Research Brief: “Engineering Education Meets Human-Computer Interaction (HCI): Exploring How the Work on “Probes” can Guide the Design of Reflection Activities

By: Brook Sattler, PhD
CPREE multi-campus coordinator

In this paper, we bridge the gap between the fields of human-computer interaction (HCI) and engineering education by exploring the work on “probes.” Specifically, we explore how probes have the potential to support reflection.

“Probes are small collections of artifacts accompanied by open-ended questions and evocative tasks to which participants respond over time” (p. 1). Probes are artifacts that support people in thinking about something specific and provide designers/researchers with inspiration for design.

In this paper, we offer examples of various probes in the field of HCI, such as packets with postcards, maps, disposable cameras, photo albums, and a media diary. For example, in a foundation work on probes, Gaver and colleagues (1999) used these probes to ask the elderly various questions about their life. Initially, the probes were meant to provided the researchers with data, but it was noticed that the probes also provided the research participants with an opportunity to reflect:

“What we learned about the elders is only half the story, however. The other half is what the elders learned from the probes. They provoked the groups to think about the roles they play and the pleasures they experience, hinting to them that our designs might suggest new roles and experiences. In the end, the probes helped establish a conversation with the groups, one that has continued throughout the project.” (Gaver, Dunne, and Pacenti, 1999, p. 22)…(italics added for emphasis)

In bringing the work on probes to engineering education, our goal was to encourage the community to think more broadly about how we support reflection.


Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti, E. (1999). Cultural Probes, Interactions, January + February, 21-29.

Orand, M., Sattler, B., Turns, J. A., & Thomas, L. D. (2015). Engineering Education Meets Human–Computer Interaction (HCI): Exploring How the Work on “Probes” can Guide the Design of Reflection Activities. In Proceedings of the 2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition. Seattle, WA.