Contextual inquiry is a research method based on user-centered design (USD) and is part of the contextual design methodology. Contextual inquiry as a research method does not involve setting people certain tasks. Instead, users are observed while they work in their own environments. The context of these environments typically encompasses the home, office, or somewhere else entirely.
Understanding contextual inquiry
During the observation process, researchers ask questions to understand how and why users do what they do. Since these users are interviewed in a “natural” environment, the analysis data collected through questioning are more realistic than the data collected in a laboratory.
The contextual inquiry technique is generally used at the start of a design process and allows the organization to gather rich information on work practices, user tools, and social, technical, and physical environments.
The four principles of contextual inquiry
Contextual inquiry is based on four guiding principles:
- Context – as hinted at earlier, the observation and interviewing of the user must take place in the context of use. Labs and conference rooms should be avoided.
- Partnership – to better understand what the participant is doing and why, a collaborative partnership between the researcher and participant is key. Contextual inquiries shift from observing to discussing and back again. Furthermore, the researcher should refrain from dominating the discussion lest important insights are missed.
- Mutual interpretation – this means the researcher explains the conclusions they have reached or the interpretations they have made to the participant throughout the process. Where applicable, the participant can correct or deepen particular observations made by the researcher.
- Focus – lastly, the researcher must remain focused on the topics worthy of further exploration. To that end, they may ask the participant to perform important tasks stipulated in the research brief.
Conducting a contextual inquiry
First and foremost, researchers are required to select suitably qualified participants in the field they are hoping to better understand.
Once the appropriate expertise has been identified, researchers can follow this four-step process:
- Start with a primer – to help the participant feel more comfortable, researchers should informally introduce themselves and take the time to build rapport. They should outline what they hope to achieve from the process and ask for a summary of the work to be done during the allocated time.
- Transition – once pleasantries have been exchanged, an explicit transition should be made from the introduction to the contextual interview component of the meeting. The user should be notified of what to expect as they perform their work, including any interruptions if the researcher requires further clarification.
- The interview – an iterative, two-step process where the researcher observes the participant and initiates discussion points as required. Discussion should only occur for two reasons. The first is when the researcher has observed something they don’t understand. The second is to allow the participant to validate (or invalidate) the researcher’s understanding of their mental model. The researcher must also note the external resources being used and observe whether there are uncommon process variations or extra steps.
- Conclude – most contextual inquiries conclude within a few hours, but some larger studies may take a day or two. The researcher concludes by reviewing their notes and summarising what they learned from the interview. By discussing the interpretation of the observed process, both parties have a final chance to clarify important points.
- Contextual inquiry is a research method based on user-centered design (USD) and is part of the contextual design methodology.
- The four principles of contextual inquiry are context, partnership, mutual interpretation, and focus. Observation must take place in a contextual work environment, with labs and conference rooms avoided.
- Contextual inquiry begins with identifying suitably qualified or knowledgeable participants. After which, researchers must start with a primer to build rapport and comfort levels. They should then transition to the interview itself, an iterative two-step process of observing and asking. Concluding the process means summarising what was observed and clarifying important points.
Connected Agile Frameworks
- Business Models
- Business Strategy
- Business Development
- Distribution Channels
- Marketing Strategy
- Platform Business Models
- Network Effects
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