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Methods – Design Probe

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What it is:

A research kit is prepared by the designer and given to users to record aspects of their lives autonomously, independent of the designer. The design probe may include diaries, question cards, postcards, disposable cameras or other tools for mapping and drawing. Design probes may be personalised for a specific user, who is given tasks to undertake, or the same probes may be given to a selection of users. Probes can be placed in an environment to collect information more generally from users of that space. Design probes are also known as cultural probes or user diaries.






Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High


Self-disclosed insights into people’s lives

Best suited to:



Early explore-and-focus stages of the design process

Sensitive areas of user need that require private disclosure

Enabling the designer to access areas of research where they could not do so through interview or observation

Helping to set early design directions



Type of interaction


Goes well with:

Interviews, Day in the Life, Observation & Shadowing, Video Ethnography

What designers say

‘…The probes were successful in providing us with rich inspirational materials, and in sparking intense conversation with the elders. We believe this is because we designed them personally for each of the sites…’ Bill Gaver


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Capture It

To learn more about the needs of older workers, designers Harriet Harris and Suzi Winstanley placed a series of design probes in offices in London and Japan, including tea cups that people could write and draw their answers on.

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Flexible workers/ fluid workscape

Designer Ian Johnston gave 25 ‘knowledge workers’ a design probe – including a log book and camera – and asked them to document their working lives over a seven-day period through written observation, photography and collecting objects and memorabilia.

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Background and further reading

Design probes were pioneered on the EU-funded Presence project in 1995 by Bill Gaver et al (1999) to explore the attitudes of older people within their communities in Italy and Holland. The team broke with scientific methodologies to pursue a design approach seeking inspiration rather than information. Since that time, the practice of making design probes has extended form user kits and diaries to interactive artefacts.

Hofmeester K. and de Charon de Saint Germain E. (ed.) (1995), Probing for Inspiration, in: Presence, New Media for Older People, Netherlands Design Institute, 22 – 67

This chapter describes the pioneering use of design probes on the Presence project and gives examples of the many different types of probes used.

Crabtree, A., Hemmings, T., Rodden, T.,  Clarke, K., Dewsbury, G.,  Hughes, J., Rouncefield, M. & Sommerville, I.  ‘Sore Legs and Naked Bottoms’: Using Cultural Probes in Dependability Research presented at 1st DIRC Conference on Dependable Computing Systems, November 20-21, 2002, London: The Royal Statistical Society.

This paper describes the positive and negative use of cultural probes in a multi-disciplinary research project that explores user needs in ‘care’ settings.