Probing Collectives of Users

Using cultural probes to understand relationships among interconnected users

Many organisations are developing services for collectives of users, such as teams, families, communities, and organisations. Think Spotify, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, 1Password, Slack etc. How do you research users when they are part of an interconnected collective? Many design research methods are tailored to understanding the single, isolated user and their single, isolated journey. But what happens when we need to understand interactions between users at multiple levels of interaction — individual, bilateral, and collective?

Mixed methods to allow for depth and reflection

A recent project for a large international technology company challenged us to explore this question by studying teams and teamwork within large organisations. This forced us to use methods that gathered data at the individual, pair, and group levels. Deep and lengthy ethnographic research and “shadowing” approaches would have swallowed too much time and cost. Furthermore, we also wanted the participants to reflect with us, and so needed an approach that was not too intrusive and distracting for those involved. This resulted in an innovative mixed-methods qualitative approach, entailing a 2-week probe study, interspersed with remote interviews and book-ended by two interactive workshops, the latter of which was co-creative. The use of cultural probes for this study was particularly interesting and unique.

Cultural probes to address nested research questions

When we design probes, we think about a particular research question or area of enquiry that we want to answer with each probe, and the activity it triggers and/or records. Often, research questions focus on a single person as they interact with a service or system. But in this case, our client was interested in interactions between multiple people, at the team level. When teams and teamwork are the area of interest, research questions become scattered across different levels of analysis. Our probes therefore needed to capture stories from individuals, pairs of individuals and the team.

This process forced us to reflect upon the use of cultural probes in design research. Guided by our research questions, the activities in our probe packs were a combination of tasks that individuals did in isolation, with another team member, or with the team as a whole. We learned that it’s important to use probes in combination with other research methods, such as more in-depth interviews or workshops. Our probes were not designed to collect complete and thorough data. Rather, they were designed to be windows into the worlds or world-views of the participants and help establish and frame a discussion with and between research participants throughout the project.

Provoking insightful discussions among participants, researchers and client team

What we learned about the team is only half the story, however. The other half is what the team themselves learned from the probes. The probes provoked the team to think about the roles they play, and to reflect on their experiences, both good and bad, which led them to identify opportunities for new roles, tools and experiences for our client to create. In this way, probes in combination with more in-depth, one-on-one and group conversations proved ideal for this type of early-stage, exploratory research involving multiple, interconnected participants.