This post by Dale was originally published on LangMoment, an online materials review page for teachers of English. The site promotes language-learning materials in the digital age, helping teachers find their favourite materials easily and conveniently from their desktops or mobile devices. It is reposted here with the kind permission of Dale himself. 

What is a Cultural Probe?

It is a user-research method which focuses on connecting with the lives, values and beliefs of a demographic with whom contact is limited. An interesting concept for ELT writers. A challenge like this presents itself, for instance in the design and writing of materials for an audience we either have limited (2 hours per week perhaps?) or no contact with. Cultural probes are a way of collecting data on a specific demographic that will then inspire your writing and design process. In other words, you want to find out more about the people who might use your book. This tool is a means to that end.

Through-the-keyhole look into your students’ (users) lives.

cultural probe

Why might we probe?

In a recent survey conducted as research for the BESIG talk Mandy Welfare and I gave on starting out as an ELT writer, one of the answers to the sentence “writing your first ELT materials is like…”

“Walking through a misty valley. You know roughly which way to go, but not sure about the best path.”

How might we clear that mist? To borrow a concept from human-centred design programmes – user research and more specifically cultural probes. Granted, studies have widely documented that cultural probes fall short of the definitive answer, however, they do provide inspiration for our design process. When I started writing for the very first time, inspiration is what I needed. And lots of it.

What the heck is a probe?

For any of you who were at the BESIG conference or in our talk, you will know that we asked conference attendees to take a picture of their luggage. The pictures then went up on the wall around our room and participants in groups analysed the pictures. The guidelines were:

  1. What sort of things does this person need?
  2. What sort of emotions does this person have?
  3. What sort of things does this person value?
  4. Which tasks do their possessions fulfill for them?

This was a very scaled down version of what you might design a cultural probe to do. Have a select group of users complete a task or set of tasks that facilitate their self-reporting of information on their values, beliefs, emotions and needs.

That’s exactly what we did. 7 minutes later we had some basic assumptions on needs, emotions and values of international conference attendees in their experience of travelling.

That’s a summary of a mini-probe. The presentation we gave can be found here.  A snapshot of a probe to demonstrate the wealth of information you could find out about a person from something as small as a picture. A more detailed and elaborate cultural probe will include more activities and more time to complete.

Cultural Probes for ELT Writers

Probe contents:

  • a camera (disposable – best to keep it low tech).
  • a daily diary
  • a set of blank postcards

To be carried out with as many as you can find over a two-week period (7 people I usually find is enough for an insight). The participants could be students of yours or people you feel fit the target group of the materials you are designing.

Tasks for the probe

  1. Take 6-8 pictures of an important moment in your week. For example, a gathering with friends, a family meal, a trip somewhere, a Sunday afternoon walk. Write a story based on these pictures
  2. Keep a daily diary of your contact with English. Be sure to keep a record of the emotions you feel throughout the day.
  3. Write a postcard to yourself from the high and low points in your daily diary. Take a picture with the camera that represents those highs and lows to attach to the front of the postcard.

These tasks are ones I have designed as a probe into 30-45 year olds for a general English course. Adapt the tasks to your context and how it differs.

Next steps:

  • Brief participants in person and give detailed instructions on how to use the probe
  • Include instructions in the packets of activities you give
  • If possible, schedule a quick call after the first day to trouble-shoot any problems
  • Follow up the probes with 1-1 interviews to dig deeper into responses, test assumptions and find out some whys.


Downloadable resources

Daily Diary for a Cultural Probe


culture probe

Dale Coulter

Dale Coulter

Head of English. ELT materials development.

Dale Coulter has taught in a variety of teaching contexts for the past five years including general English, younger learners and Business English. He is now Head of English at TLC International House Zurich-Baden. He is also a highly experienced materials developer. He blogs at and co-founded LangMoment, an online materials review page for teachers of English.

Join our mailing list

Get new ELTjam posts & updates straight to your inbox.

You'll also get news on our events, training and webinars.

We won't share your data with anyone else, and you can unsubscribe at any time. Here's our privacy policy.

Powered by ConvertKit