Experimenting with Cultural Probes

For my recent intern project at Stby, I experimented with Cultural Probes, trying out how this method could be utilised when researching a sensitive topic. The topic I chose to base this upon was the experience of moving back to the family home after a period of independence as a young adult.

What are Cultural Probes?

Cultural Probes are a research technique used to gather insights into people’s lives, behaviours, and emotions, within a particular cultural context. Researchers typically create ‘a Probe Pack’ consisting of open-ended and creative activities. This could involve; diaries, cameras, maps, or questionnaires, which are given to participants to complete over a period of time.

Objects or artefacts that are purposefully designed to provoke, reveal and capture the motivational forces that shape individuals

When to use Cultural Probes?

Cultural probes are often used when the research topic is sensitive. It allows participants to have freedom and control over the research process and their responses, without the presence of a researcher. Here are some reasons for this:

  • The probes used tend to be quite open-ended and abstract, which gives the participant more control over what and how they share their experiences in comparison to other research methods.
  • The responses are self documented, and expressed from a first-hand perspective. This is an effective approach when involving more intimate and personal experiences, when the participant’s voice is especially important in telling their stories.
  • No researcher is present in the field, which removes potential pressure for the participant, and therefore gives the participant more space to respond openly.
  • The researcher has the position of a facilitator who observes the participant indirectly. This gives the participant the ability to steer the research and their responses depending on what they see as important and significant to their personal experiences. However, it is important that the researcher maintains control of the data, so they can still guide the collection of data and ensure it is still relevant to the research questions.

The amount of participant agency and the dynamic between the researcher and participant makes it quite distinct from other more systematic data collection methods.

While direct observation can show you what people do, cultural probes can reveal what people feel

How to use Cultural Probes?

For my intern project, I experimented with Cultural Probes myself, as a method to research sensitive topic: the experience of moving back to the family home after a period of independence as a young adult. I thought that after reading into this method, this would be effective at allowing the participants to open up about their experiences, and to be able to deeply understand their struggles.

Here are a few things that I learned about using cultural probes:

  • People express themselves clearly in different ways, so it’s beneficial to create probes that vary in format. For example, a range of written, image and drawing based responses.
  • Designing probes in a way that the response captures the domestic setting in a multi-sensory way was effective at providing tangible data. For example, audio recordings and photographs of physical objects from around the participants’ family home.
  • Uncertainty should be valued, it’s not necessary for participants to explicitly explain all their responses. Understanding of their responses should come through further analysis, where patterns and narratives can be pulled out.
  • Both digital and physical elements have their role. Digital methods are efficient and easy to record, but physical probes are fun and encourage the participant to be creative and playful, which could result in them being more involved in the activities.

In my approach, I anticipated that using different forms of communication would be better suited to younger participants. Using WhatsApp and voice notes rather than email created a greater sense of familiarity and comfort, which is important when designing a study around sensitive topics.

  • Whatsapp – I used this as the platform to communicate with participants, including sharing daily instructions and answering any questions. 
  • Voice notes – I sent voice notes and encouraged participants to do the same. This was both for sending instructions and receiving the responses back.

These additions were successful in making the participant feel comfortable with communicating regularly because these forms were something they all used in their everyday lives. Giving the participants the option to send voice notes also gave them significant control over how they self-documented. In addition, voice notes created a more natural and conversational dialogue between myself (the researcher) and the participants, while still maintaining professionalism.

The findings were presented as an exhibition.

By Sophie Hanton