User Research: 01 Digital Cultural Probe

3 min readJan 27, 2021


Background: Cultural Probe was a design probe principle introduced by Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti in a 1999 paper. They designed a research method that benefits both participants and researchers. Through a number of components, including postcards, diaries, and maps they intended to obtain more qualitative and personal user information. As described in the paper, “inspirational data” from the probes would help for an “impressionistic account” of users.

In the 21st Century, the power of technology, especially the launch of 5G, brings more possibilities to designing probes. Sub-principles like mobile probes, technology probes, and informational probes came to attention.

Rationale: The goals for this digital probe were functionality, usability, and flexibility. Through the exploration of the difference in terms of effectiveness between online and offline sources, the impacts of technology and new media would be demonstrated. Ultimately, this test would provide valuable information through the eyes of a typical designer, which could be representative of the entire designer's group. (What were this group’s true needs? How to better assist the group’s needs? What role did high-tech play in the research process?)

My partner Jerry was a design student from Parsons School of Design, who dedicated himself to interaction design including UI/UX, typography, and branding. To study the subject’s everyday art process, the subject’s persona, or identity, is firstly analyzed through a diagram, as shown below:

Jerry’s Persona Analysis

After analyzing the subject’s identity, below were some initial questions that come to mind:

Questions on Jerry’s Research Experience
  • What online resources would you use for your everyday design processes?
  • What would you hope to achieve?
  • How long would you spend searching weekly?
  • What aspects of the online resources did you find useful?
  • Online resources and offline resources, which ones would you prefer?
  • What improvements you believed should be made for online resources?

To address these questions from an “impressionistic” perspective, digital cultural probes would be used. The process of the probe is explained below:

  1. An email would be sent to the subject.
  2. A mood board designed by the subject is required in order to demonstrate and evaluate the subject’s user persona and art style.
  3. The subject would be asked to upload 3 screen recordings of him using an online resource (archive, Pinterest, youtube, etc.).
  4. The subject would be asked to then take 3 images of offline resources (magazines, newspapers, primary sources, etc.) he used.
  5. Finally, a screenshot of his screen-use time of the entire week.
  6. Probe Bonus: finish answering questions and get an award of one-month VIP/Premium for any resource platform.
  7. All tasks would be given a week-long time to complete.
Jerry’s Moodboard Work
Jerry’s Pinterest Searching Experience (recording)
Screen-use Time

Evaluation: The purpose of these tasks was to get the subject aware of the resources he used and how effectively he used them. It was also to question the boundary between online and offline resources. The benefits of using probes as a research method were obvious. By giving the subject a restricted time to complete the tasks, it perfectly limited the work time to a week and also provided the subject with an immersive self-exploration experience. Researchers would have a more accurate and personal result to analyze later on as well.




Cornell. Roblox. Parsons. Alibaba