ProbeTools: Digital Devices for User Research

Lead Research Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Department Name: Design

Abstract

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.

Planned Impact

Our research has potential impact across a wide range of commercial beneficiaries, in two basic directions: user research and rapid prototyped and batch-produced products.

As a tool for user research, we expect initial impact in technology companies such as Microsoft (one of our project partners), Intel, Google, etc, and SMEs such as consultancies specialised in user research and design. As a tool for researching people and their beliefs, moreover, ProbeTools have relevance for any industry engaged in user-centred design. Thus they may impact on research for policy makers, for marketing firms, for biomedical companies, and so on. Our overall ambition is to develop ProbeTools as a significant new resource in the palette of user-centred design methods.

How they will benefit:
- Researchers, designers and developers across the sectors will benefit from affordable, robust and open-source designs for ProbeTools that they can use in their research.
- Technology designers will benefit from tools that enable them to contextualise their products with respect to richly-textured details of potential clients' lives and orientations.
- SMEs and design consultancies who build competence in using and developing ProbeTools will benefit from a new technique to offer clients.
- Policy makers will benefit from more open-ended techniques for investigating the social and personal effects of their policies.
- Research participants will benefit from research instruments that are more engaging and flexible for personal expression than many existing methods.
- The general public will benefit from improved products and policies.

As a model of using rapid prototyping in the development, production and dissemination of new products, we expect initial impact in the research and development teams of large technology corporations. We also expect impact in SMEs and consultancies, as we pass on expertise and guidelines for batch producing products using 3D printing and microprocessor platforms. Our guidance will extend to issues such as tolerance variation between different build technologies, build orientations and support structures, and drawbacks inherent to individual processes such as delamination on FDM. We will disseminate this working knowledge along with the STL files for our open-sourced parts so that researchers can accurately replicate our work. Lack of such knowledge is an issue that holds back the more widespread distribution of rapid-prototype artefacts more generally as users can struggle to replicate the results of the original object.

How they will benefit:
- Designers and developers in large R&D departments and smaller SMEs and consultancies will benefit from guidance for dealing with, e.g., tolerance variation, build orientations, etc. in using 3D printers to produce product prototypes or batch produced products.
- Hardware and software developers will benefit from our experiences in using rapid prototyping systems to develop new systems that are then transferred to custom-built hard- and software.
- Opensource communities will benefit from the examples we provide of distributing detailed design knowledge along with specs for building new devices, and from the specific devices we outsource.
- The general public will benefit from an increasing range of projects, designed for specific populations and batch produced or produced on demand.

We expect initial benefits to be established over a 1-5 year time-scale. Our partners and collaborators will start to benefit during the first 1 - 2 years, as we begin to design and disseminate the initial ProbeTools, design workbook, and associated design guidance, tutorials, and accounts of successful trials. Once the ProbeTools designs are made available on open source product repositories, we expect them to spread to industry and policy beneficiaries over the following 2 - 5 years as new groups encounter them and appropriate them to their practice.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description ||||| 2020 Entry:
Since the last report we have sold a total of 120 TaskCam shields to academic and commercial researchers from Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the USA and UK, and also given away samples to researchers from IDEO consultancy and the BBC for use in their own studies. This further strengthens our findings that we can effectively produce and distribute open-source (self-build) tools for user research.

