Cultural Probes

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Last month there was a social informatics seminar by Siobhan Magee on the “Internet of Second-hand Things: Object biographies, consumption pathways and re-valuing goods“, a project based in the University of Edinburgh’s College of Art funded by the EPSRC.  In the most fascinating part of a very interesting presentation, Siobhan described a trial that the project had carried out in a Manchester branch of Oxfam where shoppers could interact with a teapot with a built-in camera to haggle over the price of goods. This was a Wizard of Oz  experiment, with the negotiation of price being carried out not by some sophisticated artificial intelligence, but by a researcher in a back-room. The interaction between the shopper and the teapot allowed the shopper to argue why they deserved to be allowed a lower price. Part of this would be objective arguments about the “market value”, by for example arguing it was available for less on Ebay, but could also include making personal claims, for example that their profession meant they deserved a lower price. Siobhan described the methodology as a “cultural probe”, an approach to engaging with user cultures to shape design first proposed in 1999 by Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti. Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti describe how they gave citizens maps and queries to get them to engage in the design of their environment. “The probes contained about seven maps, each with an accompanying inquiry exploring the elders’ attitudes toward their environment. Requests ranged from straightforward to poetic. For instance, a map of the world included the question “Where have you been in the world?”, and small dot stickers were provided to mark answers. Participants were also 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.”

The use of cultural probes has failed to establish itself as a widely used methodology in the academic study of design. This may be because it lacks the superficial rigour of usability trials or even mainstream ethnography. The use of cultural probes has been more widely used in practical design as a form of co-creation between designer and user, and is increasingly used in marketing to generate user-centred campaigns. For example, the Volkswagen “speed camera lottery” described in an earlier post, where Volkswagen set up speed cameras and organised, or claimed to have organised, a lottery among drivers keeping to the speed limit was a crowdsourced marketing exercise because it was an open competition to suggest the scenarios, and a method to generate viral videos for marketing VW cars. But between these two slices of social network marketing, the trial itself was a cultural probe. Another of VW’s cultural probes involved creating a musical staircase, finding that this increased stair use by 66%, but it is debatable how much this helps the designers of stairs. The increased use of  the   musical stairs may have been  an engagement with it as an art-work or even just as a novelty; it might not be evidence of a consumer need for interactive musical street furniture that should be built into all future stairs. The interactions between Manchester shoppers and the Oxfam teapot almost certainly tells us something about their social construction of value and their interpretation of fair bases for discounting, but it does not imply that they would want all their shopping to involve haggling over prices with automata.

Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti in proposing the use of cultural probes explicitly acknowledged their debt to Situationist International ideas from the 50s and 60s, implicitly channeling the derives of the French writer, film-maker and social theorist Guy Debord. A central aim of Debord was to expose the contradictions of modern capitalism through cultural interventions. Debord wrote in 1957 that the “central idea [of the Situationist International] is the construction of situations, that is to say, the concrete construction of momentary ambiences of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality. We must develop a systematic intervention based on the complex factors of two components in perpetual interaction: the material environment of life and the behaviors which that environment gives rise to and which radically transform it.” It is ironic that a radical anti-capitalist movement should now, fifty years later, have so little influence over political action, but has been recuperated within marketing to generate spectacles for capitalism.

For Debord, setting up a situation where shoppers engage in negotiating with a piece of domestic pottery would have been expected to trigger the realisation of the dehumanising effect of the market, but the Oxfam trial seems to show that the effect is that people will go home happy in the knowledge that they managed to persuade a teapot to knock a third off the price of a Dire Straits CD.

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