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What is a contextual inquiry, and how do you run one?

PostsDesign & UX
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

August 11, 2021

Empathy is a key part of design thinking. And when it comes to really stepping into the user’s shoes, there’s no substitute for watching something being used by a real person in their natural environment.

This is what contextual inquiry is all about. But for those new to the term, caution ahead: It’s not to be confused with another very important research method: user interviews.

In this article, we’ll run through the differences. We’ll then give you tips on how to conduct your own contextual inquiry. Let’s get started!

Contextual inquiry vs. contextual interview vs. user interview: What’s the difference?

Three important research methods with similar-sounding names. So what’s the difference? Let us explain.

Contextual inquiry

A contextual inquiry involves observing people in their natural context and asking them questions so you can learn more about what they’re doing and why. So say, for example, you want to create a streamlined university dining hall. You’d spend a day on-site, observing students and kitchen staff in action to learn more about how they use their environment.

Contextual interview

A contextual interview is the same thing as a contextual inquiry.

User interview

A user interview is something a designer or UX researcher does before they create the product. It involves talking to the user (or someone who represents a group of users) about what they need from the product and how they anticipate using it. It’s a key part of user-centered design.

The purpose of a contextual inquiry:

  • Observing
  • Documenting
  • Inquiring

Why bother to go to the trouble of observing the person in situ? Well, think about the last time you used an app to purchase something. Chances are you won’t remember every little thing you did or what you thought at each stage of the purchasing process.

Observing people in action gives researchers the opportunity to see things even the user themselves might miss. For this reason, there really is no substitute.

The four principles of contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry is built on four guiding principles.

1. Context

The interview needs to be taken in the context of use — usually the workplace or at home. They can happen face-to-face or be done over the internet (something that’s become increasingly common as Covid has forced us to socially distance). Essentially, the user uses the product while the researcher observes, takes notes, and talks to the user about what’s happening during the session.

2. Partnership

The user and the researcher need to work together. This means making sure that both parties know what’s expected of them and why. There will be lots of discussion and questioning, so it’s important both can communicate effectively with the other.

3. Mutual interpretation

The researcher will tell the user what their thoughts and conclusions are throughout the interview. This gives the user the opportunity to share their own conclusions and expand or correct the researcher’s analysis.

4. Focus

You should keep distractions to a minimum so both parties can focus on the task at hand. It’s also important that the researcher’s questions are clear and focused to get the best answers. This includes making sure the tasks the researcher asks the user to perform stick to the project brief and provide the right data that the team can then use to develop the product.

How to structure a contextual interview

A contextual inquiry has three stages. Here’s what each of these entails:

1. The introduction

This is where the researcher and user get to know each other. After the personal introductions, the researcher will clearly explain what’s going to happen in the session. They’ll talk about the purpose of the research, address any concerns, and answer questions. They will also share information about data, privacy, and confidentiality and explain what will happen to things like videos or recordings post-interview.

2. The inquiry

This is when the interview begins. The researcher will carry it out as explained in the introduction, asking lots of questions along the way.

3. The wrap-up

After the interview has come to an end, the researcher will run through their observations and conclusions, giving the user the opportunity to expand upon points or clear up any misinterpretations.

The advantages of contextual interviewing

  • Real-world observations give the design team deeper, more accurate insight into how their product will be used
  • Watching something being used reveals insights the user themselves might not be aware of
  • Data collected is detailed and accurate
  • This method of data collection is highly flexible

The disadvantages of contextual inquiry

  • Contextual inquiry can be time-intensive: The researcher has to visit the user, wherever they may be. They also need to conduct the interview, which takes time. For this reason, it can also be a more expensive form of research.
  • Qualitative research deals with one person at a time, meaning you’ll probably need to combine it with other forms of data collection to get a statistically significant result. Drawing all your conclusions from one or two subjects could yield untrustworthy results.

Contextual inquiry best practice, tips, and tricks

Here are some tips for getting the most out of your interview session.

1. Record

Taking down notes is time-consuming, and it’s easy to fall behind or miss something. Recording the session (video if possible) means you’ll not miss anything, and you can play it back to those who couldn’t make it to the session.

Before you record, make sure you ask the user’s permission, including establishing whether the interview can be recorded in its entirety or whether some parts can’t be. It’s also important to make sure the user knows how they can access any data, who will see or hear the video, and what will happen to it after the research is complete.

2. Take notes

Take notes whether you record the session or not. It’s likely you’ll have ideas as you watch the user in action, so you need to get these down to refer back to later. Alongside general observations, be sure to jot down any useful quotes or comments.

3. Make sketches

You could also add sketches to your notes to annotate things that are and aren’t working, or as a conceptual model for the way things could look. This will help you make better suggestions for improvement later on. Wireframes can be easily scribbled down with pen and paper, then quickly mocked up later via a diagramming tool.

Top Tip: Keep your sketches broad. Go too detailed, and you’ll cramp your imagination or be overly prescriptive when sharing your findings with the design team. You don’t want to jump on your conclusions before the interview data has been thoroughly analyzed.

4. Take photos

Photos are still worthwhile, even if you’re recording a video. They’re quick, clear, and a speedy way to record what’s happening. Use them to hone in on specific parts of the process, then combine photos with notes to give you and the rest of the team a strong sense of place, focus, and what you observed.

The more you can zoom on on the details, the easier it’ll be for people not in attendance to understand the problem.

5. Prepare your questions ahead of time

You get better answers when you ask the right questions — so put some thought into this before you go into the interview. Your core questions should be designed to encourage the user to share information that will help you improve the service or product.

Having pre-prepared questions also ensures consistency: If you play it by ear, the chances of you asking interviewees slightly different questions is very high. This doesn’t mean you can’t ask additional ad-hoc questions when you’re in the interview — and your follow-up questions will vary per person because each interview will yield slightly different results — but it does mean your core questions are uniform.

Top Tip: Run your questions past others on the team to make sure you haven’t missed anything important and that they all make sense.

6. Split the inquiry up into stages if necessary

You don’t have to do observation and inquiry in one go. Often, doing observation first without asking questions can help you understand the problem at hand a little better — which in turn can help guide you when it’s time to write the questions. By observing first, you can make sure your questions for the inquiry phase cover everything that needs to be researched.

Final thoughts

Contextual interviewing gives deep insight into how a user interacts with a product. As a form of qualitative research, it really is one of the most insightful and revealing options available. But it’s also time-consuming and more costly than other methods — so it’s important to get it right.

Plan ahead, take down as much data as you can via notes, sketches, and video — and present your notes back to the wider team in a way that’s easy for them to get straight to the heart of the issue.

Uploading notes via Google docs is a good way to share text and images. If you work in software design and need to share wireframes and sketches, then a diagramming tool like Cacoo can make the whole process that little bit more collaborative.

Simply mock up your sketches post-interview, then share the access link with the wider team. And because Cacoo is interactive and runs in real-time, everyone can log in, leave notes, and offer suggestions — whether they’re in the same room or in a different continent. Something that’s a big plus as we move towards more remote ways of working.



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