Commentary on “Cultural Probes”

Johan Huizinga, Dutch historian and one of the founders of modern cultural history has advocated the importance of “play” element of culture and society. In the foreword of his 1938 book titled “Homo Ludens” or “Man the Player” he suggests that “play is primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture.

“Homo Ludens” appears as the first word opening the paper titled “Cultural Probes”, and rightfully so. The team of designer/researchers who have set out to probe the interactions of the elderly with their surrounding environment take advantage of the element of “play” throughout the research process to come up with “inspirational” responses on the basis of which they can propose their solutions.

Design through research is undoubtedly an efficient process of a high necessity that can ensure maximum relevance of solution to problems. But in situations such as that discussed in the paper where conventional and scientific approach of research such as questionnaires will not enlighten every aspect of the lives and interactions of the subjects, “play” can play a crucial role.

In fact, by providing proper tools and instructions for the subjects, and inviting them to explore their environment, we are delicately passing the task of research on to the subjects themselves, ensuring maximum relevance and purity of gathered data. Furthermore, through the advantages of the playful nature of our research instruments -in this case camera, photo album, media diary and postcards- more personal and inspirational results can be expected: the camera acts as a visual diary illustrating things as they are, and things as the participants aspires to be, the photo album instates the subjects in the position of storytellers, bringing out the highlights of their lives; Things, people, times, places and events that actually matter to them; Postcards as questionnaires that leave room for many interpretations of the question, and finally, maps that pin down not places and routes and markets, but the psychological response of the subjects toward all those.

The most intuitive and efficient research tool discussed in the paper, in my opinion, is the media diary. The media query is actually estimating the social network surrounding the subjects, and measure media impact.

Throughout the process, the group of researchers/designers remain fully loyal to their purpose:  trying to “shift the perception” of technology among other things -such as  aesthetics, culture and politicss- rather than designing a product and delivering to them, and Looking for inspirations to simulate imagination, rather than data that defines problems.

Not being obliged to work, and provided with more time to explore their environment, these researching co-agents are “Homo Luden” that examine their needs by exploratory sensory evaluation of their own lives, and delivering outcomes that are far above and beyond raw data, but have implications of the possible solutions imbedded in them.

The final note, would be the role of “aesthetics” in finding and implementing the solution. The designers’ approach toward aesthetics, viewing it as more that a mere “luxury” and reclaiming it as a “right” greatly contributes to seeking proper solutions for such a delicate design/problem at hand.




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