Today’s challenges in service design are complex: as Eric Ries puts it, the question is not "Can this product or service be built?". In the modern economy, almost any imaginable product or service can be built. The more pertinent question is "Can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?"
Beyond the Obvious User Needs
Today’s challenges in service design are complex: as Eric Ries puts it, the question is not ‘Can this product or service be built’?’. In the modern economy, almost any imaginable product or service can be built. The more pertinent question is ‘Can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?’
For these kind of challenges, most entrepreneurs and companies have learned that involving the future costumer in the innovation process from the beginning is a promising approach. on the one hand, this type of co-creation process such as the one Elizabeth Sanders is proposes allows the innovation team to directly experience how potential customers react to their ideas. On the other hand, the team gets unfiltered and often inspiring insights into the “real world” of their future customers. This results in massively reducing the risk of developing an irrelevant service or product which fails commercially.
 Ries, Eric. The lean startup: How today's entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. Random House LLC, 2011.
 Sanders, Elizabeth B-N., and Pieter Jan Stappers. "Co-creation and the new landscapes of design." Co-design 4.1 (2008): 5-18.
In 1999 Gaver and others proposed the use of cultural probes to “provoke inspirational responses” and to provide ways “to open new spaces for design”.
Cultural probes are an empathetically designed set of small tasks. The tasks allow the participants to document and visualize their behaviors, habits, thoughts and wishes within their everyday environment related to the topic of the service innovation project. At IXDS we like to call these sets ‘self observational tool kits’.
Designing and producing a set of cultural probes is a time-consuming process and a considerable investment. While producing them, the contextual composition of tasks, the selection of material and the overall setup must be considered to create a coherent set of tools, both from a content, and a design perspective. In addition to carefully defining the content of the cultural probes, it is important to add the little ‘artistic’ details that shape an enjoyable experience for the participants[Admn.1] . Along with the tasks, we submit recommendations for the minimal amount of time processing of the tasks should take. This encourages the participant to complete the task.
 Gaver, Bill, Tony Dunne, and Elena Pacenti. "Design: cultural probes." interactions 6.1 (1999): 21-29.
[Admn.1]How do these little details make the experience more enjoyable?
At IXDS we’ve conducted over 40 service innovation design processes using the cultural probe method. Participants have never refused or have had difficulty with this method; on the contrary, in most cases users have contributed much more information and insight than we expected.
As Gaver et al. have stated in their original paper about cultural probes, they “are a way for us to get to know you better, and for you to get to know us.” In a co-creation process, which requires that every participant collaborate in a non-hierarchical setting, trust and respect are important for successful outcomes. Investing significant effort into creating the cultural probes pays off as the participants build trust with the innovation team, and open up as the process unfolds.
In fact, participants often appreciate that they’ve learned new things about themselves and are empowered to reflect on habits and motivations they weren’t consciously aware of beforehand.
The goal of cultural probes
We pursue two goals when using cultural probes: Firstly, preparing and enabling participants to take an active role in the Co-Creation process. Secondly, cultural probes deliver direct inspiration and ideas for product development as originally suggested by Gaver et al.
Before working with cultural probes, we often observed that future users in a co-creation process tend to contribute inauthentic responses or as one participant put it: “I said what I felt you expected me to say”. We soon realized that one can only be the “expert of his/her experience”, when he or she had time to self-observe and the necessary space to reflect on this observation.
 Sanders, E. B.-N. & Stappers, P.J.: Co-Creation and the new landscapes of design, CoDesign Vol. 4, No. 1, March 2008, 5-18
The tasks we select for the toolkits are carefully aligned to our research questions. It’s essential to define clear topics and a range of related questions before designing the probes to stay focused on what the probes are designed to reveal.
In one service design project dedicated to identifying potential new personal finance services we defined broad questions like:
- What role does money play in your everyday life?
- What does money mean to you and how do you perceive it?
- What kind of relationship do you have with your money?
- How do you ‘imagine’ your money?
- How do these topics influence your daily dealings with money?
In order to find answers to these abstract questions we designed cultural probes that asked the participants to:
- Map out their personal money history, marking milestones like the first bank account, first salary and any emotions related to these milestones
- Locate all the places in their homes related to money and record a short video showing these places
- Make a map of their ‘money-landscape’, explaining where different types of money or savings are located and how they are connected
- Visualize their money’s identity, finding a metaphor to describe its personality
- Record their emotional state regarding their financial situation by defining the temperature of their ‘emotional-barometer’ and explaining their mood
One participant illustrated her money as a cactus, describing it as something that ‘is nice to have and look at in the apartment but you don’t want to come too close and get pricked’. Based on this drawing, the service designer was able to dig deeper by inquiring about the cactus’ shape. The participant explained that the two arms stood for two types of money that need to be in balance: the higher arm is harder to reach and takes care of the future, the other arm is in reach and can be used for leisure.
One participant illustrated her money as a cactus, describing it as something that is nice to have and look at in the apartment but you don´t want to come too close and get pricked.
Digitalisation of cultural probes
Even though apps like “Dscout” try to make this method completely digital, we don’t recommend this. The visceral experience of using pen and paper and sometimes scissors and glue, not only creates a conscious experience for the participants, but also provides tangible and inspiring outcomes that digital technology alone can’t accomplish[Admn.1] .
At IXDS we use digital technology to support task completion such as reminders, sending out ad-hoc-tasks or tools for uploading completed tasks. We learn new things about the methods and tools we use every day.
We gain insights about our own process along the way, which makes our approach towards cultural probes a constantly evolving one.