Category B: Cultural probes


What is it?

Cultural probes are an ethnographic method where the users document their own experiences with a product or service. The documentation is an authentic account of the experience and can be developed further with other ethnographic methods. Cultural probes are suitable for acquiring knowledge of the users‚€™ experience from their own perspective. This makes it possible to conduct investigations without having to be physically present with the informants.


How is it done?

Limit the challenge to a field of inquiry

You begin by finding out exactly what you want to know something about.


Decide on the documentation tools

Develop a ‚€˜cultural probe‚€™ package with the necessary materials needed to do the investigation. It is a good idea to ask the informants to use written notes, disposable (or digital) cameras, diaries and post cards with questions or instructions written on the front.


Find the informants

Choose informants with knowledge about your challenge. Keep in mind that informants with no prior knowledge of your services or product can give you valuable information too. A documented first hand impression is very valuable.


Set up the guidelines for the investigation

Make sure the informants are familiar with the purpose of the process. They need to have the ‚€˜cultural probe package‚€™ handed out and be given instructions about what you expect them to do. Make sure you assign someone they can contact if they have questions along the way.


Gather and analyze the documentation

It is important to have the informants explain their documentation. They can do this in writing or through a semi-structured interview. Pay attention to what they find important and keep the documentation so you can use it again in a different context.


Consider doing more inquiries

If you need to add to your knowledge, you can use the insights from the cultural probes as a basis for more ethnographic inquiries.


What does it take?

Time frame

The method can be done over 1-5 days depending on the number of informants and the extent of their investigation.



-      A ‚€˜cultural probe package‚€™ containing the necessary tools for documenting: Disposable (or digital) camera, notebook, diary and postcards.

-      A detailed instruction to how you want them to document their experiences.



The method takes 1-2 employees. They don‚€™t necessarily need to have any specific skills.




Andrea is a caretaker and tour guide in a woodland area. She is experienced but wants to be sure that the guests are having a good time on her tours. She decides to use cultural probes to examine the composition of the experience.



Andrea begins by developing the ‚€˜cultural probe package‚€™ for the guests to use during the inquiry. It consists of a camera, a map and a notebook for the informants to bring on her tour. They are also given an instruction, which presents the inquiry and states what she wants them to do. She finds 5 guests who are willing to participate, gives them a brief presentation of the assignment and the purpose of the inquiry. They are to document one of her tours. After they have completed the probes Andrea gathers the cameras and notebooks.



Andrea begins by looking through the material to find out what the informants consider important. She evaluates their experience as they have documented it. It appears that the places along the tour, which she finds most interesting, also are highlights for the guests.



The initial intention was to examine if the experience was composed well. Andrea is relieved to find that the guests had the same experience. The cultural probes did, however, reveal a potential for improvements, which was later investigated further.


More on the method

Cultural probes means letting the informants gather the knowledge themselves and then pass the documentation off to you. It is especially effective in combination with semi-structured interviews, where the documentation can function as part of the interview guide.


Further readings on cultural probes:


Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P.

1995 ‚€Documents‚€ pp. 157-174 in: Ethnography ‚€“ principles in practice.

London: Routledge



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