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Using Cultural Probes in Design Research: A Case Study from Bungoma, Kenya

Department of Media and Information, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI



Cultural probes have long been used to provide designers with glimpses into the local cultures for which they are designing, and thereby inspire novel design proposals. Probes are designed objects—frequently packages—that contain open-ended, evocative and ambiguous activities given to people to pursue, and return over a period of time. Fundamentally, they are meant to subvert traditional design methods. That is, the approach is intended to offer an alternative to the prevailing rational and scientific processes sometimes used in design. Despite their widespread use in developed contexts, there are few instance of using this subjective, design-led method in developing contexts. I describe my experience using cultural probes during the early stages of an ongoing design project in Bungoma County, Kenya. Returns from my comment cards and digital camera activities draw attention to probe recipients’ unique experiences and to Bungoma’s distinctive characteristics. These returns also inspired a series of speculative design proposals. My experience using this method motivates a discussion that elaborates on how a cultural probes approach can benefit design research by raising questions about generalizability, objectivity, and the pursuit of a single solution in design.

Cultural probes; design; Kenya; speculative design

About the Author

Dr. Susan Wyche is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University. She also has a courtesy appointment in MSU’s African Studies Center. Her research focuses on human computer interaction (HCI) and information and communication technologies and development (ICTD). This work has been supported by Google, Facebook, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Dr. Wyche is a 2015 recipient of an NSF CAREER Award. She received her Ph.D. in Human-Centered Computing from Georgia Tech, an MS from Cornell University and an undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University. Susan was born and socialized in the US, and has been conducting research in western Kenya, since 2011. She travels there once or twice a year, stays for two to six weeks at a time, and broadly investigate people’s interactions with technology, especially mobile phones. Goals of her research include providing researchers and practitioners in HCI with an understanding of technology use in sub-Saharan Africa.

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