Cultural Probes as a People-Oriented Method

Cultural Probes as a People-Oriented Method

Connor Graham (National University of Singapore, Singapore and University of Melbourne, Australia) and Mark Rouncefield (Lancaster University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5969-6.ch005


This chapter reflects on some of the methodological aspects of the use of cultural probes (or probes) and the extent to which they constitute a people-oriented method. The authors review different kinds of probes, documenting and analyzing two separate deployments—technology probes and informational probes—in a care setting. They suggest that probes, when deployed in this fashion, reflect a “post-disciplinary” era of “messy” data and a shift of attention beyond “the social” to greater concern with individual variation, personal aggregated datasets in technology design, materiality, and the visual. The authors also suggest that in an era of big data, through considering everyday development in terms of personhood, everyday technology and practice, probes can play an important role in providing insights concerning the product of people-oriented programming and, potentially, its process.
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This chapter involves a somewhat nostalgic revisiting of some of our early research in the general area of technology-assisted living and some of our very first deployments of Cultural Probes (or Probes) as a method for gaining some understanding, some basic awareness, of what might be termed a ‘sensitive setting’ as a precursor to design work. We were, and are, both enthusiastic ethnographers, believing in its ability to make visible the ‘real world’ sociality of a setting; to produce detailed descriptions of the ‘workaday’ activities of social actors within specific contexts (Hughes et al 1992) and to present a portrait of life as seen and understood by those who lived and worked within a domain or setting – our archetypal ‘users’. As Fielding puts it: “The concern to balance detailed documentation of events with insights into the meaning of those events is the enduring hallmark of ethnography” (Fielding 1994: 154). But research methods and orientations are often, perhaps disappointingly, subject to academic fashion. So today the fashion seems to be engaging possibilities through, for example, design fiction, (e.g. Lindley and Coulton 2015) to which we might respond that the probable is challenging enough to discover. To quote Harold Garfinkel, the founder of ethnomethodology:

Immortal ordinary society evidently, just in any actual case … is only discoverable. It is not imaginable. It cannot be imagined but is only actually found out, and just in any actual case. The way it is done is everything it can consist of and imagined descriptions cannot capture this detail. (Garfinkel 1996: 7-8)

Nevertheless, this research took place at a time when the initial popularity and enthusiasm for ethnographic approaches, although increasingly becoming mainstream and commercialized (e.g. through contextual enquiry (Beyer and Holtzblatt, 1998), was simultaneously being questioned, particularly in terms of both its general applicability and its design relevance (e.g. Plowman et al., 1995). Cultural probes appeared to be one possible response to some of these criticisms: a way by which we might see everyday, mundane activities as social actions embedded within some socially organised domain and accomplished in and through the day-to-day activities of participants, providing access to the ways in which participants understand and conduct their lives. The move towards the adoption and use of cultural probes also seemed to resonate with some of Grudin’s (1990) observations, who 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 edited volume, 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. A more recent shift still is towards the collection of very large data sets autonomously through which specifically designed interfaces can be used to draw inferences regarding people's behaviour en masse (Kitchen, 2014). Thus, it seems, the product of programming, the interface, has also shifted to encompass more aspects of people’s lives. This move towards 'the person' or 'people' is something we comment on in this chapter.

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