Cultural Probes were first used in the Presence Project – new media for elderly people, an experimental design-oriented user study in the EU-funded project lead by Bill Gaver. The word “probe” is associated with an automatic recording instrument sent out to capture signals and samples from places where human researchers cannot go. In the Presence project probe packs were designed to gather inspiration and information on local cultures, people, environments and their relationships.

Cultural Probes were used as part of the IMPRINTS research project, the main focus of our research is exploring public responses to future identity management practices and technologies, thus the questions we wanted answered by the cultural probes packs were What is it like to be you? and How do you experience the world? Regarding Identity Management.


The main demographic group targeted was professional women contacted through different women’s associations such as Geek Girl Scotland, women|AHEAD and the Association of University Women. The reason for this particular group is the set of very specific issues they may encounter while managing not just their own identities but some times the identities of people they are responsible for such as children, elderly parents, and sometimes work groups and colleagues.


Each participant received a pack of material to use over a ten-day period at which point they returned the material. The pack contains 5 items, namely:

Disposable Camera

A disposable camera was repackaged to separate it from its commercial origins and to integrate it with the other probe materials. On the back we listed requests for pictures, such as different TSP’s that they have used and still use for IM to identify or validate who they are. For this activity we gave the participants the option to use their mobile phones to take the pictures and send them to us by email.

World Map

The participants had 2 different colour stickers, one colour was used to pin point where they have been over the past year and the other where they would like to go in the near future. The main objective of the map was to encourage participants to think about their travel experiences. They also had the opportunity to tell us if the trips were work related or spent as holidays.

Diary, Pen & Stickers

Each pack contained a small diary and pen branded with the logo of the project, and thumbs up/down stickers, they were to record daily interactions with different TSPs of IM. What they use, how they use it, how often they use it. The stickers were used at the end of each interaction to tell us about their experience and give us a brief explanation on what they enjoyed, disliked or were indifferent to the experience and why.

Ticket to the Future

The packs had a simulated plane ticket that incorporated a recording device, where the participants recorded in 20 seconds, what they would like the future of identity management to be.

Experience Postcards

Five postcards with visual images of a range of different experiences not necessarily related to IM on the front and at the back there are open questions to give us an insight on how the participants feel. They were asked to respond in writing or with drawings. Areas covered included, travel experiences, online shopping, tattoos and implants, social media and mobile phones. Postcards are an attractive, enjoyable medium for asking questions because of their connotations, they evoke memories of holidays and good times shared with family and friends, they are informal and friendly, and the limited space somehow forces short answers that tend to get to the point.

Tote bags

The complete pack of all activities were contained in a tote bag branded with the logo of the project, each bag included a prepaid envelope to be returned upon completion to the research team, and as an incentive participants who returned their completed packs received a limited edition silk scarf with a QR code that could direct people to the project website.

Some Results

Some of the experiences were clearly reported as positive, enjoyable forms of IM while some others are perceived within a negative context. The possibility of managing their identities ‘on the go’ through the use of mobile devices such as mobile phones and tablets was a positive one.

Online shopping was surprisingly reported as negative when related to IM. The experience of shopping per se is found pleasurable but it changes when it is time to check out the items or services selected. This is linked to what was mentioned before about online identities, paying usually involves having to create a new ID or user name, select a password and then validate everything again giving credit/debit card details and personal information such as address, telephone number, etc. Sometimes it also involves waiting for a welcome email to validate the new ID and it is all this process that is reported to make the online shopping experience a negative one.

Tattoos and implants were reported to be a borderline experience; our participants do not like the idea of any of them as an ID form although they would consider it as a possibility for security and health issues.

Traveling in general terms was reported in a similar way as shopping, there is a perceived sense of security in having to prove so many times they are who they say they are; however the general experience is a negative one.

Loyalty card schemes and mobile phones are mostly seen in a favourable light, this may be thanks to a sense of control on both cases where the process of identification is seen as convenient and rewarding in terms of saving time and or direct benefits.

Experiences reported related to IM interactions







  • Sense of security.
  • Too time consuming and repetitive.

  • The shopping experience is convenient but not pleasurable.
  • Perceived direct benefit.
  • Allows you control over your info.
  • Makes you feel special.
  • Annoying.
  • Time consuming.
  • Frustrating.
  • Hard to remember.
  • Forced to have too many.
  • Mostly rejected, the exception being when holding medical information.
  • Mobile phones provide a sense of security, of being unobtrusive & convenient.
  • Mostly rejected, the exception being when holding medical information.
  • Mobile phones provide a sense of security, of being unobtrusive & convenient.