Contextual Inquiry – Understanding your users in their environment

Contextual inquiry is a semi-structured field interview method conducted to obtain information about the context of use of any service or product. The participants are interviewed one at a time in their natural environment, while they perform their daily tasks to show how they use the product or service. As the users are interviewed in their own environments, the analysis data is more realistic.

Contextual inquiry is based on a set of principles that allow it to be molded to better suit different situations. This technique is generally used at the beginning of the design process and is good for getting rich data about work practices, technical and physical environments, user tools, pain-points, etc

Principles of Contextual Inquiry

  • Focus –
    Planning for the inquiry should be based on a clear understanding of the purpose, when carrying out a contextual inquiry interview, it’s very important to have a focus.
    A focus can be a assumption, that describes what you want to accomplish and how you plan to accomplish it. However, staying open to the possibility of broadening the focus during the session is important because you may observe something completely surprising or unexpected, or see something that seems to new or contradicting the previous action or comment from the participant.
  • Context –
    Go to the participant’s workplace and watching them perform the task related to the focus. Observing the context means watching users in their work environment, observing the actions they perform and understand the goals behind them. Context also includes the tool they use, and the communication, problems or assistance that takes place while carrying out their work.
  • Partnership –
    Talk to participant and build a relationship with them about their work and engage them so that they feel comfortable uncovering intricate aspects of their work.

    There are two types of partnerships that can be formed:
    – Active Observation :
    In an active partnership the participant and the interviewer form an master/apprentice relationship. In this approach the participants believe they are imparting knowledge or teaching the interviewer about the activity they are performing. This relationship helps the participant to feel more comfortable and uncover more details.
    – Passive Observation :
    In a passive observation, the interview silently observes the participant without interruption.
    This is normally used in situations where the user can’t be interrupted. In this method, the interviewer has to wait to ask questions about what you observed until later when asking won’t cause a distraction.
    The Active Observation method is the most common.

  • Interpretation –
    Develop a shared understanding with the customer about the aspects of work that matter. The observations have to be interpreted in a accurate way before you can understand their implications for your product. The interpretations also have to be clarified by the participant before the end of the session. Another benefit of reviewing the material at the end is that may help the participant to remember relevant information they might have left out before.

Advantages of Contextual Inquiry

  • Accurate Information –
    As the observation and Interview takes place in the user’s natural environment, the data and insights gathered are generally accurate and not based on assumptions.
  • Detailed –
    This kind of study usually produces highly detailed information as opposed to many other qualitative methods which produce more high-level information. It can also help reveal information on steps or activities that the participant might not be realizing that they perform.
  • Flexible –
    Contextual Inquiry can be conducted in any setting or environment. It could also be conducted while travelling and doesn’t need to the participant to be stationary. As the contextual inquiry is led by the participants, it can take the course the participant wants to give it making it flexible from their point of view.

Disadvantages of Contextual Inquiry

  • Time Consuming –
    As contextual inquiry is performed with one participant at a time, it can be quite time consuming. It is difficult to estimate the time required as participants are more in control of the flow so they decide how long or short the session would be.
  • Unfamiliarity –
    As most participants are not familiar with contextual inquiries and are more used to a standard user interview where the interviewer takes on a more active role and they just have to answer questions. It is possible that the participants may not be comfortable leading a session and taking on a more active role during the session.
  • Data Interpretation and proof –
    As it is a qualitative research method, to provide statistical proof this method must be backed up with data gathered from other methods. The data can then be interpreted to get a more clear and accurate picture of the findings.

Contextual inquiry is a very reliable method to get detailed information and every nuance of the user’s process and pain-points. As it is usually employed when we want to capture a process in its natural setting it increases the accuracy of the information. Conducting contextual inquiry helps the researcher observe and probe at the same time.
The method does take up a lot of time and resources so it shouldn’t be used in scenarios where simple shadowing exercise or regular user interviews can yield the desired results.