’s open right up with the basic reasons as to why this is. If we ask pointed questions, we likely already have a good idea as to the expected answer. But what about asking exploratory questions, and then attempting to “Scientifically” analyze the results? Solely analyzing probes as an average group of data will often lead to a more defined set of data, sure, but this data will likely be mediocre in it’s reflection of the group, and completely miss unusual ideas, which are often the most inspiring. Furthermore, only looking at responses that are justifiable further constrains the imaginative possibilities of the designers.

It is understandable that this may be rather different to what many are used to. We learn starting from high school biology about quantitative data and analysis, the Scientific Method, etc. So much so that it’s likely seen as “The way to do science” to many people. If you’ve never worked in a department that focuses on qualitative analysis, it may take some convincing to see it’s value… Here’s my attempt.

Five years after Gaver’s first successful use of Cultural Probes, he is now a part of another project. This time, he and his team are pursuing new technologies for the home. They once again decided to use probes to get an understanding of given homes. (Not houses in a material sense, but homes in a personal sense to their homeowners) Some examples of items in the probes this time were – Disposable cameras, and dream recorders. The cameras, once again came with requests. Most of these requests were extremely open-ended, or arguably bordering absurdity. Ranging from “The most uncomfortable place in your home” to “Something red.” The point is not only to see how these homeowners would respond to such requests, but also give the team glimpses into parts of the home that would may have been overlooked by the homeowner. At the very least, it confided to the homeowners that the team was not coming in with a specific goal, and that this probe was in no way a facade.

The dream recorders were cheap microphone devices with only a pull tab and an LED. When a participant awoke from a dream, they pulled the tab, and had 10 seconds to describe it before the device shut off. No editing or re-doing allowed. These were, unsurprisingly, extremely provocative, but also often summarized the participants’ lives in a few words.

“What is the point of deliberately confusing our volunteers and ourselves? Most fundamentally, it is to prevent ourselves from believing that we can look into their heads… it is impossible to arrive at comfortable conclusions about our volunteers’ lives or to stand back and regard them dispassionately.”

Gaver, W.W.

The probes gave the team a feel for the individuals they were working with, as the results were intensive and multilayered, and that was the whole goal from the start. There were many interesting jumping-off points from the photos, backed up by the personalities seen in the dream recorders. It’s clear to see that these probes would not have accomplished what they did if it were not for the encouraged subjectivity from the volunteers. As Gaver describes it,

“Probology [probe-methodology] is an approach [using probes to] encourage subjective engagement, empathetic interpretation, and a pervasive sense of uncertainty as positive values for design.”

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