What Is Contextual Inquiry? Contextual Inquiry In A Nutshell

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Key takeaways:

  • 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 Business Concepts

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. The term convergent thinking was first described by American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford in 1950. The process of convergent thinking involves finding the single best solution to a problem or question amongst many possibilities. 
Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring multiple possible solutions to a problem. Divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. These ideas are generated and explored in a relatively short space of time. 
First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.
The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.
The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.
Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.
Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.
Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Therefore, desirability, feasibility, and viability are balanced to solve critical problems.
The CATWOE analysis is a problem-solving strategy that asks businesses to look at an issue from six different perspectives. The CATWOE analysis is an in-depth and holistic approach to problem-solving because it enables businesses to consider all perspectives. This often forces management out of habitual ways of thinking that would otherwise hinder growth and profitability. Most importantly, the CATWOE analysis allows businesses to combine multiple perspectives into a single, unifying solution.

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