Probes as a People-Oriented Method

Probes as a People-Oriented Method

Connor Graham, Mark Rouncefield
Copyright: © 2011 |Pages: 28
DOI: 10.4018/ijpop.2011010102
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This paper discusses some methodological aspects of the use of Probes as a people-oriented method. Different kinds of Probes are reviewed and two separate deployments are documented–Technology Probes and Informational Probes–in a care setting. The authors argue that Probes reflect a post-disciplinary era and a shift of attention beyond ‘the social’ to concerns with individual variation, materiality and the visual in technology design. It is suggested that in an era of ‘everyday development’, Probes can play an important role in providing useful insights concerning the product and potentially the process of programming-type work.
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Grudin (1990) in his historical account of the evolution of interface research points to transformations in focus with regard to principal users, ‘parent’ disciplines, research methods, units of analysis and the precision and generality of studies. Grudin’s argument is indicative of the focus of computing research and development changing as “the interface” has abstracted further and further away from low-level circuitry to being situated in particular places with particular “social” features, and even retreating and disappearing altogether (Weiser, 1991; Norman, 1998). The shift Grudin describes changes the interface problem space to consider the broader, social aspects of computing beyond the hardware, software and even beyond usability. It also suggests a shift in the “principal user” base, the methods and metrics used to investigate these users and what we can draw from such investigations. Thus users have changed in character from highly trained engineers and programmers to, in his terms, “groups of end users” or, in terms pertinent to this journal, ordinary people. In other words he is arguing that there has been a shift of low-level activities such as programming away from ‘the user’ of the final product or interface. In parallel, methods and metrics have shifted from an almost universal adoption of laboratory experiments deploying quantitative measures hoping for mass generalization to more eclectic approaches, including ‘softer’, ethnographic methods that generate findings more particular to people and the settings in which they interact. Thus, it seems, the product of programming, the interface, has also shifted to encompass more aspects of people’s lives.

In parallel to the shifts Grudin describes, from the late 1970s and 1980s, ‘programming’ has broadened its audience to include children (e.g. through Logo and Basic – Papert (1980)), young “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001), non-‘experts’ and everyday technology users. The development of the digital literacy movement (e.g. has narrowed the gap between (and perhaps converged) the ‘traditional’ skills required to generate content and the digital skills required to make it available. This creates opportunities to investigate people’s use of technology as they toggle between creation and use, through drawing on the data they automatically generate from ‘the moment’ (e.g. pathways of use ‘through’ the Internet and authoring technologies, emails, text messages, digital photographs and the orchestration of these different technologies) and what they, more reflectively, observe about what they do (e.g. through blogs, annotating and structuring photo streams). In turn, as this kind of expertise spreads and technical hurdles continue to be overcome, this presents interesting opportunities to investigate people’s lives for the purpose of supporting the design of new technologies. Crabtree et al (2006, p. 282), for example, use the “the digital record” or various logs that “detail interaction within a digital environment” to analyse people’s interactions for the purpose of supporting the design of new technologies while Graham et al. (2009) use blogs to examine how life change can be supported through personal reflection.

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