Open Access Open Badges Correspondence

Designing assisted living technologies ‘in the wild’: preliminary experiences with cultural probe methodology

Joseph Wherton1*, Paul Sugarhood2, Rob Procter3, Mark Rouncefield4, Guy Dewsbury5, Sue Hinder1 and Trisha Greenhalgh1

Author affiliations

1 Centre for Primary Care and Public Health, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, London, UK

2 Newham University Hospital, Barts Health NHS Trust, London, UK

3 Manchester e-Research Centre, Arthur Lewis Building, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

4 Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

5 gdewsbury,

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Citation and License

BMC Medical Research Methodology 2012, 12:188  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-12-188

Published: 20 December 2012



There is growing interest in assisted living technologies to support independence at home. Such technologies should ideally be designed ‘in the wild’ i.e. taking account of how real people live in real homes and communities. The ATHENE (Assistive Technologies for Healthy Living in Elders: Needs Assessment by Ethnography) project seeks to illuminate the living needs of older people and facilitate the co-production with older people of technologies and services. This paper describes the development of a cultural probe tool produced as part of the ATHENE project and how it was used to support home visit interviews with elders with a range of ethnic and social backgrounds, family circumstances, health conditions and assisted living needs.


Thirty one people aged 60 to 98 were visited in their homes on three occasions. Following an initial interview, participants were given a set of cultural probe materials, including a digital camera and the ‘Home and Life Scrapbook’ to complete in their own time for one week. Activities within the Home and Life Scrapbook included maps (indicating their relationships to people, places and objects), lists (e.g. likes, dislikes, things they were concerned about, things they were comfortable with), wishes (things they wanted to change or improve), body outline (indicating symptoms or impairments), home plan (room layouts of their homes to indicate spaces and objects used) and a diary. After one week, the researcher and participant reviewed any digital photos taken and the content of the Home and Life Scrapbook as part of the home visit interview.


The cultural probe facilitated collection of visual, narrative and material data by older people, and appeared to generate high levels of engagement from some participants. However, others used the probe minimally or not at all for various reasons including limited literacy, physical problems (e.g. holding a pen), lack of time or energy, limited emotional or psychological resources, life events, and acute illness. Discussions between researchers and participants about the materials collected (and sometimes about what had prevented them completing the tasks) helped elicit further information relevant to assisted living technology design. The probe materials were particularly helpful when having conversations with non-English speaking participants through an interpreter.


Cultural probe methods can help build a rich picture of the lives and experiences of older people to facilitate the co-production of assisted living technologies. But their application may be constrained by the participant’s physical, mental and emotional capacity. They are most effective when used as a tool to facilitate communication and development of a deeper understanding of older people’s needs.

Qualitative research; Cultural probes; Assistive technology; Ethnography