Getting increasingly excited about the prospects of and potentials in using cultural probes over the last few weeks as I’ve started reading into the subject, and I’m now ready to start assembling my own. First step has been sketching my ideas (along with some probe standards like postcards and maps, as described by Gaver et al. and also inspired by this Flickr group and Elizabeth Goodman’s presentation on Slideshare), in order to start screening and considering their appeal, benefit, appropriacy etc. Next up I’ll turn them into rough prototypes that I can test before assembling my final probes. It’s a rapid process (and agile too, ah yes, ticking all the buzz boxes), necessarily, as I will need to have my probes ready in a week and a half, but then it has been rolling around in the back of my head for a while, so I feel fairly confident that the ideas are ripe and right. ( And absolutely sure that in hindsight I would have done something differently, whatever I do).
When I suggested the use of cultural probes in my original proposal, I guess I envisaged using them to get a glimpse into user’s everyday pursuit of fashion through media, i.e. I understood them as a potential ethnographic tool. In the meantime, however, my research interest has shifted away from user practices and media ecology and over to museological discourse and practice (as described in this post). As it turns out, this makes the cultural probe-approach all the more appropriate.
It made me realize that the way I intend to include users in my study is not really participatory or even user-centered. Instead, my plan to let input from users inform an exploratory design process aimed at posing questions to and discovering problems in the use of new media platforms for museum mediation has more in common with critical design.
I was already headed this way after reading (during a truly inspiring and thought provoking PhD course on Varieties of Design Research) about Dunne & Raby’s Placebo Project as well as Mazé & Redström’s article on the Switch! programme, as the way they were using design objects or concepts to elicit thoughts and discussions really resonated with what I am hoping to achieve. I agree that design is not only about finding solutions but also about finding problems, as described by Dunne & Raby in Design Noir (here cited in Koskinen et al. (2011) : Design Research Through Practice p. 46)
Critical design, or design that asks carefully crafted questions and makes us think, is just as difficult and just as important as design that solves problems or finds answers
and that sometimes the imperfect is a richer source of knowledge than perfection, as suggested by Mazé & Redström:
Thus, our ambition is not to converge upon a single problem or solution, nor to provide a roadmap to a particular preferred future, but to materialize a territory of possible viewpoints as a basis for curating—and catalyzing—a conversation in the here and now.
we have wanted to encourage more nuanced or thoughtful responses to a potential object, situation or future, so as to counteract tendencies towards the commonplace and polarized responses of “I want this, where can I buy it?” or, correspondingly, “I do not like this, I’m not going to buy it!” Therefore, many of the design examples have a rather unsettling or ambivalent character, which was achieved through exploring and testing out different aesthetic strategies.
Now, I don’t know if I will or should embrace all of the thinking behind Critical Design (although I know that I need to address this thinking and my own use if it in my thesis) – so far, I have just been learning about the influences from the situationists, dada and surrealism etc. in Design Research… (above), and am curious to see how much of Dunne thinking in Hertzian Tales, which I’ve ordered form the library, I can relate to.
Either way, I’m not looking for a recipe for research or a set methodology, but rather see this as a tool in my own method. Still, I have been happy to see that my current plan for using cultural probes is more in keeping with Gaver’s original intentions, as he’s felt it necessary to explicate in the article Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty.
Appropriating the Probes into a scientific process is often justified as “taking full advantage of the Probes’ potential,” as if, by not analyzing the results of our original Probes, we had let valuable information slip away. But this misses the point of the Probes. Sure, they suggested that research questions could be packaged as multiple, rich, and engaging tasks that people could engage with by choice and over time. Beyond this, however, the Probes embodied an approach to design that recognizes and embraces the notion that knowledge has limits. It’s an approach that values uncertainty, play, exploration, and subjective interpretation as ways of dealing with those limits.
This, at least, will make it easier to explain what I’m doing and why. For a while, presenting my project to people, I’ve experienced that the has been a stronger demand for explanation, justification and critical consideration of my method than I expect to have met if, say, I’d chosen a more traditional ethnographical route. That’s been (is) hard, as I’m still feeling my way, yet, as critical reflection on your method and your own influence on the research should be demanded of any research(er), I actually find that choosing a method that makes this demand so obvious and prominent is an advantage, as I won’t be lulled into a false sense of ‘getting it right by doing it by the book’.
Similarly, I really like that the cultural probes approach (or ‘probology’ as Gaver suggests) is so openly subjective and that the returns will defy analysis: it’s a tool for design, rather than for sociology. So rather than trying to design for and read some objective truth into my probes and the responses I will receive, I can allow my self to be creative and curious, i.e. truly explorative, which is a great freedom at this early stage of the process. And good fun too!
Of course, deciding to use design as a way of addressing a scientific question is also a bit of a gamble. Not only is the approach not tried and tested, I’m also having to consider whether I’m actually capable of pulling it off. Am I a good enough designer to make good use of this approach? Am I a designer at all? Then again, am I a good enough researcher? A proper humanist scholar, qualified to take on Latour, Adorno or whoever else I will be pulling in for my analysis and theoretical discussion? Maybe not. But I’m trying to become one, and this is the approach that I have decided is right for addressing my field of research, my project, my problems. And if I fail – or where I fail – I can only hope that maybe in this aspect to, the imperfect can be a rich source of knowledge.