VT Support Probe Kit


By: Ransom, Victoria, Marcus, Sean

Selected Community

We selected the custodial service at Virginia Tech because we see them around campus and the product of their work but never extensively interact with them.


Overall Presentation of Kit

The kit is a box wrapped in a friendly color and labeled as Probe Kit. Upon opening the kit, the user immediately sees an instruction sheet. The instruction sheet tells them that each day they will be opening an enclosed envelope labeled by the day of the week and each envelope will contain instructions. When they remove the instruction sheet they will see a stack of small labeled envelopes and a digital camera resting on tissue paper. Each envelope will contain a photo prompt which they will respond to with as few or as many photos as they would like, as well as a daily short answer prompt. The first envelope also prompts them to take a questionnaire which asks about their personal and job life. On the last day the envelope will prompt them write a letter to their past or future self.  The exact prompts and questionnaire are in the appendix.


We decided that a week long trial with the probe kit would be ideal, as we want to capture both the week and weekend of the VT Cleaning Staff. We also realized that we would need a day to process kits between user trials. Therefore the first week of trials will go Monday to Monday, the next week of trials will go Tuesday to Tuesday, etc. In order to reduce work for the VT Cleaning Staff, we decided to use a common cleaning supplies storage area as our distribution point. We will incentivise individuals to use the probe kit by providing a monetary reward for those who pick it up and return it in a week.

Reasoning for Kit

  1. Digital Camera
    1. Cleaning staff should carry camera on them at work to document things. A disposable camera is larger than a digital camera.
    2. Collecting SD Cards is more efficient than developing film and scanning it
    3. We picked a robust and cheap digital camera. It can be dropped in water and still be safe. This is good because the VT Cleaning Staff often works with buckets of water (so the risk of dropping the camera is present)
  2. Index Cards
    1. Small, so it’s easier to carry prompt for when you have downtime, such as on break or on the bus
    2. Normal sized paper has a strong scholastic connotation. We do not want this to feel like school because the VT cleaning staff is either in school, consciously chose to go to school or cannot go to school due to other obligations. Reminding the latter two groups of school will likely cause negative feelings
  3. Small envelopes
    1. These fit the index cards well.
    2. It also doesn’t have a connotation of unpleasant things that come in normal sized envelopes, like bills. The VT Cleaning Staff is a subset of a demographic that has to worry about bills (so the negative connotation will be there). Things such as birthday cards or holiday cards come in small envelopes.. Therefore the envelopes are already friendly and inviting to be opened
    3. Labeled with days of the week so minimal effort is needed when deducing which envelope to pick for the day
  4. Letter to past or future
    1. The letter allows us to see how the VT Cleaning Staff reflects
    2. The option to pick the past or future gives open endness
      1. This prevents the VT Cleaning Staff from reflecting on things they’d rather not think about if necessary
        1. i.e. if they do not enjoy their job and do not wish to reflect on past circumstances that led them to their job, there is no pressure to reflect on the past
  5. Instructions
    1. For pretty much any demographic, instructions allow a stress free experience in figuring out how to use the box
  6. Questionnaire
    1. Our current known demographic is “VT Cleaning Staff”. It would be interesting to see how responses vary among age, gender, marital status, etc.
  7. Small colorful box
    1. We only have one color because we do not want to control for the color of the box during our analysis
    2. The color is blue, which is gender neutral
    3. Blue is also a calming color, which will create help a calm frame of mind
    4. The box is small and closes so that it is easy to transport and store
    5. Colorful boxes have pleasant connotations, such as birthday or holiday gift



(Contents of Kit)


  1. Personal Questions
    1. Name?Age?Gender?
    2. Are you currently married?
    3. Do you have children? If yes, how many?
    4. How many children still live at home with you?
  2. Job Related Questions
    1. How long have you worked for Virginia Tech?
    2. Including this one, how many places are you currently employed?
    3. What is your yearly income (optional)?
  3. History
    1. What is the highest level of education you have completed?
      1. Some high school, high school, some college, college?
    2. Where did you work prior to VT Cleaning? (not including current employers; 3 places max)
      1. Reason for leaving?
    3. Have you ever lived outside of Virginia?
    4. Have you ever lived outside of the country?

Photo Prompts

Take pictures of:

  1. Monday: The places you go.
  2. Tuesday: Your friends and/or coworkers
  3. Wednesday: The positive parts of your day
  4. Thursday: The negative parts of your day
  5. Friday: Your family and loved ones
  6. Saturday: What you did for yourself
  7. Sunday: Things that are important to you (people, places, things, etc.)

Many to no photos are acceptable.

