Cultural probes for service design in 2018

Aarne Leinonen
7 min readApr 30, 2018

In this post I explore how cultural probes can be used in the current digital service design context in 2018. In the end I will offer a case example on how I used WhatsApp diary in my customer research. But first let us define cultural probes for those who are not familiar with the concept.

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

According to Gillham (2005) there are two approaches for diary studies. The first approach is frequency based where participants keep track of the times and durations of the events that are studied (e.g. mobile phone usage). Importance and impact of these events are derived from the frequency. This approach can be used if the research subject is familiar to the researcher.

The second approach is named cultural probe, where participants “record any information about their day-to-day activities or environment which they feel is important to them” (Gillham 2005, p.4). In cultural probes pictures, drawings and other forms of input are welcomed as well. Gaver, Dunne & Pacenti (1999) advocate for probes as artistic inspiration for the designer as they reveal participants subjective perception of the world and not necessary objective truths.

Mattelmäki (2006) also advocates for open ended probes that let participants define what is important to them. The probe is a tool that lets the participants to express themselves to the designer. Mattelmäki (2006) point out how probes are well suited method for emphatic design, where the designer tries to immerse into the participants situation and feelings.

Lucero et al. (2007) point out that probes bring information from private situations, where the researcher would not have access otherwise. They are cost efficient compared to ethnographic in-situ research, but reveal similar information (Gillham 2005). Lastly, a probe enables recordings of situations that are not planned beforehand but are spontaneous activities by the participant (Mattelmäki 2006, Sie et al. 2006).

In short: Cultural probe is a set of tasks and materials that enters in participant’s sphere where they engage with it. It can include writing a diary, taking pictures, answering specific questions or anything that offers information for the researcher from participants perspective.

Compared to observations they offer a view into a persons mind, allow flexibility and might be cheaper. Compared to questionnaires a probe lets participant to define important aspects by themselves. Compared to interviews the probes offer a view to the situation as it happens or just after it, but still probes and interviews are usually mixed in order to get a richer picture of the situation.

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) have used WeChat to study mobile banking usage in China. They found the probe method useful as it was less intrusive for the participant, allowed longitudinal study to find out habits, and most importantly they were able to record participants thoughts on personal financial behaviour easily in situ, form a distance and with no real cost. With the diary information, they were able to focus on the situations that were important for that specific customer in follow up phone interview.

To frame the study they (Sie et al. 2016) created an visual avatar “Little Red Sprite” that was acting as an outsider whom the participants would need to explain even the simple aspects of their behaviour. Compared to their previous studies with no such avatar they found out that the participants’ replies were more explaining in nature and people were sorry for not posting for a long time and even apologised from the “Little Red Sprite”.

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

The chat medium allowed for more interaction to happen. In their first studies a daily countdown was used but as it was irritating the participants the researchers altered their approach and offered tips to record posts instead. The chat stickers (function like big stand alone emojis) were used to get more information out of the participant in an indirect way.

Sie et al. (2016) conducted their study in China but the researchers were located at Singapore. One designer I know, has conducted a remote user study via WhatsApp in Kenya while being located in Finland. WhatsApp was used also in this one case when Finnish and British teenagers and their digital habits were studied. Digital probes are well suited for studying digital service usage as a global customer base is easily reachable.

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.

Ten participants were recruited from the current customer base to record their service usage and motivations. The diary task was introduced 1) via pre-interview via phone conversation, 2) in a introduction video and 3) in detail at the first message.

First messages that were sent to the participants included a introductory video of the researcher and detailed guide for diary inputs.

As a reminder of the ongoing study I sent extra tasks to the participants. I avoided too frequent messages to the participants so that they would not feel intimidated like they felt in Sie et al. (2006) for daily spam. I opted for 3 times a week schedule. This worked out fine, and the participants were satisfied by the amount of messages they got. The altering themes in the reminders were also a way to reflect on the usage from a different perspective.

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.

Sometimes the diary entries included pictures which revealed more on the context than just the text. The variety of the situations amazed us and a picture sent by a customer offer insights and work as strong arguments for their behalf when decisions are made for the development.

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).

Probes enabled much deeper post-interview discussions with the participants. I believe that one reason for that was the established rapport between participant and me. It allowed us to explore deeper into the topic. Visiting participants’ homes for the post-interview was a natural part of the research after we had established a trust based relationship.

Before meeting face to face we had already had few emails, a phone discussion, video greeting by me and the two weeks of WhatsApp chat. This relationship meant that we were not complete strangers to each other when we first met. A similar notion was reported by Sie et al. (2016): “The relationships built over the course of the diary study were also imperative to the success of follow-up semi-structured phone interviews, as trust and familiarity between researchers and participants enabled more intimate conversations”

The second reason that enabled a better discussion was the accumulated information about the participant. For the interview, the theme template was customised for each participant. The messages they had sent contained hints where the most fruitful insights were. I would quote some message or show their picture and start the discussion from there. This customisation resulted in much more relevant discussions also for the participant.

The probing method allowed us to record majority, if not all, reading and listening situations of our participants. The amount of text input and image input was a positive surprise, and indicates that the participants were also happy to participate in the study.

I would encourage every designer who wants deep customer insights to try out (digital) probes. The barrier to enter customer’s world is lowered by the accustomation to the social media. The customers are barraged by a steady stream of questionnaires that feel clinical and appear meaningless. By offering them something with a more human touch will be a welcomed change.

This post is part of a series — me doing my master’s thesis on customer perceived value. Read the previous post “Highlights from customer value literature” here. The next post How do customers perceive value?” is a summary of the results and you can find it here.


  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.



Aarne Leinonen

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