M.A. Strategic Design − Research

Cultural Probes – a method to master your field research skills

First encounter of the 2nd semester students with Cultural Probes, a creative and powerful design research methodology.

Cultural Probes is a research method designed with the purpose of identifying intimate experiences and gathering valuable information such as insights, data, emotions, and reactions. A great advantage of this method is the ease to explore difficult and personal environments and topics e.g. hospitals. The students had to create a set of research tasks for the user to conduct in a playful way. Those tasks can take the form of filling in a notebook, a diary, a map, even a camera to record specific events, feelings or interactions. The cultural probe packs were delivered to a handful well recruited participants and collected after about a week.

The challenge for the students was finding the right questions, activities, elements, analogies and path of navigation in order to get substantial information to probe their hypothesis. Likewise finding extreme users was key to the success of the method. The students very much enjoyed the fact that their creative design skills came into play and that they experienced how design can create extra value even during field research.

Within the overall topic of "Travelling" the master students found different subtopics to explore: food experiences, the packing moment, unexpected situations, language barrier and accommodation.

Every student formulated a hypothesis with the following extreme assumptions to be challenged and explored in the Cultural Probe. Here are some examples:
• Budget–friendly accommodation results in bad experiences.
• While traveling, changing food habits can turn into a bad experience.
• Young travellers adapt to unexpected events happening during travel.
• Having tight limits while packing makes the travelling experience a lot more stressful.
• Gestures/Visual language could replace spoken or written language while travelling.
The students created a first sample of the Cultural Probe Set that could be tested with guest students from Hogeschool van Amsterdam. In a co-creation session the students received feedback in order to iterate and finalise their Cultural Probes.

After some iterations the Cultural Probes were produced and given to well selected participants. The rich data collected from the probes was clustered and synthesised. The insights gained provided a starting point to tackle needs and desires in the field of travelling, ultimately finding a conclusion regarding the initial hypothesis. For example, the hypothesis “Having tight limits while packing makes the travelling experience a lot more stressful.” led to the following strategic recommendation: “Kill the packing: No one wants do deal with their luggage, not even when packing it. Could the packing moment be completely avoided? Let’s design a service that replaces completely the key reasons behind packing a small size luggage, like having clean clothes and basic objects while travelling. ”

The research method Cultural Probes allowed the students to set some unexpected strategic recommendations for future research. These are also inspiring starting points for ideation, potentially leading to unconventional user centred innovations.

Prof. Julia Leihener,
M.A. Strategic Design students:
Mariam Jajja, Rüya Arslan, Alejandra Aguacía, Valentina Sanfilippo, Nikita Tatiya, Yara Suki, Nico Lim.


The international programme ‘Master of Arts Strategic Design’ is a full-time, two year programme. It is designed to challenge students with a design background in order to prepare them for a life as design professionals in a complex and ever transforming world.

Are you interested in studying M.A. Strategic Design at the design akademie berlin?
Our team for prospective students is available to answer your questions. You can also arrange a personal advice appointment.


Jana Wilkens
Study Guide
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