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Cultural Probes, Interaction, 1999


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Cultural Probes, Interaction, 1999

  1. 1. B I L L G AV E R , T O N Y D U N N E A N D E L E N A PA C E N T I design Don Bishop ©1997 Artville, LLC Cultural Probes Homo ludens impinges on his environment: He interrupts, changes, intensifies; he follows paths and in passing, leaves traces of his presence everywhere. — Constant A As the local site coordinator finished his introduction to the meeting, our worries were increasing. The group had taken on a glazed look, showing polite interest, but no real enthusiasm. How would they react when we presented them with our packages? Would disinterest deepen to boredom, or even hostility? interactions...january + february 1999 21
  2. 2. Of course an explanation had been necessary Now they were looking tired. for this special meeting with us, three foreign Finally the time came. I stood up and said, designers. The coordinator explained that we “We’ve brought you a kind of gift,” as we all were there as part of a European passed the clear blue plastic envelopes to the Union–funded research project looking at group. (See Fig. 1) “They’re a way for us to get novel interaction techniques to increase the to know you better, and for you to get to know presence of the elderly in their local commu- us.” Already people were starting to unwind the nities. We represented two design centers that strings fastening the envelopes. “Take a look,” I would be working over the next two years said, “and we’ll explain what’s in them.” with three community sites: in the Majorstua, An assortment of maps, postcards, cam- a district of Oslo; the Bijlmer, a large planned eras, and booklets began accumulating in community near Amsterdam; and Peccioli, a front of them. Curious, they started exam- small village outside Pisa. We were at the last ining the materials. Soon they were smiling site, to get to know the group a little. and discussing them with their neighbors. An important preamble, then, well deliv- As the feeling of the group livened percep- ered by the coordinator, but the explanation tibly, we started explaining the contents. was of necessity fairly complicated. On our Worry transformed to excitement. Perhaps the arrival, the 10 elderly members had been probes would work after all. friendly and enthusiastic, if a little puzzled. Cultural Probes The cultural probes—these packages of maps, postcards, and other materials—were designed to provoke inspirational responses from elderly people in diverse communities. Like astronomic or surgical probes, we left them behind when we had gone and waited for them to return fragmentary data over time. The probes were part of a strategy of pur- suing experimental design in a responsive way. They address a common dilemma in devel- oping projects for unfamiliar groups. Understanding the local cultures was neces- sary so that our designs wouldn’t seem irrele- vant or arrogant, but we didn’t want the groups to constrain our designs unduly by focusing on needs or desires they already understood. We wanted to lead a discussion with the groups toward unexpected ideas, but we didn’t want to dominate it. Postcards Within the probe packages, people found 8 to 10 postcards scattered among other materials. The cards had images on the front, and ques- tions on the back, such as: 3 Please tell us a piece of advice or insight that has been important to you. 3 What do you dislike about Peccioli? 3 What place does art have in your life? Figure 1. A cultural probe package. 3 Tell us about your favorite device.22 interactions...january + february 1999
  3. 3. The questions concerned the elders’ atti- D Your hometudes towards their lives, cultural environ- D What you will wear todayments, and technology. But we used oblique D The first person you see todaywording and evocative images to open a space D Something desirableof possibilities, allowing the elders as much D Something boringroom to respond as possible. About half the pictures were unassigned, Postcards are an attractive medium for and the elders were asked to photographasking these sorts of questions because of their whatever they wanted to show us beforeconnotations as an informal, friendly mode of mailing the camera back to us. (See Fig. 4)communication. (See Fig. 2) Unlike formalquestionnaires, the postcards encouraged Photo Album and Media Diaryquestions to be approached casually, which The last two items in the probes were in thewas underlined by pre-addressing and form of small booklets. The first was a photostamping them for separate return. album, which requesting the elders to “use 6 to 10 pictures to tell us your story.” WhenMaps questioned, we encouraged participants to useThe probes contained about seven maps, each photos of the past, their families, their currentwith an accompanying inquiry exploring the lives, or anything they found meaningful. (Seeelders’ attitudes toward their environment. Fig. 5)(See Fig. 3) Finally, each probe contained a media Requests ranged from straightforward topoetic. For instance, a map of the worldincluded the question “Where