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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Probing Culturally, Masterfully

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When trying to learn something about a community, one cannot simply toss out a survey and expect sufficient results. Like all ethnographic studies, each part contributes to another, building a demographic that's very real and culturally rich. Hence, the introduction of the cultural probe.

Understanding the local cultures is necessary when you're attempting to design within context, focusing on the needs and desires they already understood, but also to lead a discussion with the groups towards unexpected ideas without dominating it with our own.

Formalities is important. Get rid of it. Play around with ideas such as postcards (with questions on the back - "I wish I had..."), maps (asking where they've been, dream to be), and a media diary (asking them to build a story with photos, log actions during certain events). Giving the user a disposable camera is not a bad idea either.

Hurdles such as distance, respect, and cultural differences should always be addressed in the initial design of the probe. Create tests that don't require you to fly out every 2 months. Reject stereotypes. Embrace the community to get ideas for your probe materials.

Unlike most design, we don't focus on commercial products, but on new understandings of technology. This allows us - even requires us - to be speculative in our designs, as trying to extend the boundaries of current technologies demands that we explore functions, experiences, and cultural placements quite outside the norm.

And lastly, remember this - we're not looking for information. We're looking for inspiration. This is what you gain from probes; the stimulation of our imagination.

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