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Inspiring ideas 5/5 (1)

Inspiring ideas in a design process through cultural probes

Keywords: understanding user; cultural probe; ICH.

Aims and Rationale

The aim of this activity is the design of cultural probes by the students. A cultural probe is a technique that sees the use of material (in this case, a handwritten letter) to inspire people’s responses about their thoughts and experiences. The aim of the probes is narrow the focus within the more general objective to identify how technology could enable ICH documentation in a specific community. Therefore, one of the ways the probes should be used is to explore ICH areas in need of documentation from the perspective of the insiders as well as identify the ICH gatekeepers.

This activity is preliminary to the ICH-HCI workshop, where the students will give the probes to the community members while also collecting complementary data through the other methods proposed in this toolkit (for example, ethnographic note-taking). This data will be analysed in the Thematic analysis activity and will inform design ideas during the Creating personas and Questions for design stages.

Learning Outcomes and Associated Areas of Knowledge

Assemble a wealth of knowledge about the cultural practices of a community

Identify elements in needs of protection or suitable for documentation

Identify ways to design probes and tasks that enable the easy collection of meaningful data

21st Century skills

  • Collaboration and Communication
  • Artistry and Personal Expression
  • Research Skills and Practices

How to

Invite each group to design at least one cultural probe that will be handed over to the community members during the ICH-HCI workshop. The probe should be simple to understand, creative, engaging, and evocative. The tasks proposed by the probe should encourage community members to self-explore ICH and report back meaningful responses that are consistent with the investigative goal of the students.

We now report two examples of cultural probes that were effective in exploring aspects of Bedouin ICH in relation to putting the basis for a suitable digital documentation. These probes were designed as physical objects containing tasks to investigate around more specific aspects of Bedouin ICH and to support their engagement with the design process.

To explore the cultural configuration of musical poems within the community, one group designed a cultural probe based on a family tree. In the tree (a paper-based version), the participant had to report names, ages, and kinships of each family member, as well as the level of interest in and knowledge about Bedouin music using a colour code. The students’ aim for this probe was to explore around the stratification of Bedouin songs in terms of distribution of knowledge and changes over time through a self-rating system.

Another group prepared a cultural probe in the shape of a traditional Bedouin tent which inside held a set of empty coloured cards, and one question written on a green card that said: “What are the traditions that make you a proud Bedouin?”. The probe was given to their participant who was asked to keep it for few days and use the empty cards to solicit the answers from his household. The empty cards had different colours to distinguish the responses from males, females, and children in the family. The probe represented the students’ aims to better understand the cohesion and communication in the Bedouin family.


Less experienced students may tend to see the artistry side as the main focus, ending up creating fancy and overcomplicated probes that do not suit the cultural background of the participants. In our experience, one group of students designed a probe that took a shape of a tent when folded (different from the one described in the “How to” section). The probe consisted of several tasks explained in text (coloured cards). Behind the card representing each task lay a hidden letter. All the fetched letters formed one word. While the students thought this probe as “creative” (and it certainly was from an artistry point of view), it resulted in being very challenging for their low-literate participant to navigate through it and fully understand what was asked from him to do.

It is, therefore, important that students focus on the importance and striking a balance in this process for collecting meaningful data and create probes that are consistent with what the participants can easily understand and fulfil. Piloting the probes with classmates might help this reflective process.

Assessment for Learning

Designing probes will empower the students to both assemble a wealth of data about cultural practices and learn more about reliable and valid ways to ensure a rich quality of data to identify elements in need to protection. By engaging in the process and observing the outcomes of their decisions, students can participate in self and peer reflection on this contributing to assessment for learning.

Assessment 'How to'

It is important that the students fully understand the most reliable way to design probes that are user-friendly to the participants. Students will learn ways in which the proposed tasks must have consistency with the cultural background of the participants and strongly relates to the investigative goals of the educational experience.

After the probes creation (and before they are given to the community members during the ICH-HCI workshop), arrange a class presentation in which the probes will be evaluated by both the peers and the educators. The questions to the creators should focus on the investigative goal, the evocative nature, the user-friendly aspects, and the consistency with the cultural background of the participants.

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  • Stress the importance of creating easy to fulfil tasks.
  • Invite the students to create the probes by having the cultural background of the participants in mind.


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