Oct 24, 2018

Probing casual encounters


n order To get a glimpse on people's feelings, I've created a cultural probe to investigate, during the interval of a month, how feelings of being lonely take part on people's lives.

Cultural probe 

A Cultural probe is a self-reporting document, like a diary. Users interact with it for a period of time. It gives people the opportunity to think deeply about their answers while also allowing elapsed time to be of influence in the self-reported data.

Its not rare I prefer to start my ethnographic studies with a cultural probe, in my experience, it provides a richer perspective that is super useful in preparing for user interviews and other research sprints. Plus, it runs in parallel to the project agenda not requiring you to be on the field to collect responses daily. This is even more true if you automate it like I did. I'm also explaining the automation below.

User questions: 

Period: 30 days.


- Describe encounters or casual conversations you had today (don’t forget to mention where the conversations took place).
- Describe the emotional impact these conversations had on you and your day. 
- As you go to bed, from zero to ten, how lonely are you feeling? 


- Social spaces are areas like co-working spaces, coffee shops, the gym, libraries, main atrium of buildings, a plaza on a mall etc. Write down social spaces where you spent time on this week. 
- For each space, log, briefly, your social experience there. (Did you talk to other users of the space? Did you kept it to yourself while there? How the experience made you feel)

Recruiting screening and compensation

For the cultural probe I’ve focused on Generation Z and Millennials.  Each participant interacted with the probe for a month. Each participant received a 80 dollars Amazon gift card for their participation on the research. 

Probe deployment automation

I’m a big fan of beautiful diaries, during my time at Livework back in the days we used to even over do it a bit. When it comes to designing the user diaries there is a direct correlation between the craftsmanship of the diary and the quality of the user responses. There really is. However, for this project, I wanted to keep it lean and fast, so I choose an automated deployment setting. 

For this research I’ve used the following stack: ConvertKit, SMS messages (Zapier), Google Sheets, Survey Monkey, and Zapier for workflow.

- Zapier

This is the tool I’ve used to automate all the workflows and integrations described below. 

- ConvertKit

ConvertKit is a very useful email workflow platform. I’ve used it to send participants two emails every day. The emails were designed to stimulate the participants to think about the day up to that point and enhance the quality of their probe responses. 

- SMS (Zapier)

Users received an SMS every day at 7 pm containing a link to the Survey Monkey data collector, they used to self-report. 

- Google Sheets

I’ve used a simple sheet on Google sheets with one row for every step described here and a column to verify the step was completed. I’ve then automated the sheet with Zapier, so every time a user received one of the research-related emails, a sms, answered the daily questions etc, the respective row on the sheet would be market as completed. This took literally a lot of the weight off my back and made it easier to follow up with the users that were lagging behind on answering the daily questions.

- Survey Monkey

Used for the collection of the user responses. I think this was a bit of an overkill as Survey Monkey is super expensive, but I already had a paid subscription and I am accostumed with the tool. 

The responses are confidential material, however in order to give a general idea of the positive impact this Cultural Probe had, I will summarize some of the key insights gathered from the self-reports. 

Key Findings:

People that interacted the most with others reported being less lonely.

This finding confirms the finding reported on the Lonelines Index.

Short interactions, like a casual water-cooler chat and longer interactions like a lunch with a friend, both had positive effects.

The level of intimacy in the interaction played a role in the impact on the feelings of loneliness. But people having shorter interactions reported being less lonely by the end of the day than people with fewer interactions.

People often visit social spaces.  

Some users reported working from social spaces everyday. Other users reported visiting social spaces at least once per day. No user reported having less than a weekly interaction with a social space.

People reported they feel connected to the social space they often go.   

The way they write about the social space they often go, giving the spaces human attributes like calm, not judgemental, cool, laid back, suggest there is an anthropomorphic relationship between these places and its visitors.

Social spaces people feel connected to validate or accredit interaction with strangers. 

People reported they are more willing to interact with strangers while in the social spaces they trust and feel connected to, than interacting with strangers on the streets, commuting or at public spaces. 

Social spaces are context providers. 

One user reported to have had a great casual conversation with a neighbor she often sees in her building but never had the right context to have a conversation with. 

Social spaces fall short in fostering direct interactions.

Some users reported that they would like to see the social spaces they often go having a more prominent role in introducing them to other people. The people raising this issue were referring to social spaces like coffee shops, co-working spaces and college campuses.


For friendship we need something that is location sensitive. Something that operates on a physical location where both parts are present.

The most popular dating Apps focus on proximity and they expand their radius as much as users allow them to, to show inventory. This works better for dating, as people are willing to cover a wider area to hookup. However, when it comes to first-acquaintance and casual conversations, or the pursuit of a new friendship, will people behave the same? Would them drive for miles to make a new friend? My hypothesis is that most people won't.

The solution needs to leverage on the trust and context social spaces already provide to users.

People reported they feel safer when talking with strangers at the social spaces they often go. Some reported the space, being a common choice, gives them the impression they have something in common with other people going to the same space. Can the space works like a friend matchmaker? Some sort of "wingman" but that sets people up with good friend prospects? My hypothesis is that the place can play wingman, nudge a bit the connection, and that this will be acceptable and desirable by users.