Index Card Questions 

The index cards are meant for the end of each day as a reflection tool. Some will correspond with the picture questions for that day,

  1. What is your daily routine on a work day? (Monday)
  2. What profession would you choose if you could pick any job? (Tuesday)
  3. Why did you choose to take the photos you did today? (Wednesday)
  4.  Why did you choose to take the photos you did today? (Thursday)
  5. How are your family or loved ones important to you? (Friday)
  6. What are some of your hobbies and interests? (Saturday)
  7. What have these photos over the past week shown you? (Sunday)



Personal Reflections


Cultural probe kits present a creative and effective way to engage and study a community without necessarily having to enter it. We began our design process by collectively discussing communities we would be interested in understanding better. We decided very quickly in unison on the Virginia Tech custodial staff. Our reasoning for this was because of both the practicality of it as well as the proximity of the community to our lives. These are people we’ve all been exposed to but know little about and we believe it is important for us to be able to understand the ways we may be able to help the people who are constantly helping us. A cultural probe kit is easily applied to this community we are surrounded by and presents an exciting way, both for the participants and the researchers, to contribute to understanding the needs of the community.


In retrospect, I would have liked to have more specifically targeted our cultural target. That is to say, I believe we could have come up with questions and tasks that are especially relevant to Virginia Tech and its employees. I feel that our current probe kit is perhaps too generalized and could be applied to any community. I believe this is a result of the rush to establish a basis for our project and get content without necessarily having time to look back and ensure we don’t lose sight of our original objective. Additionally, I am concerned by the potential for bias to be introduced via the enjoyment that may be created by the probe kit as well as a bias created simply by the volunteers who may be more likely to tend towards a certain personality type.


The place I believe our probe kit particularly excels is our balance of breadth of data collection and ease of use. I believe people will be excited to take photos and most people generally enjoy writing about themselves. This gives us a lot of data very inexpensively and provides an enjoyable experience to participants.



A unique feature of this project was how open-ended it was. Cultural probes can be directed towards any anthropological group, no matter how specific, and can contain any objects and/or instructions. There are essentially infinite combinations. Even once we completed this project I found myself thinking of the different cultures that we could work with and learn from via probe kits.


We started by brainstorming groups and when Marcus suggested the VT Cleaning Crew my interest was piqued. I realized that we coexist with this culture yet don’t know much about it. I enjoyed designing a cultural probe for this group because of how close they are to our everyday lives and perhaps we could work with them to better lives here in Blacksburg.


One weakness of our kit is that there is still a level of intrusivity and “chore like feel” with answering the note cards and questionnaires. We don’t want the probe kit to feel like work; in fact it feeling like work might even negatively cloud the responses. Another weakness is that the probe kit requires individuals to carry around a camera in order to take photographs. Carrying a camera could be intrusive and maybe even get in the way of daily activities. We tried to mitigate this by picking a small, digital, waterproof camera. A strength of our kit is that the daily envelopes have a personal feel; they are the same size as holiday cards or invitations and have handwritten labels. The kit is also presented in a gift-like format, with it being a small cheerfully colored box with a digital camera resting on tissue paper and small envelopes inside. These design choices should bring up pleasant associations which will draw individuals towards using the probe kit.


Last semester, in Human Computer Interaction, we learned about ethnographic studies, which is where the researcher assumes the point of view of the subject of the study. Since we leave the probe kit with the subjects themselves and ask them to record parts of their lives, it seems like the probe kit is assuming the role of an inhuman ethnographer. This allows us to do ethnographics studies quickly and among many individuals in a group. However, probe designers cannot design the most engaging and unbiased probe system possible for a certain group because they themselves are often very unfamiliar with the group.



I really appreciated the idea behind this project. It really made me think about the many communities that I know little to nothing about even though I see these people on a regular basis. This idea is what made us choose the VT Cleaning Staff as our community because they are people we’ve seen hundreds of times but we’ve never interacted with them in any way. We wanted our process to reflect what members of the cleaning staff do everyday and find out how their job affects their everyday lives. Our kit is pretty small which is great because we wanted it to be portable so the kit can be used by a different person each week. The kit also contains everything the user will need to fulfil each task the instructions instruct the user to do. A downside to our kit is that it does not contain any dividers to organize the material in it and since there are a lot of pieces to the kit, things could get mixed up. Another problem is that there is no way to tell which photo was taken on what day so for the process to work we rely on the user including the note card with the task of the day in the photo. Putting the note card in the photo in a way that can be readable may take away from the quality of some photos.



The hardest part to this project was having to decide which community would be our target audience, and combining it with how we could effectively find out more about their culture. Once we decide on our target community we had to develop methods of reaching our target audience, which turned out to be reflective tools that help us look at their life style and how it may affect them as people.  The cultural probing process can be a very useful tool that can highlight possible problems in certain cultures as well as solutions. A negative to our kit is that it might be not overly incentive to do and might be a burden to some which may cause people not to want to put 100% into this. In order to fix this I think having more time to help think of how to connect the kit more specifically to our target audience so that we could receive better results as well as make it more user friendly so it seems less of a burden.


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