||||| 2019 Entry:
The project has developed open-source cameras and audio recorders designed for a particular approach to user studies. So far our findings have related to issues involved in the design and development of the devices and take a formative nature (e.g. the discovery is embodied in the resulting designs). Several aspects are notable. First, we have produced two fully functioning cameras, TaskCam and VisionCam using the off-the-shelf microprocessor platforms Arduino and Raspberry PI (see 'Software and Technical Products' for details). The current design is an iteration drawing on feedback from a deployment of beta versions of the camera with a research group in Vancouver, Canada, who customised them and used them in their own study. This led to many small technical changes and demonstrated the viability of the cameras as open-source tools for user research. Key findings include: • Sophisticated technical products can be made by small groups thanks to new microprocessor and software platforms. • Products can be produced as open-source designs for non-experts to make. • Clever PCB design can result in products that are adaptable with minimal technical requirements. • Computer vision can open the possibilities for photography, particularly as applied in user studies. • The resulting devices can be valuable for independent research groups.
Since the last report we have produced final versions of both cameras that are available for researchers to make. TaskCam requires a custom PCB that we have had batch produced and populated and which we sell from our website at cost. So far we have sold about 50 of the boards to a variety of industrial and academic research groups in the UK and internationally. We are unable to track how many groups have made VisionCams because they can be constructed using instructions on the ProbeTools website without contacting us directly, but we have been contacted by several researchers about their builds. We expect the impact of these self-build devices to grow over the next few years (e.g. we are featured in the current ACM interactions magazine which we expect to attract more practitioners) and continue to develop the devices and instructions outwith the project.
Exploitation Route The cameras are designed to be adopted and adapted by other researchers in their own studies. We anticipate their use by a wide range of practitioners, researchers and students from design and the social sciences, including many small and larger design and technology companies.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)

URL http://www.probetools.net
 
Description ||||| 2020 Entry: Since the last submission we have sold 120 TaskCam boards internationally. Though we do not explicitly track their use, to our knowledge they have been used in Design and HCI courses at Carnegie Mellon University, Simon Fraser University and TU Eindhoven to train students both in working with microprocessors and electronic components and in running design-led Cultural Probe studies. In addition, they have been purchased by researchers at Volkswagen R&D and the international design company IDEO, enabling them to run the unique kinds of user studies afforded by the devices. ||||| 2019 Entry: The project has developed two open-source bespoke cameras and an audio 'interviewer' designed for use in user studies. A number of beta version cameras were provided to a research team in Vancouver, BC who deployed them to ~20 households living in unusual circumstances (e.g. boats, vans, communal spaces etc.). The cameras impacted members of those households both by prompting reflection on their living situations and through engagement with visual forms of expression. Since the last submission, the final designs for TaskCams and VisionCams have been released publicly via our project website. TaskCams depend on a custom PCB which we have designed and had batch-produced and populated and which is available via our website. To date about 50 have been distributed to academic and industrial researchers internationally for use in their studies. We have also had several enquiries or reports from practitioners building the VisionCams, though we cannot track the numbers of people making these since they can do so using only the resources available on the website without contacting us directly. We expect the uptake of both cameras and the Automatic Interviewer (an audio device we plan to release soon) will increase over the next few years. To date it is safe to say that about a dozen industrial and academic research groups are using the devices for the benefit of their research.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)
Impact Types Societal

 
Description Responsive mode
Amount £964,301 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/P006256/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 12/2019
 
Title TaskCam 
Description TaskCam is a specialised camera to be given to participants in 'cultural probe' user studies. It has a small screen on the back that displays text-based questions or requests that researchers can enter via a text file stored on a micro SD card. When participants take a picture in response, the image is stored on the card tagged with the request. The camera is designed as an open-source product to be made by researchers following instructions on the project website. TaskCams are built on a custom PCB available from www.probetools.net. A fully functioning TaskCam can be assembled simply by plugging an Arduino microprocessor into the PCB and inserting 2 AA batteries and a micro SD card, loaded with software available from the website, into the appropriate holders. Currently the TaskCam hardware (including the Arduino Uno) costs about £35, or $45. The resulting camera can be packaged for immediate use. Alternatively, the PCB, which is perforated and predrilled, can be snapped apart and reconfigured in a variety of ways. About a dozen configurations (including one for a screenless camera about the size of a box of matches) are possible without soldering simply by plugging the separated boards together in different combinations, and other possibilities can be realised with a limited amount of soldering. This allows TaskCams to be constructed in a variety of forms chosen for their affordances or aesthetic qualities. Technically, the PCB splits into 3 sections; a 2 megapixel Camera Module, originally designed for use in early camera mobiles phones, a battery pack for powering the device, and an Arduino compatible 'shield' for use with the Arduino microprocessing platform. The 'shield' incorporates the OLED display and the user interface buttons, while the camera section contains the Micro SD card reader and the camera sensor. The decision to incorporate the SD card reader into the camera section is to allow the camera to function as a free standing camera without the 'shield', if desired. The SD card stores the text for the questions displayed and the resulting images taken. New camera software can be downloaded directly from the website or modified to provide new functionality. A number of casings have designed for TaskCam, some produced by 3D printing and others from paper card. Plans for the 3D casings are made available to download in all popular 3D formats (currently .STL and .STP) via a link on the website which leads to the GitHub repository [6]. Fully editable AutoDesk Fusion 360 designs are also available via the website. Because we are releasing the original 3D models for our designs, makers will have complete control to adapt or customise them at will. 
Type Of Technology Physical Model/Kit 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact TaskCam is designed as an open-source product. To date a beta version has been used by a research team in Vancouver Canada as part of their project work, contributing to product ideas and publications. 
URL http://www.probetools.net
 
