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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/M015327/1
Title: ProbeTools: Digital Devices for User Research
Principal Investigator: Gaver, Professor W
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Mr A Boucher
Project Partners:
Microsoft University of Dundee
Department: Design
Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 May 2015 Ends: 31 July 2018 Value (£): 591,558
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Human-Computer Interactions
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Information Technologies
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
02 Dec 2014 EPSRC ICT Prioritisation Panel - Dec 2014 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
This project will develop a family of computational devices called ProbeTools that are designed to collect user data for HCI studies and social research more generally. Taking advantage of new developments in rapid prototyping for computation and product design, ProbeTools will explore possibilities for opensource digital tools to support social research.

ProbeTools build on Cultural Probes, a design-led approach to social research in which collections of tasks are designed to elicit responses from people that illuminate participants' lives, values and desires. Designed to be engaging, playful, aesthetically appealing and open-ended, Probes can be an effective way for designers to work with participants to gain an understanding of the context for their designs. Since their introduction about fifteen years ago, Cultural Probes have become an established method in the repertoire of designers, researchers, technologists and social scientists. However, the traditional media of Probes such as film and audio tapes are dying out, and it is more difficult for practitioners to achieve the sensibilities of probe-like activities using feature-led technology such as smart phones or tablets.

The project team will work with Research Partners from Microsoft Research and the University of Dundee to explore how ProbeTools may be designed to benefit commercial research as well as academic research and teaching. We will pursue a research through design methodology, in which reflections on designing, making and using ProbeTools will be used to produce guidance for future ProbeTool design alongside the devices themselves. This will start with a review of the hundreds of Cultural Probe studies and materials from the last fifteen years, and include workshops with our Research Partners as well as other experienced UK practitioners, to inform the development of a design space for ProbeTools, embodied in a Design Workbook containing simple annotated concept proposals organised thematically.

We will select 3- 6 designs from the most promising but also to explore how complex ProbeTools should be, what media will work well, and how constrained they should be in their functionality. For instance, we envision developing a camera that can be easily reconfigured to provide e.g. time-lapse photography or images processed to protect privacy, or an audio recorder that turns on for a period when unusually loud sounds are heard, or processes speech to preserve emotional intonation but not intelligibility. We anticipate that each ProbeTool will offer a range of options to allow researchers to configure them for a wide variety of research requirements.

15 - 30 copies of each design will be batch produced for use in-house and by our Research Partners to collect data for ongoing projects. Based on the results, we will be able to work together to identify the characteristics of successful ProbeTools, both to refine the final designs and to produce guidelines for the development of future devices.

The project is designed to make the largest possible impact by taking advantage of another recent trend, towards open-source product design. We will publish the complete specification of the ProbeTools we make on appropriate repositories, in the form of design packages that also include manuals for building, programming and modifying the tools, and generalisable guidance on batch producing products using 3D printers, and using microprocessor toolkits and custom PCBs. This will be publicised via exhibitions, the popular press, and online media as well as academic publications in HCI, Design and the Social Sciences. The end result will be a series of designs that can be used in Cultural Probes studies, appropriated for other sorts of user research, and which illustrate possibilities of rapid prototyping and open source making more generally.

Key Findings
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Potential use in non-academic contexts
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Date Materialised
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Organisation Website: http://www.gold.ac.uk