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Cultural Probe

Aspects of a user's culture are latent and go mostly unnoticed by the user, and thus aren't mentioned when answering questions. Cultural Probes are conducted in order to reveal user instincts and emotional responses based on those cultural aspects. Traditional interviews and surveys make them too difficult to observe and understand.

This method is best employed when creating a product intended for any specific region or age demographic. It also helps when designing for any particular social or economic group to which no one in your team belongs, e.g. science fiction fans, doctors, or homeschooling parents.


Schedule Time

  • Study: ~2 Weeks
    (You may perform multiple studies concurrently)

  • Analysis: Varies

Gather Materials

  • A blank notebook

  • A disposable camera (or the user may use their own phone or camera if they are more comfortable with this)

  • A video camera (or the user may use their own phone or camera)

  • A map of the area around their place of residence and/or employment (or the user may use a GPS app that allows for pin dropping)


  1. Determine what you need to know about your users and their culture(s). You will need to learn what may be offensive, cognitive differences, what certain words or colors mean, and other cultural aspects that could impact usability.

  2. Prepare probe kits – consisting of the items listed in Gather Materials above – for each participant.

  3. Include instructions in the probe kit explaining what your participants should document. You may need them to plot locations on a map, take photos of things they like and dislike, or videotape a social gathering. Ask them use the notebook to document their emotions and provide elaboration on what is shown in their photos and videos.

  4. Supply participants with their probe kits (omitting materials that are not within budget, or materials for which your participant has their own substitute).

  5. Verbally summarize what your participant will be documenting and explain what the items in the probe kit are for. There is no guarantee that participants will read the instructions in their probe kit. It is included as a courtesy due to the lengthy nature of the study.

  6. Encourage participants to create scrapbook pages using magazines, newspapers, and advertisements.

  7. Allow your participants two weeks to return to you with their completed probe kits.

  8. Once your kits have been returned, note commonalities between them and differences from your own culture. Focus on the subject that you needed to learn more about at the start of the test period.


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T[H]INKER: Cultural Probes

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