This article was written by Carolien Postma, User Researcher at AVG’s Innovation Labs in Amsterdam. Carolien, is driving and supporting user-centered innovation with a focus on consumer insight development and concept validation.
User stories are a great source of inspiration when starting a new design project. That’s why designers (like me) have adopted a variety of tools and techniques to collect them. One of my favorites is “cultural probes”.
Cultural probes are small packages of tools (such as maps, a camera, postcards, stickers, a diary) and evocative tasks that invite people to record their activities, thoughts and feelings. The packages are uniquely designed for a project, and are given to a selected group of participants to complete. Participants complete the tasks over time, in their own environment and in their own way, and then return the packages to the researcher. The returned packages offer a brief glimpse into the participants’ worlds. They’re filled with small stories that can spark new ideas and solutions. (For more details, see Gaver et al.  and Mattelmäki )
Great. But what if you don’t have time or budget to apply this inspirational technique? That’s the situation I found myself in a while ago. And so I decided to look for ways to do cultural probes on the fly. I decided to try Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
… How? Well, I post tasks there – the kind of evocative tasks that you would find in a cultural probe – and ask people to complete the tasks in return for a small fee. For example, we have asked participants (Amazon calls them “workers”) to, “Share a picture of something you do to feel secure online”, “Describe your own special house leaving ritual” and “Tell us, if your router were a celebrity, then what celebrity would it be?” When we receive their responses, usually within hours, I print them and put them up on the wall in our office kitchen for everyone in our team to discuss.
I have applied “robo-probes” (as we call them here) a couple of times now, and found that they produced some interesting user stories; interesting enough to inspire new ideas during lunch breaks and for my team members to ask for more. Sure, robo probes don’t have the same qualities as cultural probes, and they have drawbacks. For example, you don’t get to select the people who complete the probe, and asking participants to do a series of tasks over time is difficult. But robo-probes have inspired our team and, very important, I can do them on the fly!
Curious what we found with robo-probes? Read more about our experiences with robo-probes in the coming weeks.
Disclaimer: All opinions are those of the author and not those of AVG or Innovation Labs.