The Cultural Probes format of information gathering goes hand in hand with the Audience as Co-Designer. Both of these forms take some of the design / research responsibility out of the designer’s hands and puts it into the audience’s.
Cultural probes are a way to research and gather information about environments that are difficult to observe directly. Selected volunteers are given packs of materials like postcards, journals, maps, and cameras to document their environment or stories and experiences. Direct questions are also used to explore the participant’s lives, cultural, and technological views.
The participants use the items in the pack over a period of a time and then return the pack to the designers. The return rate of the probes also gives additional insight into the participants themselves. Some of the groups returned almost all of their materials quickly. Other groups returned less than half, despite initial enthusiasm. The result is a huge amount of inspirational data that the design team uses to generate a framework for the design. The probes are not directly involved in the design, but they help shape the project’s proposals. As the distinct characters of the groups emerged, the designs were more tailored to them.
This method is a fun and informative way to collect data and involve your community in the design process. It can be developed to fit any number of environmental and community applications.