Title VisionCam 
Description VisionCam is a specialised camera to be given to participants in 'cultural probe' user studies. It is intended to be left in place over time to take periodic pictures of a location. It has no trigger button but is activated by swinging a small cover away from the camera lens. This starts a sequence of time lapse images to be captured every few seconds. The rate of capture is varied to reflect the amount of movement between images calculated using computer vision software so that fewer images are captured when there is not much change in the scene. This allows lengthy observations to be summarised in relatively few images. To preserve privacy, algorithms detect contours in the images and display only these rather than the complete images. The result looks like simple line animations and work well to obscure e.g. recognisable faces while leaving many details of scenes and activities intact. The resulting sequences of animated line drawings are displayed in a loop on a screen mounted on the front of the camera (i.e. on the same side as the lens) so that participants can see what information is being captured. Like the TaskCam, the VisionCam is designed for open-source distribution. Based on a Raspberry PI microprocessor platform, the VisionCam can be constructed completely from off-the-shelf parts, and used with software available on www.probetools.net. A number of casings have designed for TaskCam and VisionCam, some produced by 3D printing and others from paper card. Plans for the 3D casings are made available to download in all popular 3D formats (currently .STL and .STP) via a link on the website which leads to the GitHub repository [6]. Fully editable AutoDesk Fusion 360 designs are also available via the website. Because we are releasing the original 3D models for our designs, makers will have complete control to adapt or customise them at will. 
Type Of Technology Physical Model/Kit 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact VisionCam is designed to be open-source with plans and instructions available on our website. We have not released the design yet so no notable impacts have occurred as yet. 
URL http://www.probetools.net
 
Description Ace Workshop: Build, Customise and Use your very own ProbeTools Camera 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Team members gave a presentation about the ProbeTools project and a making workshop to a group of professional practitioners and public. The group made their own ProbeTools cameras and went out into the local area to take photos. There was discussion about the potential for the cameras to be used in a variety of projects and research, participants kept their cameras for future use, and one participant subsequently ordered a number of ProbeTool shields to build TaskCams for his own projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Design 3.0 Forum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Professor Bill Gaver joined an international panel to discuss speculation, research, and design inquiry, with reference to work done on the projects SUSTAINABILITY INVENTION AND ENERGY DEMAND REDUCTION: CO-DESIGNING COMMUNITIES AND PRACTICE and ProbeTools: Digital Devices for User Research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Design Products Lecture, RCA 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited lecture on studio research (including project work) given to postgraduate MA and PhD students in the Design Products course (with others attending) at the Royal College of Art.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Diversity in Objects and Outcomes Workshop (CHI 2016, San Jose, California, ) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Participation in this workshop was via invite following peer review of position paper - Probe Tool Cam: A Work in Progress Research Prototype. Several of the team working on the Probe Tools Project participated in the workshop and were available to discuss the work and its implications.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Exhibition - ProbeTools at the Ace Hotel 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The ProbeTools exhibition at the Ace Hotel launched during London Tech Week 2018 with a week-long research project, showcasing the ProbeTools and an exhibition in the lobby bar and gallery space that ran from June - August 2019. Over 10,000 people viewed the exhibition which led to further interest in the project, participation in workshops, and exposure to an international audience from a range of fields including tech, media and design.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Interact'15 keynote (Bamberg) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited keynote to a major interaction conference that draws a good proportion of professional practitioners as well as postgraduate students and academic researchers. The purpose was to advocate a methodology for practice-based design research as well as the ludic approach to designing technologies. Audience reaction strongly indicated increased interest in both areas, and approaches were made for future collaboration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Interaction Research Studio: Invited Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A talk about the work of the Interaction Research Studio, featuring prototypes designed and made for the Probe Tools project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Keynote address to Beyond the Screen (City University, London) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Gaver delivered a keynote address to Beyond the Screen, an annual open day event hosted by City University's Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design expected to attract over 200 UX professionals and digital start-up entrepreneurs as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students and faculty. The talk outlined a design-led approach to technology research, sparked questions and discussions including inquiries about future collaboration and coverage on social media.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.city.ac.uk/news/2018/april/beyond-the-screen
 
