Cultural probes for service design in 2018

Example of a cultural probe with tasks and materials for the participant. (Mattelmäki 2006, Figure 7)

Digital probes for digital era

What is the implication of smartphones? You don’t need to distribute audio recorders to the participants, hand out disposable cameras for pictures nor send tasks back and forth in an envelope. A messaging app in their phone can be the channel for the probe. Mobile probes have been used since text messages and current chat applications enrich that connection.

Sie et al. (2016) used custom stickers with the study avatar to communicate reminders and feedback.

My WhatsApp diary case

In my research I utilised WhatsApp as the probe medium as it is widely used in Finland and probably as well by the target group using the specific digital services. I wanted to make data input as convenient as possible for the participants.

First messages that were sent to the participants included a introductory video of the researcher and detailed guide for diary inputs.
An example of a theme task for the weekend that I sent on the third day. Here I ask them to describe their favourite reading situation and to send a picture of it if possible. The deadline was set on Monday where I would read their replies and send the next task.
An example of a reply that I would receive for the theme task. They like to read in sunlight under warm blanket and get into a reading flow. There is also some reflection of the time that was used as it had surprised them. The picture reveals more context than just the description (on floor reading a hard cover book form the library).


  1. Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti, E. (1999). Design: Cultural Probes. Interactions, 6(1), 21–29.
  2. Gillham, R. (2005). Diary Studies as a Tool for Efficient Cross-Cultural Design. Seventh International Workshop on Internationalisation of Products and Systems, 57–65. Retrieved from
  3. Lucero, A., Lashina, T., Diederiks, E., & Mattelmäki, T. (2007). How probes inform and influence the design process. Proceedings of the 2007 Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces — DPPI ’07, (August), 377.
  4. Mattelmäki, T. (2006). Design Probes. Aalto University. Retrieved from
  5. Sie, J., Koh, W. E., Zainuddin, S., & Johnson, G. I. (2016). Understanding banking via WeChat diaries. International Journal on Advanced Science, Engineering and Information Technology, 6(6), 982–989.



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Aarne Leinonen

Aarne Leinonen

Radical existentialist with a humanistic vibe. Researcher of service development in organizations. Interested in customer value. Tweets @aarneleinonen