have you beenin the world?”, and small dot stickers wereprovided to mark answers. Participants werealso asked to mark zones on local maps,showing us where, for instance, $ They would go to meet people $ They would go to be alone $ They liked to daydream $ They would like to go but can’t A more surreal task was given to each groupas well; in the case of Peccioli, for example, amap was labeled “if Peccioli were New York...”and was accompanied by stickers showingscenes ranging from the Statue of Liberty topeople injecting drugs. The maps were printed on a variety of tex-tured papers to emphasize their individualityand cut into several different envelope forms.When the elderly were finished with them,they folded them together and put them inthe mail.CameraEach probe included a disposable camera,repackaged to separate it from its commercialorigins and to integrate it with the other probematerials. On the back we listed requests forpictures, such as Figure 2. A postcard (“what is your favorite device?”) interactions...january + february 1999 23
  4. 4. diary, in which elderly participants were asked tested in the sites. to record their television and radio use, The sites themselves constrain the sorts of including what they watched, with whom, design explorations that might be meaningful. and when. They were also asked to note In Oslo, we are working with a group of incoming and outgoing calls, including their elderly who have been learning to use the relationship with the caller and the subject of Internet at a local library. In the Netherlands, Bill Gaver and the calls. The entries were made daily, for a the elders live in the Bijlmer, an extensive Tony Dunne total of a week. planned community with a poor reputation. Royal College of Art Finally, the Italian site is in Peccioli, a small London, U.K. Context Tuscan village where an elder center is being A number of converging interests and con- planned. The diversity of the sites was clear straints were involved in designing the probes. from the outset. Our task was to better under- The Presence Project has been funded for two stand their particularities. Elena Pacenti years under the European Union’s 13 initia- The openness of the design brief, and the Domus Academy tive. Eight partners from four countries are availability of more quantitative demographic Milan, Italy exploring technologies to increase the presence data from the local sites, meant that we could of the elderly in their local communities. This freely explore many different aspects of the is a relatively unconstrained project, defined elders’ attitudes. Of course, we might have only in terms of its overall goal and its flow used more traditional methods to do this, over time. The first year has been spent on including perhaps ethnographic studies, inter- opening a space of possible designs; the second views, or questionnaires. That we didn’t stems, will focus on developing prototypes to be in part, from how we think about doing research through design. Design as Research We approach research into new technologies from the traditions of artist–designers rather than the more typical science- and engi- neering-based approaches. Unlike much research, we don’t emphasize precise analyses or carefully controlled methodologies; instead, we concentrate on aesthetic control, the cultural implications of our designs, and ways to open new spaces for design. Scientific theories may be one source of inspiration for us, but so are more informal analyses, chance observations, the popular press, and other such “unscientific” sources. Figure 3. A map (“if Peccioli were New York...“) Figure 4. Camera24 interactions...january + february 1999
  5. 5. Unlike most design, we don’t focus on Geographic and cultural distances werecommercial products, but on new under- more specific problems for this project. Westandings of technology. This allows us—even designed the materials to be posted separately,requires us—to be speculative in our designs, both to acknowledge our distance and toas trying to extend the boundaries of current emphasize our ongoing lives in other coun-technologies demands that we explore func- tries (thus we used our names in the addresses,tions, experiences, and cultural placements as opposed to an institutional title like “Thequite outside the norm. Presence Project”). We also tried to design the Instead of designing solutions for user materials to be as visual as possible, to someneeds, then, we work to provide opportunities extent bypassing language discover new pleasures, new forms of socia-bility, and new cultural forms. We often act as Respecting Our Eldersprovocateurs through our designs, trying to A particularly important gap for us to bridgeshift current perceptions of technology func- was the generational gap implied bytionally, aesthetically, culturally, and even designing for another age group. Topolitically. encourage a provocative dialogue about design, we tried to reject stereotypes of olderInspiration, not Information people as “needy” or “nice.” This freed us, inThe artist–designer approach is openly subjec- turn, to challenge the elder groups, bothtive, only partly guided by any “objective” through the probes and our eventual designs.problem statement. Thus we were after “inspi- Moving beyond a view of older people asrational data” with the probes, to stimulate needy or nice has allowed us to view them inour imaginations rather than define a set of new ways, opening new opportunities for Figure 5. Photo albumproblems. design. For instance, elders represent a life- We weren’t trying to reach an objective time of experiences and knowledge, oftenview of the elders’ needs through the probes, deeply embedded in their local communities.but instead a more impressionistic account of This could be an invaluable resource to thetheir beliefs and desires, their aesthetic prefer- younger members of their community.ences and cultural concerns. Using official- Conversely, elders also represent a life freelooking questionnaires or formal meetings from the need to work, and thus the possi-seemed likely to cast us in the role of doctors, bility of exploring life as homo ludens,diagnosing user problems and prescribing humanity defined by its playful qualities. Ourtechnological cures. Conversely, we didn’t designs could offer them opportunities towant to be servants either, letting the elders set appreciate their environments—social, urban,the directions for our designs. Trying to estab- and natural—in new and intriguing ways.lish a role as provocateurs, we shaped theprobes as interventions that would affect the Functional Aestheticselders while eliciting informative responses Throughout the project, we have viewed aes-from them. thetic and conceptual pleasure as a right rather than a luxury. We didn’t work on the aes-Combating Distance thetics of the probes simply to make themTo establish a conversation with the elder appealing or motivating but because wegroups, we had to overcome several kinds of believe aesthetics to be an integral part ofdistance that might separate us, some endemic functionality, with pleasure a criterion forto most research, some particular to this pro- design equal to efficiency or usability.ject. Foremost was the kind of distance of offi- We worked to make the probe materialscialdom that comes with being flown in as delightful, but not childish or condescending.well-funded experts. Trying to reduce this sort In fact, the aesthetics were somewhat abstractof distance underlay a great deal of the tone or alien in order to encourage from respon-and aesthetics of the probe materials. dents a slightly detached attitude to our interactions...january + february 1999 25
  6. 6. requests. But although the materials were aes- spaces, and of borrowing and subverting the thetically crafted, they were not too profes- visual and textual languages of advertisements, sionally finished. This gave them a personal postcards, and other elements of commercial and informal feeling, allowing them to escape culture. Finally, we tried to use, judiciously, the genres of official forms or of commercial tactics of ambiguity, absurdity, and mystery DESIGN COLUMN EDITOR marketing. In the end, they revealed the throughout, as a way of provoking new per- Kate Ehrlich energy we put into them and expressed our spectives on everyday life. Senior Research Manager tastes and interests to the groups. Lotus Development The aesthetics of the packages were thus Launching the Probes Corporation another attempt to reduce the distance We gave the probes to members of the elder 55 Cambridge Parkway between us and the groups. Through the groups in a series of meetings at the local sites, Cambridge, MA 02142 materials and images and the requests we like the one described in the beginning of this +1-617-693-1899 made, we tried to reveal ourselves to the paper. We did not describe every item, but fax: +1-617-693-8383 groups as we asked them to reveal themselves instead introduced the types of things they to us. Not only did this make the probes would find. We wanted them to be surprised themselves enjoyable and communicative, but as they returned to the packages over the fol- it meant that they started to hint at what the lowing weeks. elders might expect from our eventual designs. Originally we had planned to send the packages to the groups, but we were afraid they Applying Conceptual Art might reject the unusual approach we were The conceptual concerns and specific tech- taking. We decided to present them ourselves niques of various arts movements also influ- to explain our intentions, answer questions, enced our design. For instance, our maps are and encourage the elders to take an informal, related to the psychogeographical maps of the experimental approach to the materials. Situationists [1] (see the sidebar), which cap- This turned out to be an extremely fortu- ture the emotional ambience of different loca- nate decision, because one of the unexpected tions. Unfamiliar with the local sites ourselves, strengths of the probes was in sparking a dia- we asked the local groups to map them for us. logue between us and the elderly. What we Not only did this give us material to inform feared would be polite group discussions our designs, but, we hope, provoked the elders turned out to be spontaneous and personal, to consider