Culture. Probed.

Berne Cultural Probe 2

We recently experimented with cultural probes to document customer experience journeys.

With a cultural probe you basically outsource the data collection process to the subjects you study. It’s a form of introspective research where you provide the means to conduct the research to the participants themselves. Cultural probes range from structured notes to simple pen & paper diaries, disposable camera studies or complex online tracking agendas (including uploads to flickr, facebook friending and twitter status updates). The complexity of the method scales at will and is only limited by the available time, the budget and (most of all) the scope of the research at hand (doing extensive research for the sake of research itself isn’t that reasonable in a big corp and excessive academic rigor often hinders pragmatically synthesizing actionable findings).


For our cultural probe we used a semi-structured questionnaire. It contained placeholders for comments and also enough space to stick in instant-photos that participants could take with a Fujifilm Instax 210 we provided to them (with roughly one buck for each bang the Fuji instax film is still cheaper than 3rd party Polaroid ammunition).

A couple of lessons learned:

  • While your organization may have a very distinct understanding of how a customer experience is structured (and which steps it usually includes), for participants it’s incredibly hard to mold that experience into an explicit and given structure. Always start open and choose an exploratory research approach.
  • Providing cameras to participants is a two-edged sword: while some will feel encouraged to express their creative self, a lot of potentially interesting participants will decline to take part in your study, once you mention the use of cameras. Making the process transparent and showing participants how things will work makes it easier to get buy in for ad-hoc probes.
  • Getting participants to shoot photos in public may be tricky, as not everybody shares your passion to elaborately document every miniscule activity around them. Keep photography optional and help participants to get used to the method by small-talking and fun-shooting in the beginning. A camera in the hand of creative participants will lead you to research trails, you probably haven’t thought about quite yet.
  • For activities that can’t be documented on-the-fly you have to use retro perspective documentation, which reinforces bias. Once again: keep it simple and exploratory in these cases and don’t expect your participants to recall every detail.

All that being said, a ‘quick & dirty’ cultural probe provides you with a visual and authentic personal customer journey that is well suited to constantly promote empathy within your project teams for the people they are designing for. Besides being an interesting addition to your regular research toolbox, cultural probes may support you to propagate human centered design within your organization.

Last but not least: practice what you preach and iterate the way you probe culture. To give the gist of what Albert said so trenchantly: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.”

Thanks to my colleague Oli posing for the photograph. Cheers.