Part 5: Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk? PrD and Cultural Probes

by Leo Frishberg.

Tenniel drawing of Alice with Hatter and Hare

In this and several other posts, we address a corollary to Lewis Carroll’s famous riddle. In our case: “Why isn’t Presumptive Design like                                  ?” In this post we tackle the comparison between Presumptive Design and Cultural Probes.

See these posts for other comparisons.

Why PrD is not like Cultural Probes

Cultural Probes

In their 1999 article, authors Gaver, et. al.[1], introduce a design-research technique they called Cultural Probes. “We approach research into new technologies from the traditions of artist–designers rather than the more typical science- and engineering-based approaches,” the authors explain. They promote the method as a way to “open new spaces for design.” Based on a set of provocative artifacts, the process is designed to reveal the cultural patterns of the participants rather than provide specific quantitative data. In the protocol as they originally described it, the authors provided participants with maps, postcards and disposable cameras, along with a set of tasks (identify places they’ve traveled, answer a few questions, photograph meaningful events in their lives, etc.). The intention of Cultural Probes was to inspire the design team by providing insights from intentional provocations that may not have anything to do with a specific product or service.

That All Sounds Like PrD…But It Isn’t

The similarities between Probes and PrD are striking: the use of provocative artifacts to elicit reactions from a group of stakeholders. In addition, the two processes focus on the context of use – in the case of Probes the cultural context in which any proposed solution may be situated; in PrD the context of the problem space and its relevancy to the team’s target audience.

But that is where the similarities end. Even at the level of intent, Probes differ dramatically from PrD. Probes are, by definition, unconcerned with specific product requirements, focusing entirely on generating inspiring possibilities to prime the design team’s thinking. PrD, in contrast, is designed to identify where the team’s presumptive notions about its designs are not aligned with its users and customers. Further, the two methods differ regarding their temporal context: Probes focus on users’ world as they perceive it to be today; PrD focuses on users’ reaction to a future world as envisioned for them by the design team. In brief, Probes help teams find interesting problem to solve; PrD helps teams validate a problem they’ve presumed is relevant.
Design Thinking diagram illustrating where Probes and PrD begin their journey

The two methods differ most dramatically in their execution. Cultural Probes are intended to be self-paced, self-reporting and self-directed. Participants receive artifacts along with instructions for how to use them. They are expected to follow the rules and send their responses back to the researchers. Self-reporting is the method’s greatest advantage and weakness: participants can capture the events they consider relevant, in real time, but will they? The method requires a high level of commitment, discipline and follow-through. Critics often mention the low response rate from participants as problematic.

B/W Photograph of clouds over water
An image that could be used in a Cultural Probe

In contrast, PrD is curated and facilitated. The team has specific notions to which it wants to hear reactions. The provocations in PrD are intended to incite discussion, storytelling and emotional responses – none of which would be accessible to the team if the participant was left alone with the artifact. The method expects and requires such interchanges: the facilitator is expected to engage the participant in a dialog to learn more.

Two additional elements distinguish the methods from one another: the tasks and the artifacts. The tasks in Cultural Probes are around the use of the artifacts to capture participants’ thoughts, context and day-to-day activities. The tasks are literally instruction manuals in the use of the artifacts. Similarly, the artifacts are primarily meant to capture participant emotions and thoughts (in service of inspiring the design team). While the postcards may contain provocative imagery, more importantly, the instructions on the back side are the key prompts. Similarly, though maps may provoke a variety of imagined circumstances, as artifacts they are not to be viewed as unmaplike: the maps are maps, even if they describe dreamscapes.

In contrast, PrD artifacts enable a task presumed to be relevant to the participants. Artifacts are not about capturing the participant’s conceptual thoughts, emotions or aspirations; they are designed to capture the participant’s reaction to the team’s aspirations for a presumed future. Most important, the tasks in PrD are not instructions on how to use the artifact; in fact, no instructions are provided at all. Rather, the tasks themselves are as presumptive as the artifact, serving as additional provocations. If the team suggests the participant perform a task, and offers a map as the supporting artifact, neither are explained to the participant; they are presumed to be related for purposes of provoking a discussion.

PrD and Cultural Probes appear similar based on their intent and purpose: to provoke stakeholders to tell stories. But their differences are stark: where Cultural Probes provoke participants to share wide-ranging thoughts and feelings in an effort to inspire the design team, PrD artifacts provoke editorial reactions to the team’s implicit assumptions. The methods differ dramatically in their execution as well: Probes are self-directed while PrD sessions are carefully curated and facilitated.

Is your group looking into the future? Contact us to learn how Presumptive Design provokes contextual storytelling and reactions to your products and services, or buy the book! 

[1] Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne, and Elena Pacenti. 1999. Design: Cultural probes. interactions 6, 1 (January 1999), 21-29. DOI=