research » Methods

Participant Photo Observation

At the beginning of the fieldwork, after formulating some guiding questions and setting up a preliminary observation plan, photo observations are conducted by the teams. As in ethnographic practice, the observations vary over time, from descriptive observations to focused observations, and might end up with selective observations. A continuous discussion and analysis of the daily practice of observation and the outcomes will help the teams to concentrate their focus and get a deeper insight in the respective areas of research.

The observer is intensively engaged in the »natural environment« of the people under observation and the people involved will, naturally, realise that they are being observed. This might cause problems where the people being observed regard the observations as suspicious or invasive – here cultural probes might be a better method of gaining insights. In any case, observers need to be aware that they influence the situation just by their mere presence. The second important point is to understand that there is no such thing as an objective observation. The time, the standpoint, the camera angle – everything influences the situation. The observer constructs a picture, rather than depicting a situation. This needs to be taken into consideration when analysing the pictures.

There are two types of photo observation that we distinguish between in our research practice:

The first type is a situative analysis of a specific situation (finding out how how people park their bikes, how people steer their vehicles at traffic jams or roadblocks, how people wait in specific situations, etc). For this type of observation, several different locations are chosen and each of these locations is observed for a longer period of time. For this type of analysis, a whole situation is taken into consideration (with reference to Christopher Alexander’s pattern language): we investigate and analyse ›micro-events‹, we investigate the context. We aim to find parts of organisational systems (like timetables, ticket machines, etc.) and analyse their relationships and meanings.

The other option is a specific observation of typologies and variations and of types of products (like cars, vehicles, etc). Here the teams are looking for a wide variety of manifestations, different workarounds by various people, ways in which people have changed existing designs to make them fit for their purposes, etc.

Both types of observations can influence the other – a situative analysis might reveal the importance of dealing with a specific type of product or dealing with interventions by the users. 

The visual outcome with the descriptions, interpretations and questions is published on this website in the respective items, where it can be interpreted and commented on by other parties.


Cultural Probes

Probes are qualitative methods, used to understand the behaviour of people (and their relationship / interaction with products and processes). In order to investigate topics that cannot be explored by participative observations, the people involved are recruited as informants or local representatives for Cultural Library. They are given a short briefing about what to focus on and are asked to make a photographic record of specific habits in their everyday life (other recording media such as diaries, dictaphones, etc. are also acceptable). In a next step, the photos are described by the local representatives. The descriptions are collected by a Cultural Library team member in an interview after the cameras are returned.

In the following step, the description is the basis for a discussion (unstructured interview) between a team member and the ›photo author‹ (the local representative). This interview is important, because it is always hard to capture everyday behaviour, as people always want to show their best sides and, quite often, the participants do not understand how the mundane practices of waiting, preparing, talking, driving, etc. could possibly be of interest to other people. The methods for conducting these interviews will be evaluated and improved in the future. The probes are published at the website, where they can be commented on by other parties.



The most important form of interviews are the semi-structured and ethnographic variety. The interviews complement the photo observations (or at least have a close relationship to them). Questions will arise from the analysis and description of the observations as local people explain the use, the background, the history and their rituals (and in so doing become informants – or local representatives – in the Cultural Library). This is an important cultural contextualisation. For the ethnographical interviews, the American ethnographer James Spradley (1934-1982) defined three types of questions: descriptive, structural and contrast questions. This classification will be used for the interviews. The interviews are also published on this website where they can be commented on by other parties.



Local people are observed or accompanied (shadowed) for a number of hours in their »natural« environment during specific ›actions‹ by a project team member. Shadowing is a non-participative observation and aims to understand how people react and interact in specific situations. In an analogous manner to the cultural probes, the people being shadowed are interviewed after the observation period (and in most cases, people feel themselves to be under observation and so change their behaviour accordingly).