Grace Fields thesis recap: Using Cultural Probes to Understand Hikers

Grace Fields, our grad assistant who spearheaded the early Technology on the Trail initiative—most notably the workshop—successfully defended her Master’s thesis on August 21, 2017!  Her thesis was titled “Technology on the Trail: Using Cultural Probes to Understand Hikers”.  Steve Harrison served as chair, and Aisling Kelliher and I were the other committee members.

Gracie employed a cultural probe method toward seeking to understand how hikers collect and share their experiences on the trail.  Bill Gaver and his colleagues introduced the notion of a cultural probe as a way to encourage participants to think in an open-ended, creative manner about their experiences.  Rather than giving them nicely printed questions on a sheet of paper, a cultural probe provides them with things like photo albums, a media diary, maps, a camera, and similar artifacts that are then paired with non-traditional prompts that encourage creative reflection.  Results of a cultural probe then can Cultural probes are not meant to yield repeatable, scientifically-grounded findings, but rather to uncover unique perspectives about the way that

Gracie crafted probes that challenged her participants to reflect on or re-imagine their hiking experiences using several prompts (see the picture at the bottom of this post).  Some of her probe prompts include “would you rather” questions that ask participants to choose between two options (e.g., would you rather have a photo you took go viral, or have a photo with you in it go viral), inventing activities for a reflective hike club (with membership size, activities, outcomes), and creating themed scrapbook pages (e.g., people you miss when on long hikes, telling your hiking story).  We learned a lot from the cultural probe, perhaps most importantly about how to run a cultural probe!

Gracie’s cultural probes probed a handful of people that she (or I) knew well, who were willing to take part in the probe activities with minimal compensation.  The results were sufficiently promising that we are seeking funding for a larger-scale investigation, seeking to understand the breadth of people on the trail and the many motivations that they have for their trail activities.  We expect that, by showcasing Gracie’s early results and providing monetary compensation, we will be able to create a rich and diverse picture that reflects current and desired ways that people reflect about trails.

Gracie’s thesis is now available online, and a fellow student, Navya Kondur, crafted her own investigation and analysis focused on one aspect of Gracie’s cultural probes.

Sample materials included in Gracie’s probe kits (detailed from Gracie’s thesis document)

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