Description Lecture (Hong Kong) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Lecture on studio methods and projects to a largely postgraduate research student audience. Organisers comments later indicated increased interest in our approaches.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Lecture Stockholm University (Stockholm) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Lecture on studio methods and projects to postgraduate taught and research students at Stockholm University. The organiser reported increased interest and uptake of our approach.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Overview of Interaction Research Studio projects 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact An overview of the work of the Interaction Research Studio, by Bill Gaver and Andy Boucher, including the work done on Co-Designing Communities and Probe Tools projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Probe Tools Exhibit: V&A Digital Design Weekend 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact During the Digital Design Weekend 2019 the studio was invited to exhibit work from the Probe Tools project at the V&A London, and conducted a ProbeTools Study exploring identity in contemporary Britain. A series of TaskCams were loaned to a range of exhibition visitors asking 13 questions pertinent to "Heritage and Identity in the Digital Age". and conducted a ProbeTools Study exploring identity in contemporary Britain. The cameras were later returned to the studio and the results published online and through social media. The event engaged a large number of people, from commercial designers to academic researchers, students and members of the general public, with the project, leading to many discussions and requests for further information.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://probetools.net/study
 
Description ProbeTool Camera Version 2 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Bill Gaver and Andy Boucher led a workshop where researchers and practitioners came together to explore the objects they have designed and produced and discussed the process and practices of research through design and linked these closely with material outcomes, using prototypes from the Probe Tools project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description RtD keynote panel (Cambridge) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Participated in panel with two other speakers on Research Through Design and related topics. The event was held at Microsoft Research Laboratory and engaged a mix of industry staff, professional practitioners and academic researchers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Seminar (Eindhoven) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Lecture given in association with a public viva to a mixture of postgraduate research students, staff, and general public members. Focused on methodological approach as well as recent projects. Indications of increased interest and acceptance of our approach.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Situated Efficacy symposium (Geneva) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Patients, carers and/or patient groups
Results and Impact Lecture on design-led social research methods to a group of carers, third party organisations and researchers investigating the emergence of a new prophylactic treatment against HIV infection. Organisers reported increased interest in engaging with such approaches in clinical settings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description TaskCam Demonstration - CHI 2018: Montreal 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A demonstration of the TaskCams at the main CHI demonstration session, attended by the majority of conference attendees. Sparked a lot of questions, discussions, and interest in future participation in the project. Many people took leaflets that pointed them to the project website and engaged further through this avenue, which resulted in sales of bespoke arduino shields designed as part of the project and used to make the cameras.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://probetools.net/
 
Description Workshop: ProbeTool Cam: A Work in Progress Research Prototype 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The Object Outcomes workshop was presented by team members as a work in progress artefact created as part of the ProbeTools design research project as a design and midway through it's development cycle, allowing those present at the workshop the opportunity to discuss design details still under consideration. Participants reported wanting to use the ProbeTools in future projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016