I think this is a user research/Ethnographic study in nature personally, because you are studying a subject through the probe. A good context to use this technique is when you want someone to do something without you their, to get their reactions about something, in order to learn more about what they are reacting too.
Description of the Method
"Cultural probes are provocative instruments given to participants to inspire new forms of self-understanding and communication about their lives, environments, thoughts, and interactions." - Martin and Hanington, Universal Methods of design
This method involves carefully making a really nice box of things that will get the subject to react to, in order to build insights off that. You don't just put items in though, you also put in activities for them to do that revolve around your them. After you put everything in the box, you then give it to them for them to do, and just leave it there for them to do by themselves.
After you get it back, you can interview them to get more information, and look through all the activities they did without you around.
Actually Doing the method
First thing you do is find a person that you will give it too, and then study that person a bit. After that, make a box for them, with activities and objects in them that will get there attention and cause them to feel something. Try to tailor the box to the person you are giving it too as much as possible, that is why you study them a bit to figure out what they might react too.
Then you give the box to the person with the instructions on what to do, and then leave it with them for them to look at and do the activities on their own.
After you get it back, look over the box and the activities and see what they have done/did not do. It is a good idea to then interview them about the experience and what they did with the things inside to get a better feel on what happened while you were gone.
Positives and negatives
- Are able to see how people react to different objects.
- Could be good if the probe contains things they might feel subconscious doing with someone watching.
- Could be good if some of the activities goes throughout the day, though even then you could do half the probe with them, and half while you are away.
- You can not see the peoples reactions to the probes, just have to go by what they say or write about
- You have to force your subject to do a lot of things
- The subject might not do anything
Tips and Tricks
- Do some research on the specific person before making it, and make sure that they will personally react to it, as in don't over generalize a group of people, make sure it actually fits this specific person
- Don't pressure the person to do all of the activities, they are probably pretty busy, so some may fall through the cracks
- Watch them interact with the box, don't just leave them away with it, its much better to capture there moments, unless its something private that they want to do alone. I know that
- Interview them afterwards, just like with a diary study, it helps gain more information off them.
- Try to get the probe back from the person with amble time to get the rest done.
Project we used it for
This was the damn spring break project, and because everyone was going to be really busy that spring break, we thought of the idea to do someone where one of us was going to visit, a former HCID alumni. This made making the box pretty easy, since we just had to think of the past year to make it.
The problem with that was former alumni from this program tend to be exceedingly busy, and because of that she was not able to do a whole lot with it, not that I blame her in the least bit. It was also really hard because we ended up getting it back Saturday due to both our group and her being so busy, and two people were traveling all the weekend, which put a lot of pressure on the one person that was not exceedingly busy. Overall, I feel like it went over okay given the circumstances, but it could have gone better.
My thoughts is that this one is like diary studies, but is forcing the subject to do more. If the person has time to do it and is getting paid or something, this is fine, but as is, I kind of feel bad for forcing people to do it. Though this does require more thought and foresight then the diary studies, so it is less just giving the work to the subjects, but then again it is more work on the subjects side as well.
I personally think it would be way better if we were there watching them with the probe, then we can see their reactions. Like in my project, my subject opened the box before I left, and seeing her reaction gave me some great information, I don't see the benefit of not doing that. Unless they are doing something private, or something constant throughout the day, I do not see the point in this. In that regard, I think Diary studies is the better of the two, because it makes more sense. You give them a diary so you don't have to follow them all day, but with a probe, chances are you want to see them react to the probe, not just leave it there for them to do sometime later.
Could be an awesome method if you watch them interact with it though, I'll take back all the bad things about it if that was the case.