their environment in a new way. and we learned a great deal about the groups We used other techniques from groups in discussing the materials. Even after we left, such as Dada, the Surrealists, and more con- some of the elders sent us personal greetings temporary artists in the probes as well. They beyond the materials themselves—postcards, incorporated elements of collage, in which letters, even personalized Christmas cards. juxtaposed images open new and provocative The Returns For about a month after we left each site, we started receiving the completed materials, at a rate that seemed to compare favorably with that for other methods. Every day or so, we would find another few postcards, maps, or cameras in our post, which allowed us to scan and sort them in a piecemeal and leisurely fashion. (See Fig. 6) Some of the items that the elders returned were left blank or they included notes about why the given request was difficult. We had encouraged this in the meetings, as a way of Figure 6. Some of the returned items. keeping the process open to the elders’ opin-26 interactions...january + february 1999
  7. 7. ions. And in fact, we redesigned the materialsfor each group as we received returns fromthe last. Sorting through the masses of maps, cards,and photographs that we received, strong anddifferentiated views of the three sites began toemerge. Some items acted as beacons for us—a photograph of friends at an Italian café, amap of the Bijlmer with extensive notes aboutthe “junkies and thieves” in the area, a jokeabout death from Oslo. They seemed to cap-ture particular facets of the cultures, clearlysymbolizing important issues. (See Fig. 7) The return rates from the groups added toour impressions of their differences. The Oslogroup returned almost all the materials, andthus seemed enthusiastic and diligent. TheBijlmer group returned a bit more than halfthe materials: they seemed less convinced bythe project but willing to take part in tasksthey found meaningful or provoking. Finally,the Peccioli group returned less than half thematerials, despite being enthusiastic whenthey received them. We take this as a sign thatthey are well meaning but happily distractedby their daily lives—an important factor forour designs.From Probes to DesignsThe probes were not designed to be analyzed,nor did we summarize what they revealedabout the sites as an explicit stage in theprocess. Rather, the design proposals we pro-duced reflected what we learned from the Figure 7. A returned map showing zones of safety and fear in the Bijlmer.materials. For the Royal College of Art, theprobe materials allowed the different charac- that are sent for public response toters of the three sites to emerge, which we are electronic systems in cafés, trams, orreflecting in quite different design scenarios: public spaces. 3 In the Bijlmer, our ideas respond to the 3 Finally, the elders in Peccioli enjoy a paradox of a strong community in a relaxed social life in a beautiful setting. dangerous area: We have proposed We plan to amplify their pleasure by building a network of computer dis- creating social and pastoral radioscapes, plays with which the elderly could help allowing them to create flexible com- inhabitants communicate their values munications networks and to listen to and attitudes about the culture. the sounds of the surrounding country- 3 The group in Oslo is affluent, well side. (See Fig. 8) educated, and enthusiastic: We are For the Domus Academy, the returns sug- proposing that they lead a community- gested a range of nonstereotypical profiles of wide conversation about social issues, elders that were less focused on the particular publishing questions from the library sites. For instance, many elders are experts on interactions...january + february 1999 27
  8. 8. support relationships with distant relatives or with children and grandchildren closer to home, or might provide forms of “soft surveil- lance” or informal help chains to combat social isolation. Finally, the elderly might pro- vide a living memory of a particular commu- nity, enriching the physical environment with virtual traces of its history. These proposals were our reply to the elders’ responses to the probes, integrating what we learned about them with suggestions for new possibilities. The best evidence that the returns from the probes spurred valuable insights into the local cultures was that the Figure 8. From the proposal for the bijlmer. elders clearly recognized themselves in the proposals. Although some of our suggestions the current status and history of their com- were intended to be strange or provocative, munities and might serve as local information the elders became readily involved with them, resources, perhaps by guiding tourists. They making suggestions for reshaping the ideas, are eager to keep in touch with friends and but without breakdowns in the conversation families, and thus new technologies might that would have indicated our perceptions The Situationists One influence on our work is the Situationists [1, 3], a collective of artist-provocateurs based largely in Paris from the late 1950s to early 1960s. Like the Dadaists and Surrealists (e.g., [2]), the Situationists wanted their art to be revolutionary, reawakening passion and unconscious desires in the general public. Fundamental in this approach was their analysis of the ways that commercial culture expropriates people’s experience into the “Spectacle,” an all- encompassing, media-fueled show. As the Spectacle subsumes ideas, desires, even protests, people are forced into an alienated position, as consumers of their own experience. The Situationists used artistic strategies both as a radical critique of the Spectacle and as concrete research into the promise of new cultural possibilities. Art was to be liberated from the safe enclave of established galleries and used to seduce and confront ordinary people. They mass-produced paint- ings sold by the yard; altered prints, comic strips, and advertise- ments; and created new architectures to be changed at will by the people who lived in them. Throughout, they embraced dis- orientation and confusion as methods for liberation. Psychogeographical maps were developed to represent the city’s topology of desire, fear, isolation and sociality, to challenge the cultural homogeneity assumed by commercial interests. Situationists took derivés, meandering around the city guided only by the landscape of impulse and desire, and mapped what they found. We have borrowed from this technique for the cultural probes. More generally, we approach our design in their spirit of functional pleasure.28 interactions...january + february 1999
  9. 9. were crude or mistaken. This notion of a con- duce materials that seem insincere, like officialtinuing conversation with the elders has been forms with a veneer of marketing. The realpivotal to our understanding of the probes as strength of the method was that we hada method. designed and produced the materials specifi- cally for this project, for those people, and forUser-Centered Inspiration their environments. The probes were our per-Although the probes were central to our sonal communication to the elders, andunderstanding of the sites, they didn’t directly prompted the elders to communicate person-lead to our designs. They were invaluable in ally in return.making us aware of the detailed texture of thesites, allowing us to shape proposals to fit “The game should be played for some lengththem. But we were also influenced by our pre- of time to arrive at the most curious results. Theexisting conceptual interests, our visits to the questions, as well as the answers, are to be con-sites, anecdotes and data about the areas from sidered as symptomatic.”the local coordinators, and readings from the — J. Levy, Surrealismpopular and specialist press. Just as manyinfluences went into designing the probes, so Acknowledgmentshave they been one of many influences on our The Presence Project is supported by a grantdesign process. from the European Union under the I3 initia- The cultural probes were successful for us in tive. We are extremely grateful to the memberstrying to familiarize ourselves with the sites in of the three groups and to Sidsel Bjorneby,a way that would be appropriate for our Simon Clatworthy, Danielle van Diemen, andapproach as artist–designers. They provided us Cecelia Laschi, the local site coordinators. Wewith a rich and varied set of materials that both thank Ben Hooker and Fiona Raby for helpinspired our designs and let us ground them in with the design and production of the probethe detailed textures of the local cultures. materials and Anne Schlottmann for helpful What we learned about the elders is only comments on this paper. Finally, we thank our PERMISSION TO MAKE DIGITAL ORhalf the story, however. The other half is what partners from the Domus Academy, HARD COPIES OF ALL OR PART OF THISthe elders learned from the probes. They pro- Netherlands Design Institute, Telenor, WORK FOR PERSONAL OR CLASSROOMvoked the groups to think about the roles they Human Factors Solutions, Scuola Superiore USE IS GRANTED WITHOUT FEE PROVIDED THAT COPIES ARE NOTplay and the pleasures they experience, Sant’Anna, and IDEA. MADE OR DISTRIBUTED FOR PROFIT ORhinting to them that our designs might sug- COMMERCIAL ADVANTAGE AND THATgest new roles and new experiences. In the References COPIES BEAR THIS NOTICE AND THE FULL CITATION ON THE FIRST PAGE.end, the probes helped establish a conversa- 1. Andreotti, L. and Costa, X. (eds.), Situationists: Art, TO COPY OTHERWISE, TO REPUBLISH,tion with the groups, one that has continued Politics, Urbanism. Museo d’Art Contemporani de TO POST ON SERVERS OR TO REDIS-throughout the project. Barcelona, 1996. TRIBUTE TO LISTS, REQUIRES PRIOR SPECIFIC PERMISSION AND/OR A FEE. We believe the cultural probes could be 2. Levy, J. Surrealism. Black Sun Press (1st ed.), 1936; © ACM 1072-5220/99/0100 $5.00adapted to a wide variety of similar design reprinted by Da Capo Press, New York, 1995.projects. Just as machine-addressed letters 3. Plant, S. The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationistseem more pushy than friendly, however, so International in a Postmodern Age. Routledge, London,might a generic approach to the probes pro- 1992. interactions...january + february 1999 29