CULTURAL PROBES

October 18, 2009

Reading response to Cultural Probes by Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne and Elena Pacenti

culturalpA cultural probe created by Robert James Djaelani, http://www.ilikedesign.co.uk

Getting to know an unfamiliar audience is a challenge all designers face. Perhaps market research is the answer. Perhaps a survey, an interview, a census. Perhaps something entirely different that will yield intangible, quality information that one can work with in a different way than crunching numbers or weighing measurable trends.

The design process is not separate from research; they are one and the same. Thus design thinking should most certainly be applied to audience and topical research.

2313083644_0f32303166A cultural probe used for a project that addressed development in Bloomington, Indiana’s downtown. Jason de Runa.

A cultural probe is a carefully measured, planned inquiry into the preferences, experiences, and desires of an audience. The particular design team documented in this article were investigating an elderly community; perhaps one of the more difficult communities to reach with standard “market research” tools such as surveys. The design team came up with a terrific kit of interactive objects that were designed easily facilitate conversation and participation.

They weighed and had to address issues such as generational distance, language barriers, the impression of “officialdom” and the distance that creates.

Picture 1A disposable camera can be a great part of a cultural probe; it invites interaction, its use is clear, and with a few prompts can yield valuable image research developed by the audience.

A few ideas in particular stuck out to me as concepts I can envision immediately applying to my design practice.

The concept of functional aesthetics “We didn’t work on the aesthetics of the probes simply to make them appealing or motivating but because we believe aesthetics to be an integral part of functionality, with pleasure a criterion for design equal to efficiency or usability.

Design as research: I appreciate that these people consider themselves designers despite the end result of their work: unlike most design, they “don’t focus on commercial products, but on new understandings of technology. This allows [them]…to be speculative in [their] designs, as trying to extend the boundaries of current technologies demands [they] explore functions, experiences, and cultural placements quite outside the norm.”

Considering concepts and methods from movements and theories in conceptual art: the idea of psychogeography from the Situationist International, the subversion of the visual language of commercial culture from Dada, etc.

51qw8qmuZ9L._SS500_Psychogeography by Will Self, a contemporary understanding of ideas developed by the Situationists.

Personal information can form a larger picture: The piecemeal information the designers received from the probes revealed to them not quantifiable data but more of a feeling of the textured personalities of the community they probed. The probes were invaluable in garnering inspiration from the communities the design team was working with.

These carefully designed cultural probes were successful as a reciprocal personal conversation. They enabled communication on a level that surpasses most official attempts to gather meaningful information.

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