By now, we know all the buzzwords. A probe should be playful, open-ended, evocative and creative and should attempt to illicit responses that spark inspiration. But what does any of that mean to the designer?
It is impossible — and not in the spirit of the approach — to specify precisely how to create a successful Probe study. We can offer a few tips, however, based on years of experience.
Probes are a glorified collection of tasks. It’s up to the designers to create both the tasks, and the medium(s) of response. Although these kits are bordering on an art form, we can still make some generalizations. We know that we want to keep tasks on-topic (say we’re working with internet usage, we don’t want to ask how often they go drag racing) but we also don’t want to be too direct, lest we lose a lot of creative space. Here’s some general good ideas for task inquiry:
~Ask obliquely related questions. Instead of What do you use the internet for? Try How do you gossip with friends?
~Use analogies. Try What kind of vacation spot would the internet be?
~Ask general questions. Try Computers. Blessing or a curse?
~If you want to get more specific, try indexical questions. ie. What did you use the internet for last weekend?
We can also get more specific into visual medias. Not only should we ask for things we’re curious about (obviously), we should also encourage those probed to point the cameras or whatnot in directions they wouldn’t have if we simply asked them to document their lives. While the answers to our inquiries are important, there is also a great value to unexpected details and textures uncovered.
Probes generally consist of 6-15 tasks. Having a variety of tasks can: (quote- Probetools)
- can gather different kinds of information
- tend to be more engaging for participants
- play to volunteers’ strengths and interests
- allow participants to choose which tasks to do
- can vary in their degree of playfulness v. focus
- allow some to fail without destroying the study
It should be noted in conclusion that, once again, this is not a scientific method. It’s a method of design, which is closer to an artistic study than a data-driven scientific one. We need to work with useful styles and themes, while staying fun and less-than-intimidating.